A Sense of Urgency for Australian Defence

By Michael Shoebridge

Changing defence only matters if you care about Australia’s security and understand what’s happening in the world.

Organisational reform and cultural change in the Defence Department and the Australian Defence Force have a long, painful history. The most recent iterations are the ‘Pathway to Change’ reform program, the first principles review and the new transformation strategy. There’s the Brereton inquiry report and its broader consequences and resulting actions—both internally for Defence and the ADF, and at a whole-of-government level through the prime minister’s establishment of the Office of the Special Investigator to address the potential criminal matters the inquiry raised.

Of the many ways to reform Defence’s culture, structure and processes, it’s crucial to implement the 2020 defence strategic update to connect arcane internal issues with what’s happening in the wider world.

Implementing the update means fundamentally changing the mindsets, culture and behaviour of Defence, the ADF and defence industry from the way they’ve been for the past 20 years. Defence people talk of those two decades as a demanding and intense period of continual deployment with high-tempo operations in East Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria and peacekeeping commitments.

That’s true at one level but, at a more fundamental level, it’s not.

The past 20 years were luxurious compared with the strategic environment now, and over the next 20 years, with the challenges the Chinese state provides to Australia, the United States and all of our partners and allies in the Indo-Pacific and to open societies globally. Then there’s climate change and technological change.

The deployments into East Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria were discretionary, tailored uses of the ADF to best achieve the mission with the least risk of casualties. Supporting these deployments was at times difficult, but nowhere near the scale, volume and tempo that a major conflict in our region would demand of our military, the broader defence organisation and Australian industry.

But cultures, mindsets and ways of doing things are hard to change even when the operating environment demands such changes. That’s true about the big, clunky defence organisation, the three services and any of the large defence industry actors that are essential partners for Defence.

It’s obviously true not just in defence organisations. Look at the reluctance of any large organisation confronted with obvious external drivers of change, like big power companies in the energy sector given the ‘insurgency’ of renewable energy. Or the auto industry, with the rise of electric vehicles, where CEOs are now making decisions like ending development of new combustion engines while other companies fight the tide to preservetheir positions.

Australia’s entire national defence enterprise needs to accept that time is not our friend and to understand that our security and that of the broader region demand that we work together as part of a much more powerful, obvious, credible military deterrence of conflict in our region. None of this can be done by even the most activist Australia alone. It requires close partnerships centred on our US ally and our other allies regionally and globally.

Industry leaders have a much bigger role to play in increasing the pace of change for Defence. Driven by the national interest and by what they see in their corporate environments, they have an obligation to do much more than respond to the customers’ ‘requirements’ through tendering exercises, and instead help Defence match the pace of change required to avoid redundancy and obsolescence. That means shaping requirements and offering solutions for ‘requirements’ that have not been generated through internal defence organisational processes.

Every activity and process across Defence, within the ADF and in defence industry needs to be conducted with the urgency the strategic update sets out so clearly with its warning that we’ll no longer have 10 years to prepare for a major conflict. That’s unlike any discretionary deployment those in government or industry have experienced in their working careers.

The ability to provide the ADF with the support it will need to operate in a high-intensity conflict against an aggressor that’s technologically at least our peer operating at speed and scale (let’s call this the PLA) is the defining test of the work each of us does over this decade. That’s a confronting personal realisation, not just something to read in an organisational change strategy.

This is not about simply husbanding the major programs like frigates and submarines until they deliver in the 2030s and beyond. A more urgent purpose is about delivering sustainable, replaceable, scalable capabilities much faster. And it’s about being able to do this in a world of fracturing global supply chains in which glaring vulnerabilities exist—such as having potential adversaries baked into multiple supply chains.

None of this will be achieved by turning the handle on existing systems, approaches and mindsets.

In fact, some of the lessons learned—or which must still be learned—from deployments like Afghanistan are absolutely relevant but must be generalised across Defence and industry.

One is the tight and integrated teamwork that the ADF, Defence Science and Technology Group and defence industry—in this case, Thales—demonstrated working on the urgent common purpose of making the Bushmaster protected mobility vehicle as survivable as possible in the dangerous and rapidly changing environment of improvised explosive devices and shaped charges used by the Taliban.

That sense of common mission and urgency needs to be contagious across this broader national defence enterprise. It needs to brought to initiatives like the government’s hugely important decision to establish a sovereign guided-missile enterprise. And it needs to be brought to the acceleration into service of new undersea capabilities to work with our submarines.

Without this urgent sense of mission, the processes of Defence and big US primes and intergovernmental constraints are likely to combine to ensure that it’s 10 years before the first guided weapon rolls off an Australian production line. That’s unacceptable given the government’s clear direction, backed with the money to do it.

With this urgent sense of common mission, I can imagine Australia investing in greater naval facilities in Darwin and Stirling to host the navy’s growing fleet and rotating US, Japanese, Indian and other partner naval forces operating through Southeast Asia and into the Indian Ocean.

Australia has a chance to shape the US administration’s decisions on its global posture review to meet American interests and our own. Again, the update seems to give the guidance and funding to do this, even if that funding may need to be shifted internally within Defence.

One connection of reform to this bigger strategic picture relates most closely to the special forces.

Iraq and Afghanistan were intense experiences for the special forces, but they also were absolutely unlike the demands that our current and future strategic environment will make of them. The huge shift in mindset and culture they need to make is to recognise this and to understand that their role in this strategic environment is not about sustained deployed operations. Instead, it’s a return to their core reason for being—conducting covert surveillance and operations where firing weapons and being detected by adversaries are failures.

Our special forces have been a key part of the ADF capability for 20 years, but they’ll be even more important in the world that’s emerging. They need to be able to operate in an environment in which our technological or information superiority, or superior volume and scale, are no longer assumed, and in which it’s much harder to be covert because of the digital signatures and footprints that humans and technologies create.

This is a similar technological challenge to the one faced by the broader ADF, but the special forces’ covert, low-signature role makes it much more intense. They need to return to thinking of themselves as a low-volume, high-value force used strategically and sparingly, not in a multi-year sustained way.

That’s why generalising the Bushmaster experience is such an important lesson.

Enormous levels of trust will be required in every special forces member, from top commanders to every small team and individual. Learning the hard lessons of Afghanistan is vital.

As the prime minister said in November: ‘Our serving men and women are deserving of the respect and admiration in which they are held by the Australian people and it’s a respect that requires the highest standard of conduct.

‘The release of the [Brereton] report will be difficult and hard news for Australians, but it is our Australian way to deal with these issues with a deep respect for justice and the rule of law, but also to illuminate the truth.’

And as now Defence Minister Peter Dutton said at the time: ‘As with any allegations of serious and possibly criminal misconduct, these matters need to be assessed, investigated and, where allegations are substantiated, prosecuted in court.’

Both are right, and all the serving and former members of the special forces who provided evidence of unlawful killings must also know that their accounts will be taken seriously, and that Defence, the government and the public see that what they did to bring these acts to light is in the best traditions of the disciplined, trusted force that is the ADF.

So, the message about Defence reform, structures and processes is that the changes required are meaningful across the national defence enterprise—the department, the ADF, the broader defence organisation and Australian industry—and they all centre on the sense of urgency and mission set out so clearly in the government’s strategic update.

The difficult change in mindset and organisational structures is to take the words and directions seriously and act on them.

Michael Shoebridge is director of ASPI’s defence, strategy and national security program.

This article was published by ASPI on July 29, 2021.