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Vale, Mike Clifford

Posted By on November 8, 2017 @ 14:30

Mike Clifford’s passing last week was horribly premature for a man with so much enthusiasm to do good things and with a love of bringing people together to learn and solve common problems. Losing his optimism and creativity is a blow. It was my pleasure to know and work with Mike for the better part of 20 years, first in Defence, then while he was being creative in defence industry and lastly while he was a senior fellow at ASPI.

Through all those experiences I recall a person who was an optimist and almost always cheerful—an unbelievably useful quality in big bureaucracies. For a big, bluff army general, Mike was also remarkably kind to people.  Who would think that could be such an effective management strategy in Defence! All up, Mike had a pretty unbeatable collection of personal qualities.

But don’t take my word for it. If you want to know what Mike Clifford was like, there is no better way to do that than by reading what he wrote for ASPI’s Strategist. Take this characteristically direct and to-the-point assessment of the role of defence ministers and the challenges of reform:
Let’s not speak of them when accountability or lack of it is everywhere else, but where the Westminster system suggests it should be! The First Principles Review (FPR) is another review which heralds ‘transformational change’ and points the finger at the Australian Defence Organisation as the primary culprit of the current malaise … But let’s try and get the back story clear before we start making judgements about the most recent in a long line of defence reviews.

Firstly governments and ministers are not blameless. Significant defence reform is almost always initiated by governments and implementation plans then approved by the Minister or Cabinet or both. The growth in top-line staff numbers, much trumpeted in the media as proof of uncontrolled inefficiencies, has in all cases been agreed by Government to meet operational needs or been a response to recommendations from Government-initiated reviews. Nevertheless Defence, like all large organisations, needs a good pruning from time to time.

Spot on, Mike! This is what’s known as telling the truth, a quality not always present when organisational reform plans raise their bovine heads.

And here’s Mike on a passionately held view:
Let me state up front: the heavy/light and high-intensity/low-intensity debate is complete rot! Disconnected from strategic guidance? Again rot! I for one am more concerned with saving lives and giving the government of the day the best options available when it looks to use and deploy ground forces. Have we all been asleep over the last decade as Australian lives have been saved by armour?

So, tell us what you really think, Mike!

Here is a classic Clifford statement on anti-ISIS military operations in the Middle East:
Any uncertainty around the rationale for Australia’s commitment is a concern and demands clarification—particularly as the government made clear when the ADF deployed to the Middle East in response to ISIS that it was doing so within a US-led strategy. However … the fight against Islamic State is still a campaign without a strategy. The concern is if we’re waiting for the US administration to point the way, it’ll be a long wait.

Mike’s writing on the Middle East shows him to be a person committed to avoiding conflict and the damage it does to all who are touched by it. He wanted political solutions and stressed that fighting which didn’t lead to a strategy for peace was pointless.

Finally, here’s Mike exploring the challenges of building an amphibious capability in the ADF:
In any Defence endeavour, lessons need to be learned. But the learning process needs to be based on the real events rather than a growing folklore or revisionist capability aspirations. Nevertheless there’s no argument that the capability potential offered by HMAS Canberra and NUSHIP Adelaide is significant. The challenge for policymakers is to understand how to get the most from the ships—in particular, how they might use the new capability to further Australia’s national interests. This is certainly not limiting tasks to the left of the conflict spectrum—that was never the intent. But if it involves expanding the capability to be a ‘full spectrum’ amphibious assault capability, so be it.

What’s good about this paragraph is that Mike avoids what might be called the ‘Strategist’s Curse’—which is the urge to always and instantly have the right answer.

Much of Mike’s written work for ASPI was a call for people to think more clearly, to think harder, to think laterally—dammit, just to think. This Mike did in spades and his instinct was to bring people from different professions and walks of life to collectively build better ideas. At ASPI Mike was busy and happiest when he was making connections work between people and organisations. This was a personally self-effacing but powerful way of doing business. I wish he was here to do more of it. Mike mentored, led and befriended people, in the best of all possible ways, to be better in their own lives. What a fine legacy and what a fine man!

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/vale-mike-clifford/

[1] assessment of the role of defence ministers: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/defence-reform-lets-address-the-minister-in-the-room/

[2] passionately held view: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/army-and-armour-moving-the-debate-forward/

[3] anti-ISIS military operations in the Middle East: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/cats-clutter-and-uncertainty/

[4] challenges of building an amphibious capability: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/the-adfs-amphibious-capability-some-additional-thoughts/