Clashing perspectives: Why the ADF is perpetually forced to operate equipment well past its use-by date

Recent controversy about the poor state of the Navy’s amphibious fleet has again demonstrated three great truths about the confusion underlying much public debate in Australia on defence issues.

  • First, public understanding is often limited and more influenced by World War II films and popular mythology than up-to-date knowledge about our defence force and indeed the requirements of modern war. Hence the widespread but incorrect assumption that current problems with Navy amphibious ships must automatically be, and can only be, the Navy’s fault.
  • Second, most media coverage of why our amphibious ships are worn out has been superficial, very short-term in its analysis of causes and often factually incorrect and/or sensationalist. Consequently it has been quite inaccurate, especially in analysing varied causes and apportioning blame. 
  • Third, those most responsible culturally, institutionally or personally for the neglect of this and other defence capabilities have largely escaped censure.

The short-term culprit

To supposedly save money, in 2003 the maintenance of the Navy’s ships was largely centralised in the Defence Materiel Organisation. Navy Support Command was disbanded. 

Not one recent TV program, radio news grab or talkback radio rant about the Navy or the defence force has reported this. It would seem no newspaper article has registered the importance of this fact either.  

Similarly, few media stories have noted that the Navy has ably continued to meet all the tasks levied on it by government despite its 40-year old amphibious ships being worn out. Or that unlike Darwin after Cyclone Tracey, northern Queensland was always more likely to be assisted by road and rail links after Cyclone Yasi.  

Even worse, virtually no media coverage has bothered to examine the root cause issue of why our Navy has to operate 40-year old ships in the first place. Or why most other first-world Navies scrap their amphibious ships around the 25-year mark (largely because they rust on both sides of the hull more than other ships). 

Instead, to grab a headline or a rating, seek a scalp, save time in reporting, push a partisan line or even satisfy some conscious or subliminal anti-defence force bias, the media has mostly concentrated on ignorantly blaming the Navy organisationally and its Chief individually. 

And our politicians, from all parties, have gladly let them so as to divert attention from their own culpability. 

Moreover, no media and thus public blame has been appropriately apportioned to the organisational management gurus, Defence and Finance bureaucrats, armchair theorists and expedience-driven politicians from all parties who have forced unsuitable matrix management methods on the support structures of our defence force. Beginning in the late 1980s and particularly since the thoroughly mis-named Defence Efficiency Review in 1997. 

The result, as the unfairly blamed Chief of Navy is currently experiencing, is that in both the public view of general accountability, and in budgetary structures, he retains the responsibility for operational outputs, but has clearly insufficient control over the financial, administrative, engineering and logistic inputs needed to meet them efficiently in both operational and financial terms. Even then, like all the Service Chiefs, he is constantly hectored in the current, so-called, Defence Reform Program to make further financial savings even at the real cost of diminishing defence force capabilities and incurring greater long-term financial costs.  


The long-term culprit

The real bottom line here is not, however, a financial one. 

The operational efficiency of a defence force at deterring and winning wars, and its financial efficiency, are often necessarily quite separate requirements conceptually and practically. Particularly if a short-term approach to cost-saving holds sway rather than one focused on efficient long-term investment. 

As in 1994, when the Keating Government (in which the current Treasurer and Minister for Defence were prime-ministerial advisers) chose to procure second-hand, partly unsuitable, amphibious ships built in 1970 rather than invest in new, purpose-designed ones suited to Australian operational requirements and regional sea conditions. 

If Australia had obtained new amphibious ships in 1994 instead — or even better bought new ones around 2000 when we finished rebuilding and refurbishing the second-hand ones — those new vessels would now be under halfway through their 30-year lifecycle. It would also have been cheaper over the long run to buy and maintain new and suitable ships than to adapt and maintain very old and still not entirely suitable ships long past their effective use-by date. 

Yet when ADF professional advice explains such concepts, then and now, it often meets an ignorant clamour that the defence force somehow “gold-plates” operational requirements. The bitter irony is that the clamourers are almost invariably never those called on to risk their lives in harsh environments, tempest at sea or combat operating the sub-optimal ships, vehicles and aircraft the clamourers advocate instead.  

In terms of clashing perspectives in planning and investment, the 10-15 year defence capability development cycle and the 20-30 year lifecycle of major weapons platforms and equipment continually confronts the annual budgetary cycle and the 3-year federal electoral cycle. Consequently defence requirements continually clash with the much shorter attention span of the public, the media and particularly our politicians. The latter ever prone to buying votes by diverting needed defence investment elsewhere for short-term electoral gain. 

Perhaps if more of the journalists covering defence issues were qualified and experienced specialists, as they tend to be for business, economics, health and science journalism, the true state of our bureaucratically and financially beleaguered defence force might be better understood by Australian taxpayers.