As Defence’s core functions fail, what’s the plan for change?
3 failing core functions

With 3 core functions failing, Defence needs to do something different to attempts at incremental, slow change.

Written by

Michael Shoebridge

A defence force has to have three things work well to be effective: it has to recruit and retain the skilled people it needs, it has to choose the equipment a military needs to succeed in conflict, and it has to operate and support that equipment. 

On all three core functions, Australia’s Defence organisation is failing and appears  to have no plans aside from doing more of what it’s already doing, with a growing hierarchy making everything more opaque and confusing. Its key leaders remain in place and will do for a while yet, but results have not been improving.

This would not happen anywhere but in the protected halls of Australia’s national security agencies.  Certainly in the corporate world, as we’ve seen with Optus and Snowy Hydro, and also to an extent in the wider public service, leadership takes responsibility for what’s been happening in their organisations. The Secretary at the heart of Robodebt, Kathryn Campbell, who found a spot in Defence for a time, resigned after the Robodebt Royal Commission.

On the three core functions of a defence organisation, let’s look at recruiting first.  Since 2016, Defence has been getting additional money to grow the size of the Army, Navy and Air Force.  This is to have enough people to operate the equipment in the Government’s plan for the military. That was set out in the 2016 Defence White Paper and added to by the 2020 Defence Strategic Update, the 2023 Defence Strategic Review and AUKUS.

However, instead of growing, our military has shrunk and the rate of collapse in its numbers is accelerating. Recruiting and retention is in a long term crisis. 

Under intense questioning at Senate Estimates hearings recently, officials revealed that since 30 June this year the ADF had shrunk by an additional 1,300 people.

The defence leadership spoke positively about the initiatives they have in place, and the fact they had added to their senior leader numbers by creating a new job – the Chief of Personnel – to focus on getting people to join the ADF and stay. But they have had luxurious government funding to grow the force by 1,000 personnel per annum since 2016 and they have failed.  It’s at a critical point now, and it looks like the plan is to do more of the same, but better.

The truth is that it’s simply too hard to get into the ADF through Defence’s byzantine and very lengthy recruitment processes.  Only the most vocationally motivated or those without other choices but lots of determination persist, and then they are not all selected.

Being honest about seeking help for anxieties during the pressures of Year 12 – and building personal resilience as a result – can be enough to disqualify a candidate that the ADF should be crawling over glass to get. It’s as if the ADF doesn’t realise talented young Australians have many options. Big imaginative change is needed, not tuning what is obviously broken.  And retaining skilled people already in the ADF requires re-energising their motivation by devolving decision making beyond the leadership superstructure in Defence HQ Canberra. That isn’t happening.

On operating the force, there are some nasty indications of growing problems. Delays to shipbuilding programs – notably the relatively simple, almost unarmed Offshore Patrol Vessels – and the troubled Hunter that’s meant to take over as the ANZAC frigates retire.

We’ve just heard that crew numbers are at critical levels on the ANZAC frigates, with key positions not being filled. Without crews, serving frigates may need to be mothballed.

On top of this, at the same recent hearings, officials revealed that keeping the Collins subs capable means they’ll now each be out of the water for longer than the two years that we’d been assured was required for their ‘Life of Type Extensions’. That means less submarines operating and available over the years ahead.

The result is that the Navy’s fleet of surface ships and submarines is getting fragile and old and replacements are delayed. There’s a growing risk that it won’t be ready or available when we need it. 

And the two crashes – one fatal – of the Army’s now withdrawn Taipan MRH-90 helicopters are indicators of problems in at least one Service’s airworthiness functions.  Fortunately, there’s no indication this is a wider problem across the Navy and Air Force. 

Airworthiness underpin the military’s ability to deploy and operate key systems.  An Air Force, just like an airline, can’t fly if its airworthiness is in doubt.  The Army won’t be able to operate the new Blackhawks if legacy issues surrounding the Taipan aren’t resolved. 

Some of the challenges operating equipment may be a consequence of the recruitment and retention trouble – because getting people trained and then keeping the experienced technical people you need is an essential enabler to operate our military. Again, it’s a core senior leadership responsibility to ensure that essential functions like airworthiness and wider technical regulation are in good health, with qualified, experienced staffs. Without them, our military is grounded, tied up at the wharf and confined to barracks.

Then there’s choosing and acquiring the right equipment for our military.  This is the most well-known area of systemic failure, publicly diagnosed in the recent Defence Strategic Review and in the 2016 First Principles Review in almost identical ways. And right now we have the incredible but corrosive example of Defence’s analysis and advice to government that has given us the troubled $45 billion Hunter frigate program, examined externally by the ANAO

Defence Secretary Moriarty has revealed much about the process leading up to the Hunter decision in a six page summary of an internal review we have yet to see. The summary says that under previous leadership, when the Hunter was shortlisted as one of three designs, and after his arrival, when BAE, the designer of the Hunter, was chosen as the winner to provide Australia’s future frigate, Defence gave poor advice on the material outcome, the affordability, the risks and the compliance with government laws and regulations in advising the government. 

Two existing ships – Navantia’s Air Warfare Destroyer and Fincantieri’s impressive frigate that’s used by NATO navies – were passed over in favour of a digital design that had been proposed for the Royal Navy but not built, when a key criterion for selecting the ship was that it be a mature design. 

The problems flowing from the poor Defence advice to the government on the Hunter are compounding over time. The cost for the program was originally advised by Defence to be $30 billion, but is now $45 billion, almost ten years before the first ship is scheduled to be handed over to our Navy.

This is a failure in the use of a large amount of public money.  And it is a shortfall in the core functions of departmental leadership, which are to provide policy advice to their ministers, and to administer the public moneys and departmental resources in their control in accordance with Commonwealth laws, regulation and policies.

In Defence, the advice on capability and investments is a shared responsibility between its military and civilian leadership.

Whatever else it is doing, an Australian defence organisation that has systematically failed to recruit and retain people, to support equipment operated by the military and to choose and acquire military systems is an organisation that is failing in core areas, at a time when these must be areas of strength.

Defence doesn’t exist in isolation. It serves governments and some of its troubles surely come from frequent changes of ministers and the endless quest for political ‘announcables’.

It’s time to re-think the foundations of Defence policy making and implementation in Australia.

A version of this article was first published in The Australian.