Defence falling further behind the excellence curve

Defence officials at Senate Estimates hearings have yet to demonstrate excellence in testimony or organisational performance.

Written by

Marcus Hellyer

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Richard Marles has expressed his concerns with the quality of advice coming from the Department of Defence’s leadership. He has stated there are issues of ‘culture within the senior leadership’ and apparently, less than the required level of ‘excellence’ in Defence’s advice to the Government.

With this coming on earlier reports that Marles had chastised the Department’s senior leadership, it’s clear that the honeymoon is over. The only thing that’s surprising is that it’s taken Marles this long to reach this realisation.

A brief review of recent Senate estimates hearings into the Defence portfolio on 14 February shows that the Department and its leadership is not only behind on the excellence curve but are continuing to fall further and further behind.

We can start with the revelation by the Chief of the Defence Force General Angus Campbell that no due diligence checks had been performed on Fijian Colonel Penioni Naliva before he was appointed the deputy commander of the Australian Army’s 7th Brigade. A simple internet search would have revealed published claims by a former Fijian prime minister, Laisenia Qarase, that Naliva had committed violent human rights abuses, including against a former Cabinet minister Sam Speight.

Falling further behind the excellence curve, Campbell then insisted that we should recognise the presumption of innocence in Naliva’s case. This is a legalistic and rather irrelevant term since the CDF is able to take administrative action without a finding of guilt in a court of law, just as he has done against special forces soldiers accused of war crimes in Afghanistan. Campbell then came close to blaming the victims for his inaction saying that ‘I would encourage those who are making the allegations to present them to an appropriate authority so that they might be investigated’.

This seems to ignore two points. First, the continuing power of the military in Fijian politics would make any investigation or decision by those authorities questionable. Second, an independent authority, the UN Special Rapporteur, has reported to the Human Rights Council that Naliva had been involved in the beating of a businessman, which suggests the allegations have indeed been presented to an appropriate alternative authority.

If Campbell is going to wait until the Fijian authorities make a finding against Naliva before taking action, we could be waiting some time for him to do something beyond having Naliva work from home.

But there’s a bigger issue here. At a time when the Government (both this one and the previous one) are placing significant emphasis developing greater influence in the South Pacific, it seems almost incredible that the relevant parts of Defence such as the Defence Intelligence Organisation and International Policy Division don’t have detailed knowledge of the senior leadership of military and police forces in Pacific island countries. How could they have not known of these allegations? Has subject matter expertise inside Defence fallen that low? Or were the subject matter experts simply ignored in the interests of developing closer ties with the Fijian military?

Campbell stated he was accountable for this lamentable situation, which seems reasonable since the problem (and indeed the accountability for it) seems to run deeper than a bureaucrat not bothering to do a Google search. But how that accountability will be exercised remains unclear. It appears to be a form of accountability that is consequence free, which empties the idea of meaning.

Next at Estimates there was further discussion of the sorry story of the disposal of the Army’s MRH-90 Taipan helicopters. As context, the previous Government had already agreed to transition from the underperforming Taipans to a new fleet of Blackhawks, but after the tragic death of four servicemen in a Taipan crash last year, the current Government decided to permanently ground them. Media reports subsequently revealed that the aircraft were being stripped of parts and destroyed.

Senators asked why the Taipans were not being offered to Ukraine. The Chief of Army argued that it was his judgement they were an unsuitable platform for Ukraine’s requirements—even though Ukraine had requested the aircraft.

I’m willing to be convinced that donating them to Ukraine may not in the best interests of either country, and perhaps even that the Chief of Army knows what best for Ukraine, but the fact that Defence’s preferred disposal strategy—of harvesting the aircraft for useful spares to be sold to other operators and then destroying and burying what was left—only came to light through revelations by the Asia Pacific Defence Reporter again shows how far behind the curve Defence is. The fact that the cannibalisation had already started before Defence had disclosed any of this to the public, who might legitimately have thought this could have been a way to help out the Ukrainians, just made it look like Defence was trying to achieve a fait accompli before word leaked out.  The hurried dismemberment of the aircraft has been also conducted while Defence is in the midst of investigations into the fatal crash

Considering the very public disposal strategies around some other capabilities like F/A-18 Hornets and frigates, it’s not surprising many observers have wondered whether Defence was trying to hide something.

As always, it’s not the original misdemeanour that gets you in trouble, it’s the mismanaged and shifting explanations and justifications afterwards. And here the incomplete and changing stories from Defence about what the Ukrainians knew when and whether they actually wanted the Taipans made it look like Defence had decided to bury the evidence with unseemly haste. Despite the small army of media managers in Defence, Defence was once again well behind the curve in its public engagement.

Another area where parliament and the public may feel confused is the issue of whether the Taipans were safe to fly and why they were permanently grounded leaving the Army with a significant capability gap that will take some time to fill. Minister for Defence Industry Pat Conroy has stated that ‘We have no idea whether these aircraft are safe to fly… we still do not know whether they’re safe to fly.’ However the Chief of Army stated at Estimates that ‘… we’ve never made any claims that the aircraft wasn’t safe. The claims around its suitability and the decisions that have been taken around its withdrawal from service are quite separate from the grounding.’ It’s another area where the messaging from Defence and the Government is muddled.

The discussion then moved to the issue of the acquisition of a fleet of 29 Apache attack helicopters to replace the current fleet of 22 Tiger helicopters for the very substantial sum of $5 billion. Only a week earlier, the US Army had announced it was cancelling its Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft program because of lessons from the war in Ukraine where crewed attack and reconnaissance helicopters have essentially been banished from the battlefield. “We are learning from the battlefield—especially in Ukraine—that aerial reconnaissance has fundamentally changed,” said the Chief of Staff of the Army, General Randy George. “Sensors and weapons mounted on a variety of unmanned systems and in space are more ubiquitous, further reaching, and more inexpensive than ever before.”

In response to a question from Senator David Van about whether it would be prudent for the Australian Army to cancel the Apache acquisition, the Chief of Army first provided a misleading response by saying the US Army’s FARA program was not going to deliver until the 2050s and 2060s. In actual fact, it was meant to start delivering in the early 2030s. That misrepresentation turned what was a real US program that right before the cancellation was in the middle of evaluating the final two contenders’ prototypes into something peddling vapourware in the distant future, implying nothing of significance had been cancelled.

Moreover, the Chief of Army didn’t explain why the Australian Army still thought attack helicopters costing around $173 million each were value for money when one could buy thousands or tens of thousands of uncrewed sensors and armed drones for the same money.

The CDF then intervened to insist ‘we have very good engagement with a number of European partners, NATO, and the United States in terms of sharing and learning with regard to the lessons of the war in Ukraine and the things that are distinct about that war which shouldn’t be drawn as generalised lessons.’ That sounds nice, but it would be good to have had the CDF or Chief of Army address why avoiding the acquisitions of stranded assets such as attack helicopters isn’t a generalised lesson, but one only relevant to the US Army and not Australia. There may be a case for the Apache, but we didn’t hear what it was.

It would also have been useful to hear what, if any, lessons are being learned from the war in Ukraine instead of just hearing about the effort to avoid learning the wrong lessons. A US general recently told his Indo-Pacific counterpart who is responsible for defending against potential threats from China that “What the Houthis did, what Russia is doing, is nothing compared to what we’re going to see in your theater”—indicating that lessons from Ukraine are assessed as extremely relevant for our region and not dismissed in the US system.

On the people front, Defence is also well behind the curve and appears to be falling further behind. The CDF stated at Estimates that ‘inflow rates remain below the level required to maintain our current force’ and outlined measure being undertaken to improve the situation. While those actions may (or may not) improve the situation, the fact is the gap between actual ADF numbers and what it needs has steadily grown over the past eight years from 500 to over 4,000. Overall the ADF needs to grow by around 15,000 to operate the force structure it is acquiring for hundreds of billions of dollars but has only achieved growth of less than 500 over that period—meaning we’ll need around 200 years to get there at current rates of growth. There’s nothing new here. Defence is behind the curve.

Having too few people means the people Defence does have need to work harder. It’s not surprising that Major General Stothart told Estimates that one of the top three reasons for people leaving Defence is tempo. The organisation is literally consuming itself.

The problem was made worse by the release of the Government’s new surface fleet plan several days after Estimates (which conveniently spared the plan any parliamentary scrutiny). The plan increases the size of the fleet but doesn’t mention how many more sailors will be required. Strategic Analysis Australia’s estimate is around an additional 600 just to crew the frigates, suggesting the total growth required could be over 2,000. That puts the Navy further behind the curve.

The list goes on and there’s probably no need to keep going. But one last example illustrates the scale of the problem. Senior leaders keep repeating, including at Estimates, the ‘crawl, walk, run’ mantra of the guided weapons enterprise as if it were a badge of honour. Considering the need for urgency expressed in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update, the 2023 Defence Strategic Review and by the current Government, anything that involves crawling towards the future should be dispensed with immediately. That’s particularly the case if the long process simply results in us being just as dependent on the exquisite munitions that militaries around the world are finding to be simply too expensive to be acquired and used in the numbers required. The Red Sea is simply the latest demonstration of that phenomenon.

One is reminded of the story about the Soviet bureaucrat who visited the bustling metropolis of London and asked, ‘who is in charge of the supply of bread to the population?’ Fortunately for the Londoners, nobody was, and certainly not a centralised Soviet-style bureaucracy. However, Defence bureaucrats appear to want to build a ten-year plan to establish munitions production—a task for which they are singularly ill-prepared and suited—and that still doesn’t result in the design and manufacture of Australian guided weapons. In contrast to the crawling plan, there are Australian companies that are already prepared to run in the production of the simple, cheap, disposable systems that are causing headaches to established militaries. It’s a mystery why Defence prefers to crawl towards irrelevance.

But the simple is not Defence’s happy place, as CDF’s homage at Estimates to the ever-increasing complexity that the organisation is confronting would indicate. He argued Defence is taming it through the exponential growth of 3-star officers and Band 3 public servants. Their numbers have grown from 10 to 28 in the past two decades while total ADF numbers have barely moved.

So while the buck stops with ministers, Richard Marles might have a point in his observations around the quality of advice he is receiving from the organisation. Whether his stern lectures can bring excellence to the organisation remains to be seen.

Dr Marcus Hellyer is Head of Research at Strategic Analysis Australia