In a better world of defence procurement, if it’s stupid but it works, it isn’t stupid
28 Sep 2023|

Recent strategic developments have led the Australian government to take several steps to reshape defence policy. The AUKUS nuclear-powered submarine venture is not just a massive long-term investment but, at last, the cornerstone of a significant shift in strategic direction.

However, Defence is still telling the Australian people what capabilities we need while saying little about why we need them. The narrative that this is due to having to respond to ‘governments of the day’ is spurious, given the bipartisan political support Defence’s recommendations typically enjoy.

The recent defence strategic review didn’t change this behaviour either; it reinforced it. The DSR is yet another attempt at self-reformation when several past efforts have yielded mixed results at best. It’s a detailed, broad strategic framework, but it isn’t a strategy. The general disconnection of the public from the security debate may have permitted this, but it doesn’t excuse it. It’s time to develop a clear, shared public vision for Australian defence strategy.

Another telling sign of strategic weakness is a persistent overreliance on technology instead of strategic thought. Defence’s definition of capability is ‘the capacity or ability to achieve an operational effect’, where ‘an operational effect may be defined or described in terms of the nature of the effect and of how, when, where and for how long it is produced’.

This definition is both too narrow to be complete and too prescriptive to achieve the practical purposes of developing capabilities and enabling public awareness. It ignores the stark realities of conflict and is servile to having a ‘technological edge’ over other aspects of capability.

We aren’t alone in this phenomenon. Like many Western nations, Australia has fallen in love with technical advantage as an intellectual sunscreen against the harsh light of warfare. That aversion has led us to frame fighting concepts around technical capability, to hide from war’s visceral nature and to ignore other important aspects of warfare in which we may feel we have less of an advantage, such as raw access to warfighting resources, including manpower. Technical language has sanitised descriptions of war. Most of the time, ‘operational effects’ involve destruction and suffering.

Acknowledging this doesn’t mean downplaying the complexity of materiel procurement. However, the idea that a capability’s justification can simply follow a golden thread of logic back to strategic guidance is tenuous. The conduct of war is chaotic. Seeking high levels of certainty before a profoundly uncertain event is fraught. That doesn’t mean the best possible equipment shouldn’t be pursued, but procurement must be based on a rigorous analysis of conflicts and trends, not just a quest for leading-edge concepts or wonder weapons.

Australia’s loose strategic framework is leveraged to be all things to everyone, all at once, so using a ‘how, when, where and for how long’ definition of higher capability creates inconsistency. Useful procurement has occurred without this, too. Defence procurements on near-ministerial edict have proven as effective as long-drawn-out acquisitions, and in some cases—such as with the C-17A Globemaster—only one strong option is available to fulfil a unique defence need anyway.

There are two ways to resolve this inadequacy of definition. The first is to develop a more complex and nuanced understanding of capability. The second is to accept that most military capabilities are operationally ambivalent.

For the first task, Stephen Biddle provides perhaps some of the most rigorous studies of military capability in state and non-state warfare. Biddle’s understanding of capability is broader and far more profound than Defence’s definition, though he concedes it’s still a work in progress. His later work even considers social issues, such the marked effect internal politics among non-state actors can have on military capability. This may be too complex a theory for easy application to a bureaucracy, but it’s still worth considering his conclusions. If nothing else, it raises an important point: where is the focus on non-technical factors when we discuss capability?

As for the operational ambivalence of military capabilities, we can look to the past and the present. The rediscovery of self-propelled anti-aircraft weapons—which the Australian Defence Force has always neglected—to help defeat the drone threat in Ukraine is an excellent case study. Initially designed for the Cold War, these systems are highly effective against off-the-shelf, military-grade drones they were never planned to counter. The DSR ignored this lesson, so something is amiss. Another example is the use of ADF maritime patrol capability to provide surveillance support to ground troops in urban operations in Iraq. Imagination and permission are the only limitations to employing military capability. In many cases, those in combat won’t even seek permission.

A capability’s effectiveness is not decided solely by its technological sophistication. It may be that we need a capability that can’t technically be ‘optimally employed’ in a particular conflict, because that is moot if it gives combatants the best chance of success in the worst environment. Capabilities don’t care if they ‘project forward’, ‘manoeuvre littorally’, ‘partner with allies’, ‘fight for shared values’ or sit in the splendid isolation of continental defence. To use an adage, ‘If it’s stupid but it works, it isn’t stupid.’

We can discuss capability without a solely technical lens. Asking what we want the ADF to do is necessary to stabilise deeply polarised capability debates, which are too often narrow and ill-informed, including no broader consideration of capability.

The geographic fixation of Australian strategic thought could also be recast to provide a new perspective in the capability debate. It looms as a strategic constant of Tolkienian magnitude (one to rule them all … you know the rest). Geography matters greatly, but so do policy, tactics and strategy. Geography doesn’t tell us what to do; it provides limits and opportunities.

Our understanding of military capability is too constrained to face the realities of warfare, and it lacks the nuance of a thorough approach to justification and acquisition. We need to be deeply aware of this deficiency.

That we have a mostly undebated strategic approach is grounds for concern. We are setting down a road with fewer forks than before, and while it may be the right path, that is not readily apparent. This vacuity is symptomatic of Australia’s historical difficulty in acknowledging the massive uncertainties involved in war. In the past, alliances transferred this grand strategic risk to others, but those times are likely passing. A greater diversity of ideas in this most difficult of times would be prudent, and, at the very least, we must improve public understanding of the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ so we can strengthen the ‘how’ and ‘how much’.