We need a Defence organisation that can operate at the speed of its external environment
Complex organisation

The Australian Defence organisation is so internally complex and opaque it cannot perform its role.

Written by

Michael Shoebridge

The Defence organisation is top heavy, over managed and under led.  It has become so organisationally complex that it can’t understand or govern itself, let alone have the bandwidth or time to engage with and understand what’s happening in the world outside its own boundaries. As the numbers in the Defence Force keep falling, the number of senior military and public service roles keep growing.

This is a strategic problem that the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and members of Cabinet have to face and resolve, because Defence is unable to plan, think or operate at the speed of Australia’s security environment, and is unable to change how it operates to cope with, much less thrive in, a world of rapid technological change that is affecting how wars are fought.

Back in 2017, the then Government released the First Principles Review – which was meant to be like Sauron’s Ring from Tolkien – one review to rule them all and in the dark to bind them.  It said the problem with Defence was generally agreed: “The current organisational model and processes are complicated, slow and inefficient in an environment which requires simplicity, greater agility and timely delivery.  Waste, inefficiency and rework are palpable”. 

It found that the number of senior leaders had nearly doubled from 201 in 1998 to 374 in 2014, while total Defence personnel numbers had risen from around 73,000 to 78,000 (a 7 per cent increase).

It proposed a streamlined top structure for Defence. Under it the Secretary had four direct reports – an Associate Secretary, a new Deputy Secretary Policy and Intelligence, a Chief Finance Officer and a Deputy Secretary Capability Acquisition and Sustainment.

The Chief of the Defence Force had five direct reports: the Vice Chief, the three Service Chiefs (Navy, Army and Air Force) and a Chief of Joint Operations.

Now here we are in the middle of 2023, and the situation has changed quite radically.  The Defence organisation chart in Defence’s 2022-23 Annual Report shows the Secretary now has 8 direct reports (with the Chief Finance Officer now reporting indirectly through the Associate Secretary) and the CDF has 7 direct reports.  At least two new senior positions that are either yet to be filled (Deputy Secretary Governance) or not reflected in this chart (Chief of Personnel filled by Lieutenant General Natasha Fox from 5 June).  So, the Secretary may now have 9 direct reports and the CDF 8.

What’s new since 2017?  Deputy Secretary Naval Shipbuilding, Chief Nuclear-Powered Submarine Taskforce (now the Australian Submarine Agency), Chief of Defence Intelligence and Deputy Secretary Defence Strategic Review Implementation and Deputy Secretary Governance are new on the Secretary’s side of the house.

Chief of Joint Capabilities, Chief of Guided Weapons and Explosive Ordnance and Chief of Personnel are new on the CDF’s side.

In 2023, Defence has 57,218 military personnel and 17,286 civilians in its permanent workforce.  That’s about 3,500 less than the at the time of the First Principles Review.  But its top structure has expanded and is now more complex than at any time since before the Tange reforms in the mid-1970s rationalised what had been 3 Services and 5 separate departments (one for each Service along with a tiny Department of Defence and a large Department of Supply) into one Defence Department and the three Services. 

Back then, Defence had a total workforce of 115,500 people.  70,000 of these were military personnel and 33,500 were civilians, with another 12,000 in the Supply factories and Naval dockyards.  Defence now runs no factories or dockyards and has over 40,000 less people.

The big problem from Defence’s byzantine top structure is that the two people meant to lead the place – the Secretary and the CDF – have no clear line of sight through the organisation to any result or outcome.  There are overlapping complex layers of structures and roles that obscure even the simplest issue. 

Maybe there’s an attraction for the Secretary and CDF in having someone’s belly button to push on every big new initiative or problem that has arisen since 2017 – a senior person to implement the Government’s Defence Strategic Review, a senior person to look at how Defence might get missiles manufactured in Australia, a senior person to face the problem of ADF numbers falling when they are meant to be growing, a senior person to be the one they can put forward to discuss the failure on naval shipbuilding since Defence began its continuous shipbuilding program in 2017, a new senior person to lead a reformulated version of Defence’s failed internal innovation programs, rebadged the Australian Strategic Capabilities Accelerator.  I have no doubt missed some.

The result of this ‘structure by initiative or problem’ approach is that there is no logic to how the organisation is set up or operates.  And if you think of the roles of the two leaders and all their reports as a Venn diagram, the senior roles below them eat up the entire responsibility space, leaving the Secretary and CDF with little personal responsibility and able to direct anything important – or troubled – to someone else. 

There is vanishingly little space for the Secretary and CDF to fill that isn’t occupied by one or more overlapping senior roles beneath them. And every senior role creates a pyramid of other slightly less senior roles cascading beneath it, all of whom have to fill their time. That explains why in the Navy, for example, we now have 15 Rear Admirals, while back in 1998 there were 6, and Australia had a bigger fleet.

The result is a place that is chronically over managed and under led.  It has got to the point where the Secretary and CDF seem to have realised some of this themselves – and seen the solution as another senior job needing its own support structure.  They have just advertised a job called Deputy Secretary Governance.  At Senate Estimates, it was explained that this new job has key functions including monitoring social media and helping craft ministerial press releases, but it seems to show that the leadership see that the place has got so hard to govern they need a new person to help make sense of it.

An organisation that is internally dense and complex, with limited authority given to decision makers except those at the very top is poorly placed to be able to engage with complexity and change in its external environment. 

Defence is an opaque workplace full of disempowered people. That is a root cause for the crisis in recruiting and retention, as is the fact that if you want to work with powerful technologies like drones in Australia, you’re better off being a farmer than being in the Australian Defence Force.

Defence contrasts with counterpart organisations in the US, Ukraine and Israel, where junior military personnel at ranks like Major and Army Captain brief media on operations and even write publicly about challenges and issues.  In the Australian Defence organisation, officers two or three ranks higher than this – Colonels – carry the briefing pack of senior officers appearing at Senate Estimates.  That’s not motivational.

This paralysed, internally focused and confused Defence organisation is not what Australia needs right now.  We need a new Arthur Tange who will remake this broken, top heavy organisation into one fit for our times. We need this so that the firehose of public money going into Defence creates greater military power over this decade, and so that the Australian military becomes again a place where people want to work because they know the role is fundamentally important and they also know that they will be equipped with the best technologies and systems to do their job well.  That’s far from the case now.

That starts with a Secretary and a CDF who take a clean sheet to how the top structure looks and works and who want clear lines of sight to those doing the real work of the organisation so that they can lead the work and be actually responsible for it, while delegating and empowering much lower down the organisation than is the case now. As the Tange era shows, this will also take a demanding Defence Minister and Prime Minister who back this change and the leaders who want to deliver it.