It has been less than two years since The Strategist provided a new Defence Minister with an incoming brief, but it’s already time to update that for the new incumbent.
And that reflects an unhealthy degree of churn in the portfolio, as observed by the First Principles Review. The incoming Defence Minister is the 11th in the time since I started in Defence just a little over two decades ago. And the trend isn’t good. For the five Ministers starting from Robert Ray the average tenure was 1153 days, but the last six have averaged just 571—and if we take out the over achieving Stephen Smith (1100 days), it’s less than a year and a half for the rest (466 days). In a specialised portfolio that has deployments and multi-billion dollar projects that last years or decades, having a ‘bungee boss’ can’t be good. Let’s hope we’re now about to see greater stability.
Defence is a big portfolio, with an annual budget of over $30 billion and a complex workforce of over 70,000. There will be challenges everywhere the Minister looks, but here are some of the most immediate ones.
By far the most important thing—which you don’t need me to tell you—is that we’re at war at the moment, and Australians are going into harm’s way. The good news is that the ADF is a professional outfit that manages operations very well. Make sure to commit a goodly chunk of time to go down to the Joint HQ at Bungendore. See how it all works and get their read of in-theatre progress and problems.
There’s a draft Defence White Paper in your in tray. The bad news is that every such paper is a political document that reflects the thinking of the incumbent government. The good news is that the strategic externalities that have driven the drafting haven’t changed. But the change of leadership that put you in the role might mean rethinking the messaging in the paper and you’ll need to check that the force structure suggested by Defence matches the new government’s read of the strategic picture and spending priorities. (See the next point.)
The Defence budget will require attention. The extant policy has it growing to 2% of GDP by FY 2023-24. If that’s still the case it’ll mean a lot of money for Defence. So much so that even spending it will be a challenge unless there’s a steady ramp up over the next few years. If 2% isn’t the priority any longer you’ll need to check that the white paper hardware aspirations are still in line with projected funding.
Submarines and ships are going to consume a lot of the money that’s available. And there’s work to be done on both fronts. The submarine project is already at a point where work to extend the life of at least some of the Collins fleet is needed. From public documents it’s not clear if that’s happening—you should check, and don’t take ‘it’ll be alright’ as an answer, because it might not be and you don’t want to bequeath a capability gap (even though it won’t come home to roost until about six Ministers from now on recent average lifetimes). And we’re all waiting for the detail on the shipbuilding plan announced in general terms in August. Beware: there are many traps for young players in that one, not least of which ensuring that there’s a detailed enough design of the ship to be built in order to avoid costly errors later. Read the Audit Office report about the Air Warfare Destroyer project. Yes, what they describe really happened—and (hopefully you’re sitting down) it could even get worse before it gets better.
You need to understand that every defence project has four dimensions: cost, schedule, capability and politics. None of those things are reliably manageable, and you sometimes can’t optimise any of them. For example, buying equipment off the shelf from established production lines helps with the first three (ask about C-17s, Romeos and Super Hornets) but plays havoc with the last. If things get desperate enough, you might consider calling the first sub HMAS Xenophon.
As far as the Department goes, you’re inheriting it at a time of substantial internal turmoil as it tries to implement the First Principles Review commissioned by the Abbott Government. To be honest, it’s not going all that brilliantly—as evidenced by the substantial schedule slippage for full implementation—and there are some elements that really require some serious planning effort (or revision). The ASPI guide to the Review might help.
Finally, when Cameron Stewart or Ian McPhedran give you a hard time (and they will) about defence projects that have gone awry (and they will) take heart that you’re not the first. This earlier advice to someone whose problems might resonate with you has some useful dos and don’ts.