Early consultation for the Defence Force white paper is shaping up to be the real festival of dangerous ideas. Offensive cyber warfare, better paid public servants, CSIRO funding, foreign medical specialists and other ideas likely to be unpopular with the government have been floated to play a role defending the nation.
The government may wonder if it was a good idea to open up the better people policy and whole of government participation has been the strong theme, with calls for the expert panel and white paper team to recommend more than just a hardware wish list and thinly veiled foreign policy goals. Importantly, how will any future capability be staffed if the APS is shedding jobs and there is little investment in the technical skills needed to replace those leaving due to retirement or redundancy?
Retired rear admiral James Goldrick and the government-appointed expert panel concluded a four-week national listening tour, hosted by the Royale United Services Institute, on Monday. He said they were eager to hear from those concerned about Australia’s future but not necessarily from the perspective of Defence.
However, that didn’t deter significant contributions from the ADF’s future leaders: mid-ranking officers and Australian Defence College students, including women and people of diverse heritages that represent how Defence will likely look over the course of the white paper’s 20-year scope.
One ADC student warned that Defence was already behind the skills gap, and past white papers did nothing to help:
“They miss the crux of the argument, that’s the human capability. Cyber is nothing without the brainpower behind it. We don’t realise we’re not investing in depth in our people. We need to treat it like a capability, and fund it like a capability.
“The technology cycle is only going to get faster, we have an ageing population, that’s not a great combo.”
Cyber warfare, however, is only publicly talked about in one capacity: defensive, and usually only considering cyber attacks from China. Another ADF officer questioned that hesitancy in acknowledging our need for offensive capability:
“It should be treated no differently than many other technologies that have both a defensive and offensive use. But we don’t have the capability within us, whether people or technology. We cannot rely on organically growing Defence uniformed presence. It needs to be whole of government, cross-different agencies.”
A former Defence member said the solution might be found in reforming Australia’s reserve forces, and in doing so save enormous amounts of money and increase capability at the same time: “Cyber warfare is a perfect example of how reserve forces could be used instead of full-time forces.”
Harnessing the skills of the APS
What about the pool of well educated, experienced APS, not just in Defence but across agencies that use overlapping skills? The efficiency dividend is slated to cut another 2000 of Defence’s own public servants in the forward estimates, although nobody yet knows exactly where.
Two solutions were raised: increasing the number of reserves generally (many could come from APS with their existing security clearances) and expanding APS levels in required skill areas. A Navy civilian employee proposed compensated career tracks for high value experts:
“Currently the only way to get into the really high salaries is by becoming executive levels, SES band, but the issue that creates then is that sometimes you’ll get analysts who are brilliant at analytical or technical work, but shouldn’t be allowed to manage a meat raffle. The only way they can advance is by getting into roles they are completely not suited for.
“Maybe, we have the track for people who want to be in the analytical side of the house to be able to get quite substantial funding, as opposed to those who want to become managers and leaders.”
It could be argued the ADF still hasn’t solved specialist expertise pay either.
Valuing people for the work they do was a popular concern, with another contributor questioning the damage being done to Australia’s future Defence by the current “adversarial workplace relations environment” instead of using pay structures as enablers, developing career paths and succession planning:
“It starts [with that] to something that actually does the opposite … You have to wonder have we learned the lessons? It’s great to see an increase to the Defence budget but it is critical that we ensure that we invest in people.”
Others asked if the white paper would task Defence to live up to the commitments and promises made to promote the expertise of women.
Maintaining medical professionals are also a problem for Defence, especially when in other countries on military or humanitarian operations. Those professionals are drawn from the same small pool that service the public day to day in Australian hospitals. A health officer suggested increase the intake generally, or looking for additional sources:
“When something happens [overseas] and we take people, if we take Sydney’s top vascular surgeon and send them to Rwanda or Operation Pakistani Assist, then people die in Australia.
“We need to look at what other alternatives can we set up with our regional partners to access those services when we send people into combat. It doesn’t need to be for combat reasons, it could be because there’s a natural disaster, something beyond our control.”
Lieutenant General David Morrison briefed a parliamentary hearing on violence against women in conflict zones today, but drew a connection to the work he had begun to improve the opportunities for women in the Australian Army.
“Talent not gender,” Morrison said was the new requirement. “I have never lost sight of the need to be capable, but to dispense with talent of 51% of population, by which I mean women, does not make sense to me.
“The top three cadets in 2013 were women … I can draw a correlation with confidence that there is an improvement in Army as a result …
“A more inclusive Army is a more capable Army.”