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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.

Three pieces recently caught my attention:

They’re short pieces, so I recommend reading each.  But together they point to more deeper systemic change—and here I’m pushing further some of the points raised by Tom Mahnken in particular.  I’ll make a start here on some of those issues, and add to them over the next few days.

First, like the printing press, present-day information technologies have weakened traditional state structures and processes.  Take the military itself.  That sacrosanct element of the modern, western conventional armed forces, the command structure, is being challenged by its senior-most echelons.  True, senior officers could always reach down to direct junior underlings.  But now information technologies have much enhanced the ability of senior commanders to reach down, real-time, around the slower chain of command to the point of attention.  Consider comments by the-then CDF, Peter Cosgrove, in 2003:

For me, the first two hours of a relatively long day were spent poring over the website reading the various reports, following up on them by email, by telephone and face-to-face.


Our Special forces could send us data including images from enemy territory. We could send them, from any level of command, anything from military orders to the rugby scores.

That reach-down can have an erosive effect on confidence within the chain of command.    Because they can, every issue–most often tactical matters–becomes worthy of the attention of the chief of service or defence force.

And it has a further consequence.  Modern technologies allow generals to relive their days as lieutenants and captains in the field without the attendant dangers.  They risk falling into the trap of addressing the problem they felt they could solve—as they had before—rather than those they should attempt to solve (Dörner 1996).  And it reinforces the focus of attention on the tactical over the operational, let alone strategic.

The issues aren’t confined to the military, but affect governance and accountability.  In a certain worlds, focussing purely on the tactical, once setting the direction, can suffice to achieve good outcomes.  But that’s not the world we live in.  Our strategic environment is fluid, changing, and as it shifts and changes our interests, goals and the best means to achieve them also change.  We need a constant dialogue between the strategic, the operational and the tactical, and a much more adaptable approach.  That’s hard to achieve in a system that inherently assumes stasis and stability, promotes dated benchmarks, and seeks to enforce certainty through tightly coupling capability to a parsimonious strategic vision.

Software development, of course, brings its own challenges.  Software development is an inherently creative process, not conducive to Taylorist approaches or waterfall models of project management (Brooks, 1995).

One of the relationships that is changing as a result of technology is that between civilian oversight and the military, worthy of a point of its own.   One of Mahnken’s colleagues, Peter Feaver, along with Damon Coletta, wrote on the effect of information technologies on civil-military relations in 2006 (Coletta and Feaver 2006).  They describe how in Kosovo and Bosnia, General Clark was able to operate under the radar of civilian monitoring, facilitated by information technologies:

  • first, the coordination of multiple assets in different planning domains, not all of which were visible to the civilian establishment; and
  • second, shifting targeting away from fixed assets, on which civilians had focussed and to mobile, ground assets, exploiting the advantages of battlefield command and control technologies and the notion of the sphere of professionalism: ‘…Clark was able to import elements of [his] tactical philosophy to the strategic campaign.’ (p118)  That in turn resulted in the loosening of civilian oversight of some aspects of the campaign while tightening others.

So while in principle information technologies should enable improved oversight and monitoring of the military domain by civilians, they by no means guarantee such an outcome (Coletta and Feaver 2006, p120-1).  Instead, information technologies generate a dynamism that permit military agents to exploit the very flexibility civilian principles require in pursuing political ends–decision-makers cannot be absolutely rigid in their statements of objectives, but must leave room for manouevre, compromise and even opportunism.

Coletta and Feaver acknowledge a concern expressed by Singer: the intrusive nature of information technologies could erode military autonomy and so professionalism (p110).  But it need not take civilians to generate such an effect: arguably we are seeing it already as generals seek to second guess the tactical judgments and overrule the commands of their more junior officers in the field, as noted above.

The second effect is more insidious: the fluidity and bandwidth generated by information technologies effectively loosens civilian control.  It’s harder for civilian decision-makers to ensure the distance between themselves and the military, provide certainty as to aims and objectives, and to specify and enforce constraints.  And it’s hard for civilian advisers to gain sufficient familiarity with military systems in fast-moving environments to assist with that oversight.  More than ever it is up to the military to help ensure civilian knowledge and control of themselves and their mission.


Brooks, F. P. (1995). The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering. Reading, MA, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Coletta, D. and P. D. Feaver (2006). “Civilian Monitoring of US Military Operations in the Information Age.” Armed Forces & Society 33(1): 106-126.

Dörner, D. (1996). The Logic of Failure. New York, Basic Books.

One of the problems about reading the papers online is that it’s easy to overlook the Letters to the Editor.  And so I missed this, from Bill Pritchett and Bob Furlonger on WP2009, which essentially asks:

  • where is the hostile intent?;
  • what about the messages WP2009 sends to the region?; and
  • are the civilians in Defence doing the jobs they’re supposed to do under strong civilian control?

Good questions.

June 2017
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