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The need for speed

The growing defence budget is an opportunity to add power to our military’s ability to defend Australia and work with allies and partners to deter conflict in the Indo-Pacific, but the timelines Defence is working to are simply too slow.

Most of the investment is going into massive, multibillion-dollar manned systems such as ships, submarines and armoured vehicles that are only obtainable in small numbers and will not be available over the dangerous decade we are living in.

Why is this? A defining attribute of the development of Defence since the era of Sir Arthur Tange in the 1970s has been the melding of the various military services and the public servants in the Department of Defence into a single, integrated organisation.

This has been sensible for coordinated functioning and for stripping out duplicate activities that are expensive, but it’s also led to an increasingly complicated bureaucratic organisation, which is really a federation, not a unified whole despite protestations otherwise.

Along with the creation of a dense bureaucratic system for the Australian Defence Organisation as a whole, the business processes around spending the billions it gets from taxpayers to buy weapons, military platforms, surveillance and intelligence systems have been elaborated and detailed over time. A primary objective here has been to reduce the risk of project trouble — delays and, worst of all, cost blowouts.

The latest version of the Capability Life Cycle and the complex processes in the Integrated Investment Program and Defence’s Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group project management all make getting anything that looks like fast-moving technology into the hands of our military, in any numbers, plain unlikely.

Defence has designed itself to move slowly and carefully — which was fine when Australia had the luxury of time, with major conflict involving us being a distant prospect. But it doesn’t have that luxury now.

The structures and business processes in Defence have been built gradually over decades and are deeply embedded not just in the organisation, but in the mindsets and assumptions of pretty much everyone who works there. 

The other powerful departments of state — finance, treasury and the prime minister’s department — that are part of whole of government decision-making on Defence like these process constraints on how Defence spends money. 

Any expectation that some internal adjustments to these hardwired design features will resolve the problem is almost certainly unfounded. Defence won’t solve the problem of timeliness internally – a blue whale cannot become a Road Runner. Recent evidence out of Defence supports this conclusion: to speed itself up, it released an 88-page Transformation Strategy, filled with commitment to things the 2016 First Principles Review had already said should happen. In short, Defence is spinning its wheels.

What can be done? 

Focused change looks better than broad organisational reinvention if timeliness is the goal. So, it’s time to look at an irony and see a bigger opportunity. Military officers are participants in all the behaviours and business processes set out above. When they’re in their organisational roles, they are some of the most adept at using arcane processes to avoid change. But they are the go-to people when our political leaders have to act in crises and need to get focus and action fast. And they have strong records of success when this happens.

COVID-19 has given us two examples: Major General JJ Frewen, who is the coordinator general of the National COVID Vaccine Taskforce, and former Air Vice-Marshal Margaret Staib, who is the national freight controller.

And there’s also the precedent of Operation Sovereign Borders started in 2013 under the Abbott government, with Tony Abbott appointing then Major-General Angus Campbell to “stop the boats”.

There are multiple examples before these of military personnel being appointed to head up disaster recovery taskforces — like Major-General Mick Slater, Queensland’s flood recovery coordinator in 2011, going back to General Peter Cosgrove’s work on reconstruction after Cyclone Larry in 2006.

These appointments weren’t just about organised, methodical military people being able to do things. They were made in ways that really enabled their success. 

Frewen’s letter of appointment is just two pages long. It’s essentially a letter that empowers him to get cooperation from any commonwealth official, regardless of their line responsibilities, and to work directly for the prime minister and the minister for health. It empowers him to engage with state and territory governments and companies as he judges necessary. 

The focus of the work is crystal-clear, “to ensure public confidence in the vaccine rollout and ensure as many Australians are vaccinated as early as possible within TGA guidelines and available vaccine supply”. Campbell’s direction was even simpler — it was the Abbott election slogan from 2013, “Stop the Boats”, and he was similarly empowered to work across any organisational boundaries to deliver this result.

This approach can be applied to the problem of increasing our military power quickly.  A sovereign missile production coordinator could be similarly appointed outside of Defence or any other agency reporting line and empowered to use the $1 billion allocated to create this domestic production capacity urgently, instead of relying on Defence’s complex internal evaluation, procurement and contracting processes examining myriad industry bids and options. 

Taking it a step further, a new Australian version of the US’s successful Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) could be created here with a similarly empowered and resourced mandate, to deliver powerful new technologies to Australia’s military well before 2030. The individuals appointed to lead these functions could be military people, capable public servants or come from the corporate world. 

Before people say this is crazy, unprecedented risk-taking, this same approach of focus and empowerment outside the existing structures of government is strikingly similar to the way influential Australians like Essington Lewis and Lawrence Wackett succeeded in transforming Australia’s wartime and post-war economy in the late 1930s and 1940s.

These ways of working aren’t only relevant to the defence and national security parts of our government, or even the commonwealth level of government. There are lessons for every department and agency and for anyone wrestling with interdepartmental or cross-cutting issues. 

We need to get up to the speed of change in our environment. It’s optional only if we prefer waiting to be in the middle of crises before acting with the sense of urgency our times require.


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