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Vice Admiral Ray Griggs: prioritising Defence’s capability needs

There is no doubt that the last 12 months has been characterised by a very heavy operational tempo for the Australian Defence Force, including a significant commitments on our borders, in the southern Indian Ocean in the search for MH370, in the Ukraine and Netherlands during the recovery operations following the downing of MH17, in Iraq with combat and advisory and assistance missions against the Daesh, responding to the presence of foreign forces in our maritime zones and of course our enduring missions — in Afghanistan, the counter terrorism and counter piracy mission of our major fleet unit in the Middle East, and peacekeeping or monitoring activities in the Sinai, in the Golan and in Southern Sudan.

It is important to remember that Australia’s mission in Afghanistan has not ended; the government remains committed to supporting Afghanistan’s security, governance and development. We have around 400 people deployed who are providing training to or advising and assisting the Afghan National Security Forces, filling key roles in headquarters positions and providing critical force protection, medical and intelligence support.

Our operations in Iraq are in response to a request for assistance by the Iraqi government. As you are all aware, Australia is contributing to the international coalition to disrupt and degrade the Daesh.

Australian aircraft are conducting combat missions, including regular air strikes, over Iraq to assist coalition air operations. Our tanker and Wedgetail aircraft are providing key supporting roles, not only to our strike aircraft but to the coalition effort more broadly. I think we should be very proud of the Air Task Group package that we were able to put together — I would suggest it is the most complete and self reliant air combat force package we have deployed in decades. It is making a huge contribution to the mission.

An Australian Special Forces Task Group has also deployed to Iraq to advise and assist Iraqi Security Forces. The ADF has also provided humanitarian assistance through airdrops to persecuted minorities in Iraq, and helped with the resupply of munitions to Kurdish Peshmerga forces.

This operational load has been combined with an important ongoing exercise program including Pitch Black, Hamel, Kakadu and RIMPAC to name but a few and important regional activities including a very successful iteration of Operation Render Safe in Bougainville late last year clearing 16 tonnes of unexploded WW2 ordnance.

As we have all come to expect our people have excelled and got the job done with the minimum of fuss while continuing to enhance the reputation of the ADF around the world. Currently more than 2200 ADF personnel are deployed on 14 different operations with at least that number again either having just returned from operations or preparing to deploy. Ensuring we sustain our equipment and importantly, our people, so we can continue to meet government’s requirements is a key task for the ADF leadership.

“It is timely then that we are undergoing a white paper process looking at our strategic circumstances over the next two decades.”

More broadly we have seen the continuing development of the Chinese military and the commensurate increase in a number of wide ranging deployments and the re-emergence of Russian military presence in the Indo-Pacific. In addition tensions in east and maritime South-East Asia continue to be evident, particularly the ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea where resource exploration and exploitation and land reclamation activities have led to various reactions this last year.

It is timely then that we are undergoing a white paper process looking at our strategic circumstances over the next two decades. It is being underpinned by a comprehensive Force Structure Review which deputy secretary, strategy Peter Baxter and I are overseeing. This process will assist government in making some important capability decisions this year, decisions that will have significant implications going forward over the next few decades. While I know you would like me to go into some detail here, I will of course disappoint you. What I can say though is that this process is a comprehensive one not only within the department but due to the high levels of collaboration with central agencies and also due to the minister’s white paper external “expert panel” who have been actively engaged since being appointed in March 2014.

In the past the focus on white papers and resulting Defence Capability Plans has been invariably on the big-ticket platform based capability decisions. Increasingly though governments are as concerned about the supporting infrastructure, the support backbone if you will, of the organisation and its crucial role in sustaining the ADF’s ability to keep kicking operational goals. There has certainly been a strong focus on this aspect of our business during the current process.

An additional core feature of this white paper and Force Structure Review is that there is an external cost assurance process being undertaken which will help give government greater assurance of the likely costs of various capability options; this is an important step which we have not seen before. This cost assurance process is important as government thinks through the capability choices that will be required to keep the ADF able to operate, and remain effective, in our uncertain strategic environment, an environment that remains uncertain due to:

  • Continuing territorial and resource competition;
  • The ongoing potential for state-on-state conflict as a result of this competition; and
  • The implications of persistent state weakness in our near region.

We will also need to be prepared to address broader challenges to international order, including the global threat of terrorism and instability in the Middle East and other non-state based threats.

It is clear that Australia’s national security will continue to depend on its strong network of bilateral and multilateral relationships — particularly our alliance with the United States — and the white paper will need to set out how we intend to maximise the benefits of international engagement.

Over coming decades, an ability to effectively operate in the cyberspace, space and electromagnetic domains will be essential to underpin Defence’s capabilities and operations. They will, in their own right, be key areas of contest in future contingencies.

From my perspective as the Joint Capability Authority, one of the most important aspects of the Force Structure Review, the white paper and the accompanying Capability Plan will be ensuring that those key joint “glue projects” that ensure we can operate as a single force are appropriately placed and sequenced.

There is no doubt that the Capability Plan is dominated in dollar terms by a small number of large projects. That is a fact of life and no matter how sophisticated you get at smoothing out the lumps in the plan, there will always be a degree of this in the structure of our capability plan. We can manage that but, what we must guard against is using the smaller projects, particularly the glue projects, to manage in year budget pressures.

I see this as one of my key roles to champion those capabilities that really go to the heart of our ability to operate as a single force and to ensure that their prioritisation is right.

Of course I would contend that we still, after all these years, haven’t settled on what joint really means and frankly whether it is the right term to be getting into definitional warfare over. That view may surprise some, but we are essentially operating as an integrated force that is highly reliant on other parts of the department and government more broadly; being “joint” is simply one aspect of the collaborative approach that is required in our operating context. We also need to shake the notion of “jointery” as some sort of ideological crusade; ideology, ideologues and zealots are generally not helpful when actually what we need is pragmatic approaches that fit our unique scale and circumstances.

The real challenge for us in the joint capability area is in managing emerging capabilities, not so much in the acquisition of equipment but in managing all the fundamental inputs of capability. Nowhere is this more evident than in managing the workforce implications of a new capability. We have had considerable success in operations, logistics, education and health in smashing together legacy structures to form effective joint shared service delivery organisations. It gets much harder when you don’t have a legacy structure to draw from.

And the key reason for that is that our workforce models are very much built around the staffing requirements of the existing capabilities in the three services. There is no true recognition that there is a “joint staffing overhead” — an overhead that must be embedded into the three service workforce models.

Another significant challenge that we face in our joint investment decision-making is the inherent tension between our ultimate role in the physical and self-reliant defence of the continent and our daily operating reality of working collaboratively in coalitions to ensure the former is never required. In a small force such as ours we need high levels of horizontal interoperability across the services particularly to allow effective ISR and command, control and communications. Of course most of our day-to-day operations are conducted in a coalition component construct where what I would call vertical interoperability up the component chain is crucial. This sets up an investment challenge in getting the balance between the vertical and horizontal right.

This is one of the reasons we invest so heavily in multinational technical co-operation, particularly among the five eyes nations so that we minimise the differences. Of course with the scale differentials we are dealing with minimising these differences is not always possible. And at times, we will make acquisition decisions that further compromise our ability to achieve both horizontal and vertical interoperability.

We need to better grapple with the need for competitive tension in our acquisition process against the need to ensure the greatest level of commonality that is practicable. In a force the size of ours we simply cannot afford for commonality (internally from a fleet management perspective and externally from an interoperability perspective) to not be a central acquisition principle.

“I am totally convinced we need to be more directive in our needs and requirements articulation in this respect.”

Some areas of industry won’t like that but as someone who spent much of the last three and a half years being personally accountable for the delivery of Navy capability, I am totally convinced we need to be more directive in our needs and requirements articulation in this respect. Some of you would have heard me talk of the overhead of managing 12 different main propulsion OEMs in a fleet of 14 classes of ships. The inventory, training and workforce flexibility issues and associated costs that flow from this situation in such a small force left me shaking my head on more than one occasion. While we can’t fix it overnight, we can at least set the principle and then stick to it. Of course increased commonality ultimately has other benefits in helping us being an intelligent customer in understanding things like design intent and philosophy when we regularly use a family of products or platforms.

What is industry’s role here? Personally, and this is a personal view, understanding how crucial the reduction of through life costs are to us, how important minimisation of the number of systems there are, how much inventory we must carry, how many training schools and courses we need and understanding that having a workforce that is portable across our respective fleets is crucial to us is a good start. I would personally rather step back from the bleeding edge if it means having an effective, supportable and sustainable capability that allowed us to maximise the use of taxpayer’s dollars and our highly trained people.

I want to move away from this potential contentious topic now and talk very briefly about the First Principles Review that is drawing to a close. I can honestly say I am yet to see any products from the team although I have had a number of discussions with them, so again you are not going to get much out of me. I am though heartened by the way that David Peever and his team have approached the review. I believe they are focusing on the right issues and they very much want their recommendations to be practical and executable.

I would like to finish though on a couple of issues which are probably not at the forefront of your mind from an industry perspective but remain at the forefront of mine and the remainder of the ADF senior leadership team.

The first is mental health and its impact on our people and ultimately on our organisational performance. Last October I was honoured to be able to deliver the Grace Groom Oration at the National Press Club on World Mental Health Day. In that speech I highlighted a number of the very important initiatives that have been put in place over recent years to aid in the prevention and management of mental health issues for our people.

I think we have some very good programs in place and we have a far higher level of awareness of mental health issues that at any time in our past. We of course don’t always get it right and we continue to work on that. The biggest challenge remains reducing and eventually removing the stigma of mental health and making it a mainstream health issue so that our people have confidence in coming forward and getting the help they need. This is of course a broader societal challenge too, one which you can all play an important role in.

The other issue I would like to touch on is our continuing efforts to improve our organisational culture through our Pathway to Change program. We have rightly had and continue to have a significant focus on the unacceptable behaviour dimension of the program. But I think it is important to understand the totality of what the program seeks to achieve. That is best comprehended by understanding our statement of cultural intent which is Trusted to Defend, Proven to Deliver, Respectful Always.

I don’t think the richness of this statement has been fully understood or properly explored. From an ADF perspective it cuts to the core of who we are, our professional war-fighting abilities, our ability to manage capability and to deliver results across the organisation, not just on operations. The important message is that we need to work all the different aspects of the cultural change that we need to make.

This is an edited transcript of a speech delivered by Vice Admiral Ray Griggs to the Australian Defence Magazine Congress on February 10.

Author Bio

Vice Admiral Ray Griggs

Vice Admiral Ray Griggs is the vice chief of the Australian Defence Force. He previously served as the Australian Navy chief.