What is wrong with the Department of Defence

Why are there so many problems in the Department of Defence at present?

In recent years the sharp end of the defence force has operated well over a range of wars, peacekeeping operations, disaster assistance missions and general support to major events such as the Olympic and Commonwealth Games. Our defence force, while small, is highly respected internationally. ADF operational professionalism is acknowledged as being at the forefront of Western countries.

The further back you move from the front line, however, the worse the situation gets.

A succession of recent bungles, scandals and damaging allegations in the Department of Defence and the Australian Defence Force increasingly risks public confidence in the ADF. These include:

  • continuing qualification of the Department of Defence’s accounts by the Auditor-General;
  • equipment procurement bungles, with some projects running well over budget, way behind schedule and even at times resulting in kit that does not work;
  • recruiting shortfalls and difficulties in retaining personnel in the defence force;
  • a malfunctioning military justice system and persistent allegations of workplace bullying and abuses of power;
  • information flow stuff-ups such as ‘Children Overboard’, the Abu Ghraib reports and confusion as to how Private Jake Kovko died; and
  • administrative bungling such as misplacing the casket containing the body of Private Kovko and then losing the report into that loss.

Some commentators opine that such problems are symptoms of wider political, professional or ethical malaises while others seek to draw a single common cause.

Other critics again, generally for partisan political purposes, seek to ascribe them to a common scapegoat such as whoever is the Minister for Defence.

A broad historical review suggests some general trends underlying or exacerbating Defence’s continuing woes.

First, for an organisation disproportionally comprised of 18-25 year olds, demographic and multicultural trends increasingly make recruiting harder. This is not helped by a healthy economy, virtually full employment for skilled and semi-skilled labour, and increasing numbers of young Australians completing secondary and tertiary education compared to previous decades. In a labour market where there are simply less young people available for recruitment overall,  defence force salaries and conditions are just not sufficiently competitive.

Then there is the problem that the military justice system still results in far too much injustice. The ADF will certainly not overcome its recruiting problems in particular while Australian mums and dads are increasingly reluctant to trust their children to a defence force with a public reputation (however accurate or merely exaggerated) of being seemingly incapable of stamping out workplace bullying.

Second, the defence force is working at its highest operational tempo, and across the broadest range of tasking and greatest diversity of operational theatres, since at least the mid to late 1960s. Yet the defence force is only two thirds the size it then was. It is well under half the size in certain key capabilities such as infantry and light armour.

Third, this high operational tempo comes after generally static or declining defence budgets throughout the 1972-2000 period. This sustained under-investment and neglect has had far-reaching consequences, not least because many major defence force equipments have operational lives of 25-45 years and longer. Many weapons platforms have been retained in service far too long, have not been replaced when ultimately junked, or have been replaced in greatly reduced numbers only.

As some of many examples:

  • The RAN’s heavy landing craft were built in 1971-72 and the Navy is half-way through a decade-long capability (2002-2013) gap of having no destroyers.
  • The Army’s armoured personnel carrier fleet was procured in the mid 1960s and could not be deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan because they are too vulnerable in modern battle. After having their replacement project cancelled in 1985 and update projects routinely postponed or cancelled over the ensuing 20 years, only under half the fleet is being modernised, and then only to a very limited extent, with the first rebuilt vehicles due in late 2007.
  • The RAAF’s Caribou light tactical transport aircraft came into service in 1964 and are older than the parents of their pilots. Again several replacement projects have been cancelled over recent decades and the size of the fleet has declined by two-thirds.

Limited funding has also meant too many capability development decisions have been taken on a penny-wise-pound-foolish basis in the Department of Defence, because there was no ability to aim for long-term financial economies and operational efficiencies through sufficient up-front investment.

This is why the ADF is trying to operate nine different types of helicopter – often in quite small numbers – instead of larger numbers of fewer types much more cheaply over both the short and long terms.

Such short-term thinking and under-investment has also meant many ADF weapons platforms have been deliberately procured fitted-for-but-not-with all the combat systems they would require for actual battle.

When the defence force points this out it is often wrongly accused of seeking to somehow "gold-plate" its operational requirements.

Fourth, most of the major defence equipment projects that have run over time or over budget, or both, share two or more of three attributes:

  • they involve ‘orphan platforms’ where Australia seeks to build and operate a vessel, vehicle or aircraft that no-one else in the world has or uses in such a unique configuration;
  • extensive software integration is involved (especially of operating and combat systems); and
  • they are legacy projects that predate the creation of the Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO) as a quasi-independent prescribed agency under the Financial Management Act.

Fifth, throughout the 1980s and 1990s the contracting out or civilianisation of many logistic and maintenance engineering functions previously undertaken by uniformed personnel greatly reduced defence force numbers.

This has increasingly had a major effect on retention due to the increasing lack of respite postings for ADF personnel, and educational and promotion qualification opportunities, between higher intensity operational or training deployments.

It has also had an imperceptible but quite detrimental effect on the diversity of the ADF’s intellectual talent, all-round professionalism and ability to scope and manage high-technology equipment procurement projects.

Furthermore, while such contracting out or civilianisation has generally resulted in initial financial efficiencies, much of this has come at a marked cost to the defence force in operational efficiency and sufficient depth of personnel skills and tasking flexibility.

The ADF now lacks depth in many logistic, maintenance engineering and medical capabilities.

In addition, in many cases converting military positions to Public Service ones has not saved money in the long run. Over time the number of public servants employed has increased (because their availability and general working conditions are not as flexible or responsive as ADF personnel) so the initial cost savings of a one-for-one replacement are simply wiped out by increased Public Service staffing levels.

Sixth, as the biggest government department, the nation’s second biggest employer and our largest landholder, the whole defence organisation is simply too big to be governed in its current over-centralised and highly bureaucratised fashion.

Finally, the whole Defence organisation is far too big to be adequately supervised by any one minister.

  • It needs at least three dedicated ministers with none of them having other portfolio responsibilities.
  • The senior Minister should be freed to concentrate on corporate and military strategic issues.
  • One junior Minister should supervise the Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO) and the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO).
  • The other should be the Minister for the Defence Force and handle all day-to-day operational, personnel and policy matters involving or affecting the ADF.

This system works well in the UK, not least because it properly grooms future Defence Ministers in the junior portfolios and forces real talent to be allocated to defence oversight.

What then should be done to fix Defence’s myriad problems?

Since 1981 there has been no shortage of parliamentary or official inquiries into aspects of higher defence management.

Indeed such reviews have come almost biennially and have been largely unsuccessful at achieving reform.

Any structure that needs such constant major review every few years is fundamentally flawed.

Fixing Defence’s many entrenched problems really needs a first-principles and integrated approach not further piecemeal tinkering.

It also needs to recognise that civil-control-of-the-military means civil political control by Ministers (and perhaps statutory management boards), not ‘management’ by amorphous and unaccountable committees and persistent civilian bureaucratic interference in military professional matters.

There must also be no more fits and starts with defence funding. Planned and sustained investment over decades is required.

The Prime-Minister should reallocate his ministerial assets more closely to the needs of national governance rather than factional balance within the governing party, overall inter-party politics or the buying of votes in the next election.

 Defence should have thee full-time Ministers and none of them should be the type of dud that has comprised the majority of part-time junior defence ministers over recent decades.

Where they have not been duds they have usually been promoted so quickly out of the junior defence portfolio they have been unable to adequately address reform.

The equipment procurement, policy and administrative functions of the Department of Defence should be formally separated from the capability development, strategic planning and operational functions of the defence force.

The New Zealand model of the defence force as a separate department of state (under the same Minister) has much going for it. In particular, it simplifies and largely eradicates the perpetually problematical diarchical structure where the department and the defence force have to answer to two bosses (a Secretary and a Chief of Defence Force).

Even if we again chicken out from reforming the department’s diarchical structure there still needs to be a clear structural and procedural distinction between the ADF's strategic military headquarters and the central administrative and policy organs of the Department of Defence.

Among many other advantages, this would at least fix the flow-of-information and accountability bungles ("children overboard", Abu Ghraib, Kovko reports, etc) caused by continuous bureaucratic interference in the military chain of command.

With such real bedrock reforms identifying and fixing Defence’s many other problems will be much easier.