Defence force equipment shortfalls

The ADA welcomes the report of the Review of Combat Clothing Procurement and the Government's adoption of the review's recommendations. Such procurement, of course, is only a small part of the complex problem of adequately equipping and sustaining the entire defence force for the future.

The ADA welcomes the announcement by the Minister for Defence that the Government will implement all the recommendations of the Review of Combat Clothing Procurement. The Association also notes that the systemic problems are mainly historic rather than current, and that many of them can be put down to the transition from the old, bureaucratically structured and focused, Defence Acquisition Organisation (DAO) to the more dynamic and responsive Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO). The DMO has also rightly increased senior managerial attention in this (by DMO standards) area of relatively low procurement spending.

The overall cause of the longstanding problems with all defence equipment procurement remains, of course, the insufficient overall resourcing of defence over the last three decades by governments of both political persuasions. Now the operational tempo of ADF operations is so high, the major problems are primarily due to the constantly changing needs of combat and a bottleneck effect as resources are (finally) pumped in quicker than they can necessarily be used the most effectively when measured using longer-term management and audit measures.

This is not an ideal situation but the obvious priority must always be the troops in combat, even at the cost of temporary financial or procurement process efficiencies in our supporting mechanisms and organisations. The reforms announced will go a long way to better aligning procurement processes with the ever-changing dynamics of combat priorities.

While there is no doubt there were some minor equipment problems early on in both the deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, the ADA is confident the Army is doing its best to equip those of our troops committed to overseas combat zones. The Association also believes the new Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO), the equipment procurement agency of the Department of Defence, is trying much harder and performing much better than its predecessor organisation in this regard.

The ADA does not believe that the ADF's commanders would knowingly risk the lives of the men and women under their command by deploying them ill-equipped or otherwise unprepared for the dangerous and demanding tasks they face on the nation's behalf.

Two underlying professional factors have also been overlooked in much of the media comment on this issue:

  • Wars are inherently dynamic. The threats to our forces and the counter-measures consequently adopted by them can change constantly. Sometimes time lags or compromises in implementing such measures occur for a range of tactical, technical, manufacturing, logistic availability, financial and legal reasons. Such delays or compromises are minimised and/or risk-managed but they can rarely be avoided completely.
  • Australian diggers have always exhibited individual preferences about items of personal kit, especially where it involves fashion or impacts on their warmth, cooling, load-bearing ability and general comfort when living and operating in the field. This is why, for example, many soldiers adapt or buy their own sleeping bags, boots and items of personal webbing,  rainwear and cold-weather gear. This proclivity for adaptation does not extend to weapons for obvious reasons, and rarely involves protective items such as helmets and body armour. Instances of soldiers buying their own personal kit does not necessarily indicate that items issued to them are defective or deficient.

The real and much larger issue with defence equipment procurement is the serial under-investment in defence over the last three decades. This situation has often been exacerbated by unwarranted civilian bureaucratic interference in defence force professional matters, such as how the defence force should be configured and equipped, how it should be employed in strategic and operational terms, and how its operational doctrine should be developed and tested.

The perpetually constrained funding of defence over the last thirty years or so has too often meant that the defence force has not been properly re-equipped in breadth and depth. Numerous equipment projects have been cancelled, postponed (often more than once), reduced in scope or otherwise diluted or gutted. Technological improvements and strategic change over time can mean that weapons systems do not need to always be replaced on a one-for-one basis, but far too often the numbers of modern weapons and weapon platforms procured have been much fewer than those they are replacing.

The frequent postponements have also resulted in a growing block obsolescence problem across the defence force.  Several weapons platforms such as the Navy's heavy landing craft, the Army's M113 Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC),  and the Air Force's Caribou tactical transport aircraft, are now even older than the parents of most of those crewing them.

As a telling example of the breadth and depth deficiencies, one of the reasons the Al Muthanna Task Group in Iraq is a relatively small force is because the Army's holdings of suitable modern equipment are not sufficient to equip, deploy and protect a larger force (including being able to adequately train and prepare the rotation forces in Australia getting ready to replace the forces deployed). It is also worth noting that the mechanised infantry element of the Task Group (from the Army's only mechanised-infantry battalion, 5/7RAR) could not deploy to Iraq with its own M113 APC because they are no longer capable of modern battle - even in the more benign tactical environment of Al Muthanna Province.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s many major and minor items of defence force equipment were also purchased fitted-for-but-not-with all the necessary items they needed for modern combat. This short-sighted policy was forced on the defence force because political expediency unrealistically limited defence budgets. The policy was predicated on the, at best, naive belief that we would have enough warning time of potential conflicts to procure the additional items needed to deter or prosecute actual combat – and that they would always be available for immediate procurement from allied stockpiles or the market generally.

In other cases, equipment was not modernised or replaced because armchair theorists in the Defence civilian bureaucracy ignored military professional advice and wrongly predicted the weapons or equipment would never be required – or that they somehow knew how they should best be used. Such unprofessional and wrong-headed notions suited governments keen to divert defence funding elsewhere to areas where votes could be bought. This is why, for example, the upgrading of the Army's Leopard tanks and M113 APC was continually postponed throughout the 1980s and 1990s. It is also why long-overdue replacement projects for both weapon systems were cancelled over the same period. While under half the mid-1960s era M113 fleet is finally being upgraded (for delivery from 2007 onwards) the vehicles will still only be APC and not Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFV) such as the US and British armies widely use. Moreover, even the New Zealand Army has now replaced its M113s and equipped both its infantry battalions with the modern LAV-3 APC.

Indeed our Army is still one of the few Western armies without a single IFV in its inventory and none are on order. Furthermore, while the Army's 105-vehicle tank force is finally being replaced from 2007, once again the number of new tanks (59) is much lower – as it was when 105 Leopards replaced 250 Centurions in the mid 1970s and the Centurions replaced several hundred World War II era tanks in the mid 1950s. As one consequence of the reduced numbers, no new tanks or APC will be employed in Army Reserve units.

The varied operational experiences of the defence force since the East Timor crisis of 1999 have thoroughly disproved the fitted-for-but-not-with notion and its attendant fallacies about warning time and civilian bureaucrats always knowing more about professional military matters than the military. The range of recent overseas operations, the force's current high operational tempo and the very short warning time of recent conflicts, have hopefully dispatched such notions into well-deserved oblivion.

Australia now needs to reverse the pernicious and pervading effects of the sustained under-investment in defence by governments of both political persuasions over the last three decades.

The three per cent real increases in defence spending in recent years are to be applauded but they are simply not enough to cancel out the prolonged neglect of the last thirty or so years.

They are also not enough to truly modernise the defence force in depth and breadth or to maximise its flexibility and versatility for the future. These real increases need to be further increased to 4-5 per cent annually for the foreseeable future, especially when we have such large budget surpluses and can afford to catch up.

Just as importantly, modernising each one of the Services should not come at the price of not modernising either or both of the other two. Defence force capability development should not be looked at through the prism of single-Service viewpoints. We must modernise the ADF by developing integrated capabilities across the whole defence force as a coherent strategic and operational package.

An integrated approach to defence force capability development also bypasses those elements of the civilian defence bureaucracy long fond of improperly entrenching their influence and power by forcing the three Services to fight each other for adequate resources. Traditionally this allowed such bureaucrats to present themselves to Ministers as the neutral arbiter supposedly required. Modern joint-Service command structures (which the bureaucrats resisted for as long as possible) are a much more professional and effective means of determining our strategic priorities.

The sustained under-investment in defence largely results from the interplay of five factors:

  • Defence is wholly federally funded whereas other major government functions, such as social security, health and education, are not. Defence, as the first responsibility of government, is also an issue of genuine and long-term national governance. It is too often ignored or neglected due to priority being given to matters of short-term party-political expediency instead.
  • Few Australians change their vote on a defence issue alone and when they do it is usually when a crisis is upon us and it is generally too late to repair the neglect before the defence force has to be used on a come-as-you-are-ready-or-not basis. Our politicians tend to be unable to resist the temptation to divert money from defence needs so votes can be bought elsewhere.
  • There is an unspoken and cross-party tendency to rely too much on the US alliance, and its significant ongoing subsidies of our national defence, in order to limit our own defence investment.
  • There is a perpetual clash of perspectives between out three-year federal electoral cycle, and its attendant party-political culture, with the 15-25 year capability development cycle needed to adequately prepare and renew the defence force to protect Australia's future.
  • There is a tendency for strategic and defence capability development decisions to be wrongly based on contemporary or short-term perceptions of current "threats", rather than governments (and the public) making the intellectual jump needed to configure the defence force so it has sufficient flexibility and versatility to cope with all the longer-term and complex challenges we cannot foresee clearly or at all.

The facts of such national complacency speak for themselves. The percentage of the federal budget allocated to defence has remained relatively unchanged at around 7-8 per cent for decades whereas spending in many other areas has simply rocketed. Several other comments on the ADA website cover the marked and increasing disparities between the declining, static or only marginally increased national resources invested in our defence over the last three or so decades, and the much greater and seemingly ever-increasing funds expended on social security, health and education over the same period by the Commonwealth, states and territories.

Finally, the ingrained problems with defence equipment procurement mean that this important capital investment function, involving around $A5bn annually, should be supervised in the first instance by a full-time junior Minister in the Defence portfolio. This Minister should also supervise the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO) to assist in integrating its research and development efforts with the procurement cycle. Such assistance to the Minister for Defence was recommended as long ago as 1957 by the Morshead Committee of Inquiry into defence reorganisation. This is a clear-cut national governance issue. Its neglect has too long resulted from political desires to employ competent junior Ministers in more politically advantageous positions and sinecures elsewhere rather than where the country's real long-term and effective governance needs actually are in the defence portfolio.