You are currently browsing the monthly archive for August 2009.

A couple more OMG contingencies the White Paper forgot.  No mention of end-of-civilisation-as-we-know-it death rays at all.

Buildings with forest skins and buildings with algae coatings.  Aesthetic design and saving the planet.

Incompetence as a signalling device.  Fascinating.  It can’t be restricted to the Italian academic world; I’ve seen too many examples elsewhere.  And as noted in the comments, it’s a side effect of the Peter Principle.  (Crooked Timber)

The Beloit College Mindset list for the class of 2013—enter the world of the 18 year olds.

Philip Tetlock reviews three books on predicting the future.  Worth reading.


One of the inherent problems with the Government’s national security agenda is its shopping list approach to national security.  Phenomena, both social and natural, are lumped in together.

Yet many of the problems now described as national security concerns are, at their heart, governance issues.  True, at one end of the spectrum—failed and failing states—governance and security are inseparable.  And policy-makers should always be aware that bad decisions have consequences for the safety and security of their citizens and the strength of their society.  But that’s what good governance is.

Securitising governance issues, rather than strengthening the government’s ability to respond and deal with them, can actually detract from national strength and security.  Securitising issues implies new rules and behaviours and measures of successful outcomes must be applied.

It redirects efforts to a more nationalistic approach, risking a bunkering mentality.

It implies supra-national problems can be solved by securing borders, favouring a garrison mentality.

It can become a self-referential practice—disease, for example, becomes a security issue not because a threat exists but because disease itself is presented as a security threat.

It is a reflexive response to the complexity of globalisation, rewarding inward-looking behaviours and controls as substitutes for government’s inability to tackle multi-dimensional trans-national phenomena.

And it rewards urgency—if it’s considered a security issue, it must be dealt with quickly, regardless of the cost—over the slower, much less sexy, evolution of institutions, people and societies.

These behaviours and understandings all distort measures of good governance.    Often the easiest and quickest response needed to ‘secure’ Australia is the one prioritised…and then the government’s attention moves on to the next urgent ‘national security problem’ competing for attention and resources.

Rather than securitising disease, for example, through prioritising border controls—an immediate and tangible response—more effort should be made to invest in the (long, slow) research needed for the new generation of antibiotics (for example), the (long, often slow) improvement of conditions, public health and alert systems in countries where pandemics are most likely to emerge, and the (long, often arduous) strengthening of international co-operation.

And surely climate change—predictions of imminent disaster, as per The Day After Tomorrow, aside; they rarely if ever match reality—can be handled through civilian planning and good governance rather than a fall-back to a short-term military ‘operational planning’ approach, as implied through use of a national security lens.

Similarly, responses to natural disasters—bushfires, for example, are frequent events in Australia—should be undertaken good, tested systems informed by research and reviews of best practice and past experience.  Where disasters exceed the bounds of those systems, then the military may have a role as part of disaster relief.  Again, a matter of good governance, not escalation to national security significance.

And so on.  Rather than indulging in hyperactive redirection every time a crisis hit, rebadged as a National Security Issue, it seems we’d all do better with a Bex and good lie down.

There is some good work being done coordinating national, state and territory systems, especially under the COAG process.  But few—there are some—good solutions are top-down, especially when they focus on control and are distant from the point of application or the communities concerned.  Much better to smooth the way, open debate and loosen controls, allowing new solutions to emerge bottom-up.  That will improve the chances for adaptation, rather than bearing the costs of imposition.

Bringing back the notion of public service as a virtue is hard in a short-term, media-driven, 24/7 world.  Still, resurrecting good education in the basics of a complex, modern Western society, including the trades, governance, systems administration, and IT and infrastructure development and management certainly couldn’t hurt and—who knows—may even help prevent some of those crisis, or possible crisis, flagged by the government.

And we need to think more rigorously about national security, and develop a much less flabby concept that lends itself better to understanding the relationship between issues, prioritising resources and developing sound governance.

Twelve submarines are going to be awfully difficult to man, even if we start now identifying those kids who hide in cupboards at pre-school and sign them up for a submariner career track.

If we’re just using subs for surveillance, then by virtue of Moore’s Law, these could well offer a viable alternative, particularly if deployed in schools (the swarming sort).

And who knows, by 2030, we could equip them with offensive weapons, too.

This needs to be printed and posted in every government department and agency in Canberra—and in Parliament House.

There are two main problems with this:

  • unless New Zealand puts a lot more in—both defence spending and worthwhile capability—Australia will end up spending a good deal propping up the lesser partner; and
  • lest we forget, there was a good reason why New Zealand was booted out of the ANZUS Alliance.  It will be interesting seeing how Australia manages to put walls around the proposed combined Anzac force, given the degree to which the rest of the ADF is integrated with US systems.

I can see the attraction in terms of a combined force that ‘looks after’ the South Pacific.  But even there, having two separate forces has its advantages—namely that Australia makes New Zealand look a good deal more acceptable to South Pacific nations.   And Australia has a naturally more outward perspective than New Zealand.  Australia has to avoid New Zealand dragging Australia’s strategic focus down to the South Pacific.  Instead, it needs to assist New Zealand do more of the heavy lifting both in the South Pacific and beyond.

A common interpretation of the confusion within the White Paper is that the strategic environment is uncertain, and the White Paper has sought to respond to such uncertainty.

But the strategic environment has been ever uncertain: we don’t expect our strategic policy guidance to reflect confusion in both words and form.

It’s more worrying too, as the White Paper now is the centrepiece of the Government’s new strategic risk-based approach to defence planning:

Defence policy must be based on clear objectives. Not all strategic risks necessarily require our full attention, while those that are the most remote might require our fullest attention because of their potential consequences.  We have to be very clear about what matters most, so that we can provision against the right risks and do not waste resources. (Defence 2009, p11-12)

But it is hard to see how, if so, the understanding of risk differs from the understanding of risk employed since 1987, despite the geopolitical changes since that time.  It is still based on geography, and not based on strategic national interests.  And as such, it represents misunderstanding of risk and misrepresentation of national interests.

For example, take its absolutism:

Our most basic strategic interest remains the defence of Australia against armed attack…Before we attend to anything else, we must secure this strategic interest (5.3).

We should be wary of such statements.  They risk providing the military with a distorted view of priorities.  They accord primacy to the unlikely over the likely.  They ignore causation and consequences: not taking preventative action, including at a distance and well out of the range and possibility of conventional attack, may well increase the likelihood and repercussions of conventional attack.

And in a democratic society absolutism requires moderation.  In such defence—against what?—the over-riding priority for government and society as stated by the White Paper?  If so, why do we bother with putting government money elsewhere, such as education, health and roads?  If not, then what costs is the voter prepared to bear supporting a military and defence capability given the likely threat?  (Of course, Defence of Australia advocates have a silver bullet response to this question—two per cent of GDP—which has not been tested satisfactorily.)

Alan Dupont  put his finger on the problem in 2003:

[DoA advocates] concede that a direct military attack is unlikely, or even ‘highly unlikely’, but that since a military attack would be a serious event, with potentially grave ramifications for Australia’s security, prudent decision-makers must consider outcomes as well as probability.

This curious inversion of strategic logic contradicts the first principle of risk management which is that the consequences of an action must be carefully weighed against the probability of its occurrence. To argue that a highly unlikely event should command the lion’s share of an organisation’s resources or be the principal focus of its attention would not get past first base in the political or corporate world. It is certainly not the basis for a sensible defence strategy given the diversity and immediacy of the security challenges now confronting the ADF. (Dupont 2003, p59)

Aside from the ‘inversion of strategic logic’, the White Paper is breezily unaware that the use of risk management as a tool for strategy comes with its own traps for the unwary.

The reliance on risk as strategic policy-making blinkers decision-makers.  They are constantly tempted to deal with future risk—the possible problems of the future—rather than focussing on the real, hard problems of the now.  One can understand the political temptation: they cannot be held responsible now for the future, and creating a future myth is addictive and, properly managed, can sell well in the electorate.

Reliance on a risk management approach is based on the false premise that future risks can be assessed correctly.  But that’s impossible in the real world.  We cannot even identify and catalogue all risks, let alone assess their importance to our national interests.

The White Paper chooses a deliberate hobble—geography.  Geographically close risks, it assumes, are inherently worse than geographically distant risks:

all other things being equal, our capacity for influence and our imperative for action are going to be a function of proximity. (5.27)

But what is proximity in a highly interconnected world?  Threats, agents and the application of force, through technology, can traverse physical distances with ease, from unexpected places and in unanticipated ways.  Yet Defence persists in assessing threats and opportunities through a linear ‘steaming day’ lens.

The conceptual difficulty for Defence in identifying and assessing threats and so risks arises from

  • Defence’s boundedness by its platforms—what is the reach of a C-17 and how long before a tanker reaches its destination, for example;
  • its persistant top-down nation-state view of the world, and so often casual dismissal on non-state actors and phenomena; and
  • its inherent bias towards risks and behaviours it knows and understands.

We reach an uncomfortable dichotomy.  On one side, bureaucracies—including the military bureaucracy—feel more comfortable handling the known, everyday risks, substituting the immediate for strategy.  On the other, absent a clear conceptual understanding of the strategic environment, needs and drivers over the longer-term, strategy collapses to the absolutism expressed above.  Little wonder defence policy follow the prevailing winds, held down only by its own inertia.

Last, reliance on a risk management approach is disingenuous.  It suggests that the government in its wisdom will chose the ever-safe course, avoiding risk.  But as we know, such a path leads into stagnation.  And in geopolitics there is no fail-safe course.

Risk management is a useful tool—but only one of many.  There are smarter approaches to dealing sensibly with uncertainty than an over-reliance on a misapplication of risk and risk management.  These require a deeper understanding of strategy, the environment and of the available tools than is evident in WP2009.


Defence (2009), ‘Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030’, (Canberra).

Dupont, Alan (2003), ‘Transformation or stagnation? Rethinking Australia’s defence’, Australian Journal of International Affairs, 57 (1), 55-76.

Clausewitz as educator:

He reacted against a mode of theorizing that aspired to imitate geometric and mechanical sciences. “Theory cannot equip the mind with formulas for solving problems,” he warned, “nor can it mark the narrow path on which the sole solution is supposed to lie by planting a hedge of principles on either side. But it can give the mind insight into the great mass of phenomena and their relationships, then leave it free to rise into the higher realms of action.”

Alarmed by war, Clausewitz made two fundamental contributions to its study. First, he insisted on the importance of thinking over doctrine; and second, he believed that such thinking could be taught.

I wholeheartedly endorse the importance of thinking over doctrine or the unquestioning embrace of templates, but will beg to differ—slightly—on the last point.  I believe that just as with musical or mathematical talent, some have a better strategic than others, and while it can be taught, learning strategic thinking requires learning by doing.  By that, I don’t mean being part of the military, not least as that implies that military experience is a pre-requisite for strategy-making.  Which is not the case—’professional officers [are] unattuned to strategy because the complexity of military operations made them pre-occupied with tactics and technology’ (Betts, 1997, p11).  But being intellectually curious, receiving good mentoring, and working, writing or learning in an environment with good strategic thinkers is invaluable—and hard to achieve.


Betts, Richard (1997), ‘Should Strategic Studies Survive?’, World Politics, 50 (1), 7-33.

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that the transformation of the military is less to do with hardware, and terms such as ‘jointness’ or ‘multidimensional manoeuvre’, but about social and organisational structures.

And that includes the role of women in the military:

But the Iraq insurgency obliterated conventional battle lines. The fight was on every base and street corner, and as the conflict grew longer and more complicated, the all-volunteer military required more soldiers and a different approach to fighting. Commanders were forced to stretch gender boundaries, or in a few cases, erase them altogether.

Perhaps the status, command and roles undertaken by women can be used as one indicator of the evolution of Western militaries beyond the traditional, conventional, Napoleonic paradigm—and even of willingness to engage in the heavy lifting of counter-insurgency.

Brought up as an old-school Army warrior, Mr. Baumann said he had seriously doubted that women could physically handle infantry duties, citing the weight of the armor and the gear, the heat of Baghdad and the harshness of combat.

“I found out differently,” said Mr. Baumann, now chief financial officer for St. Paul Public Schools in Minnesota. “Not only could they handle it, but in the same way as males. I would go out on patrols every single day with my battalion. I was with them. I was next to them. I saw with my own eyes. I had full trust and confidence in their abilities.”

Mr. Baumann’s experience rings true to many men who have commanded women in Iraq. More than anything, it is seeing women perform under fire that has changed attitudes.

These are not lessons easily learned, or transformation understood, by militaries that carefully constrain their involvement in such engagements.

Wartime emoticons (The New Yorker).

Nouriel Roubini looks at those countries that have come through the recession reasonably well (Forbes).  The challenge for countries like Australia will be to return to—or reinforce—those liberal, market-based fundamentals that helped them get through the crisis, rather than succumbing to the temptation of control.

The US military is starting to take the security implications of climate change more seriously.  (New York Times).  Anything that gets us away from shopping lists of possibles.

When Bad People Rise to the Top. (MIT Sloan Management Review; subscription required).  Contains a ‘spotting guide’.  Prevention is all about due diligence.

The Augustine Panel is likely to suggest ‘deep space’ missions as a means to get to Mars. (New Scientist)  Sensible really, even if it means I’ll never get to go.  Don’t want to risk it all on badly planned or prepared rush job, nor do you want to make Mars as far as we ever go: the point is to get beyond the Solar System.  The immediate problem will be sustaining the effort.

The move of Ian Watt to SecDef is being interpreted as the government moving to bring Defence under control and making sure it scrapes out the $20b in savings promised. True, the budget and Defence finances are likely to hit a wall in the next year or two—and might even be one more reason for an early 2010 election.

But far from bringing Defence under control, it further diminishes oversight of the military and their task: it risks leaving CDF in control of everything but accounting.  There is no path for alternate for alternate civilian advice to the Minister—or given the military’s influence in PM&C, to the Government—on strategy, operations or capability.  Watt will be focussed on the books.  Unless he deliberately moves to strengthen civilian capability in strategy, operations and capability inside the Department—for which he must have the absolute endorsement of both Faulkner and Rudd—he will be ‘Master of Caravan’ only, and the diarchy, and with it civilian control, will be dead.

And let’s not forget the signals sent by Nick Warner’s future.  His move to ASIS is ostensibly a demotion; that role is an agency head, a lesser position and not a secretary-ship, and one out of sight and out of mind.  When Defence is a problem, civilians are punished.

August 2009
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