You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Defence’ tag.

RAAF C-17 leaves Tarin Kowt

RAAF C-17 leaves Tarin Kowt

My attention was snagged by Jim Molan’s piece, in which he argues:

Our minimalist approach will probably guarantee our soldiers will perform brilliantly until the day that the war is lost—one of the few Vietnam analogies that stand up.

There’s always a danger in conflating two very different conflicts, even as marginally as Jim has.  Arguably, our soldiers are still doing much the same type of tactical-level COIN at which they did well at in Vietnam; I’m not sure that the ADF or the government has grasped the full spectrum of COIN.

We have three levels of problems with Afghanistan.

At the tactical level, ADF soldiers, according to reports, are doing well at the initial ‘clear’ phase, restricted to a limited area in Oruzgan.  It’s possible, taking Jim’s additional troops, the ADF could extend such tactical success further, though it’s worth bearing in mind that Australia has limited experience in substantially larger deployments.

At the operational level, to be a successful COIN campaign, ‘clear’ needs to be followed by ‘hold’ and ‘build’.  The ADF has only limited experience in holding and building.  True, there is a trade school at Tarin Kowt.  But holding and building means more than just a trade school, more than fixing bridges or schools; it’s a long-term commitment to building institutions, to providing space for the people, to generating good behaviours of governance.  Persistence is the key.

Whenever Australia has been involved, post World War II, in the Middle East and Central Asia, the government has done as much as it can to limit its exposure. If the government continually thinks it’s going to be ‘outta there’ in comparatively short order, it’s less likely to put the effort into thinking through the two later phases of holding and building.

It’s also hard to point to any great blazing success stories in our own neighbourhood—operational-level success is clearly not inversely related to distance.  Policy towards and engagement with the Solomons and East Timor—and of course, PNG—totter onwards without any great sense of achievement, improvement or direction.

Australia lacks a strong sense of where Oruzgan fits in the overall campaign, or how the ADF can best assist longer term.  Perhaps this may be coming as a result of McChrystal’s report, but it would be nice to hear of some pro-active thinking from within Russell for a change.  Jim’s other concerns—including how his additional troops may contribute to the broader effort—tend to focus on this level.

Last, at the strategic level, aside from the occasional set piece by the Prime Minister, no minister has made the strategic case for a continuing contribution in Afghanistan for a considerable time, arguably in this government.  No minister has set out a vision for Afghanistan, or explained to the Australian public the significance of Afghanistan for Australia’s security.

Just take the last three months, months in which pressure is building on the US Administration to articulate its policy and strategy.  On 22 July, the PM said,

Well, on the first question, what I indicated most recently when we increased our training effort in Afghanistan was this – our mission is clear. How do you, in our province, Oruzgan, which we’re responsible for, together with our Dutch allies, train and equip the Afghan national army and local police to take responsibility for the security of that province, so we can then go?

That’s the mission, and the reason I have, with the support of the National Security Committee of the Cabinet, increased our training effort, is so that we have a greater capacity to raise an Afghan national army battalion and additional military capabilities and police capabilities so that security of that province can be handed over.

That is the mission statement, and that’s what we’re working to on the basis of the advice from the Chief of the Defence Force.

The second point you ask is what would happen if we were to exit? Can I say Australia is in Afghanistan because of our alliance with the United States in the first instance. When September 11 happened, it was an attack on our American ally. The ANZUS Treaty was invoked, because of an attack on the metropolitan territory of the United States. We take our alliance obligations seriously, that’s why we’re there.

But the underpinning reason in addition to that is what we need to do as a society of civilised countries in acting against the global threat of terrorism.

Later in August,

As I reflect most recently on terrorist attacks in Indonesia, and terrorist attacks elsewhere in world, as you know, in the history of events since 2001, many of those who have been responsible for terrorist attacks around the world have in fact been trained in Afghanistan. The Government of Australia’s view and the Government of the United States, and our friends and allies is that Afghanistan cannot be surrendered as a training base of unlimited potential for terrorists as it was prior to 2001.

This is a difficult and ongoing fight in Afghanistan, I accept that. I accept also that it is unpopular. But if we are to deal with the threat of terrorism at its various levels, we must dealing with where terrorists are trained, we must be dealing with those who support them, as we must be dealing with the current, practical challenges which confront our law enforcement agencies here in Australia.

Then there are the  most recent remarks (1 September) by the Prime Minister, which focus at the operational level:

Well, our approach to Afghanistan has always been that we want to ensure that our mission in Oruzgan province is concluded. What’s our mission in Oruzgan province? To train up an Afghan national army brigade made up of six battalions so that we can in turn hand security responsibilities over to the Afghan Government. That’s the task and the mission we’ve set for ourselves in Oruzgan.

So…how exactly does focusing solely on a small section within Afghanistan—and clearing, much less holding and building—contribute to the expressed goal of ensuring Afghanistan does not become the base for a future September 11-type attack?

More and more the trajectory being described is one of closure: the rationale is that Australia is in Afghanistan because of the Alliance (our relations with a significant other), and because we’re a civilised country (being seen with the right crowd), and once we’ve paid our dues (carefully circumscribed), we intend to get the hell out.  Because the Australian government sees no real reason to put in for the long haul: ultimately, terrorism is seen as an intelligence and law enforcement problem.  It misunderstands the problem, and so an operational—or even tactical—approach is substitutes for a strategic approach.

We need a clear strategic-level statements addressing three, inter-related elements:

  • how Afghanistan fits into our broader concerns on global terror;

The September 11 attacks heralded a new phenomenon—globalised terrorism and insurgency.  Al Qaeda was the first to take advantage of globalised access to technology, an increased freedom of movement and shortened supply chains, a pool of recruits, and poor governance—it will not be the last.  For traditional-minded, established militaries and bureaucracies, this point is the hardest to understand.

Focusing on Afghanistan alone and to the exclusion of others—and especially a small area in Oruzgun—is short-sighted, not simply because because there are many places that such groups could exploit, but because of the interconnectedness of groups, technologies, societies, and finance, amongst others.  Certainly, simply one-off training of a bunch of soldiers and police doesn’t address this problem: the problem concerns structural differences.

Still, for the moment, Afghanistan remains reasonably central to the global insurgency.  The difficulty for the West will be that once it looks—recalling perceptions are important in this struggle, and there will not be a clear unambiguous ‘truth’—as though the West is gaining the upper hand, the adversary is likely to shift both ground and approach.  And, unless we understand the nature of the changes, and are prepared to adapt, we will be caught flatfooted—and stuck where the fight is no longer.

  • how our efforts contribute to the Alliance relationship;

The Alliance remains key to Australia’s security, and its is important we contribute to those issues of deepest concern to the United States in upholding, enhancing and protecting global security, global norms and the freedom of the global commons.  Because, oddly enough, we share those interests.  We cannot uphold them ourselves alone, so it makes sense we help the United States do so.  To simply say we’re in Afghanistan to ‘wave the flag’ or because the Americans wants Australia there is niggardly, if not downright disingenuous; it certainly detracts from a mature relationship.

  • why it is important for Western liberal, capitalist democracies to ensure stability and the development of something other than a demonstrably, and potentially dangerous, failed state.

This point is the most nebulous, but it matters on an number of levels: credibility for the notion of state building, or at least remediation; the denial of state control, if not containment, by a group—and in the future, groups—determined to repudiate accepted global norms; and the ability of the West to act together, cohesively, towards mutual strategic interests.

This is also the bit that matters because it helps us understand how we—the international community—could manage and exit from Afghanistan.  It is unlikely that the West can exit from Afghanistan for some time, certainly not without the risk of the re-emergence of its status as host.  But we cannot afford to be tied down in Afghanistan: we need to manage Afghanistan yet retain freedom of action.

The West needs a strategic approach, not an operational approach in which we figure the best way to handle Afghanistan alone, nor a tactical one that focuses on getting out of Oruzgan.  For Australia, it may mean more troops then are there now, more civilians and a smarter shape to the Afghanistan deployment and a readiness to direct armed capability elsewhere as needed.


Jones, S. G. (2008). Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, RAND.

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.

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.

Defence is making a lot of effort to explain itself.  A few weeks ago, there was the White Paper, plus no less than 83 (!) separate press releases.  

Then we had the Budget, which as Mark Thompson points out, didn’t shed much light on anything at all, really. 

In the wake of the White Paper and Budget, a 20-page booklet (pdf) appeared, explaining what the White Paper actually meant—it wasn’t clear the first time around, and the booklet counters a some critiques by analysts. 

And now there’s a 34-page booklet—The Strategic Reform Program (pdf)—explaining Defence’s savings aspirations—needed to pay for the kit in the White Paper. 

It’s a bit like watching a game of Pong. 

A good editor would have helped Defence immensely, potentially saving time and a forest or two of paper.  Say what you will about the 1987 White Paper—and I certainly think it’s wrong—but at least it presented a single, coherent argument.

So why the flurry of material? One almost may think it was deliberate attempt to recreate reality:

“Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date. In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct; nor was any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record. All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.”  George Orwell, 1984

In a less dystopian frame of mind, there’s Brendan Sargeant’s paper on what he refers to as imagination in Defence.

A former head of strategic policy in Defence, Sargeant’s core idea is that in Defence strategy-making and policy formulation often have little to do with strategic realities, but reflect more with a self-reinforcing and mutually shared construct, which in turn references other myths in the wider Australian community. 

What passes for strategic policy reflects a closing of the imagination of the defence community, a collapse of possible futures into one, a means of socialisation that selects conformity and casts out difference.

AGENT SMITH: Have you ever stood and stared at it, Morpheus?  Marveled at its beauty.  Its genius.  Billions of people just living out their lives…oblivious.

Sargeant argues, too, that the resilience of the 1987 DoA doctrine lies at least partially in its reference to national myths—the outback, the sea, and, I would suggest, a fear of abandonment.  The same can be seen in the most recent expression of Australian strategic policy, with its strong DoA elements.

Together the White Paper, the Budget and the yet-to-be-released Defence Capability Program (DCP) will form a self-referential trinity: the White Paper fits budgetary constraints that shape the DCP that is justified by the White Paper.  The Strategic Reform Program represents an eight-fold path, while the booklet provides Defence staff their credo.

But the key problem will remain: WP2009 and its associated material offer an internally focussed solution—in terms of strategy, force structure and organisation—looking for an external reality-grounded problem.


Department of Defence (2009). Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030. Canberra.

Department of Defence (2009). Defence White Paper – Booklet. Canberra.

Department of Defence (2009). The Strategic Reform Program. Canberra.

Sargeant, B. (2006). “Burning Bright: Defence Policy, Strategy and the Imagination.” Australian Army Journal 3(3): 67-86.

Thompson, M. (2009). The Cost of Defence: ASPI Defence Budget Brief 2009-2010, Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

There is something a tad worrying about this:

Senator Faulkner said he had spoken to his good mates, the former Labor defence ministers, Robert Ray and Kim Beazley, about the new job.

He said he rang Mr Ray for a chat and Mr Beazley rang him, five times.

So, some thoughts on the resignation of the Defence minister.

First and foremost, ministers depend on loyal, competent staff. 

Political advisers are needed to protect the minister from the internecine warfare between factions and white-anting by ambitious colleagues. 

Media advisers are needed to protect the minister from gossip and stories that, if they take hold, can create images that are hard to dispel. 

Policy advisers are needed to ensure the minister makes sound decisions and manages his portfolio responsibly, and that the department delivers sound policy advice and implements decisions as directed.  The latter is particularly important in Defence, given the way Defence is run by government in Australia.  Those policy advisers should be civilians who are knowledgeable and credible on Defence matters, with the good policy nous and experience needed to exercise sound judgment. 

With good staffers, a poor minister can manage to get by, while poor staffers can be the undoing of good ministers.  And the minister has to be able to trust his advisers: it’s fairly clear that was not the case here:

“I have at least two or three Judas’ in my midst, and they have the drip [sic] on me,” he said.

“Sadly, I’m not able to rule out my own ministerial office.”

But Defence demands more than simple trust between staff and minister, hard though that may be to achieve.  

Defence is hard.  Ministers have to be capable intellectually of getting across a broad, complex and difficult portfolio.  They have to be able to absorb and process a huge amount of diverse material addressing complex policy problems.  They have to understand and drive the the strategic and yet handle detail.  They have to exercise good judgment in time of crisis, and have the determination and insight to question the advice they receive.

Ministers have to be tough and willing to hang civilian and military officers out to dry, if need be.  And because of that, they must have the complete confidence and support of the Prime Minister.  While I’ve no doubt that Joel Fitzgibbon is an affable chap, the Defence minister must be more than a good bloke.  

Too often ministers are captured by the department, and in particular by the military.  The military are not backwards in ensuring the new minister gets to experience all the good things about capability–the thrills of fighter aircraft, the brute strength of tanks and the romance of ships.

And too often ministers are confounded by the inertia, bureaucracy and indifference of Defence, both civilian and military.

Like finding a good Defence secretary, finding a good minister is hard.  It should not be their first portfolio, and possibly not even their first Cabinet portfolio.  Smart, capable candidates know Defence is complex, intransigent and almost certainly a career-ending poisoned chalice. 

The danger then is that the prospects who want or are available for the job are quite likely wrong for the task at hand—but often desperation means that such choices are accepted.  We need a Robert Gates.  But even then, there is the argument that Defence–and I do not mean simply the organisation, but how we think about and govern Defence–is so broken that it does not matter how brilliant the minister, they will fail.  It should not be so, of course, but that’s a topic for a later post.

The effort needed to change the Australia defence organisation—whether in pursuit of policy adjustments or in order to find $20b in savings—should not be under-estimated.  Experience from both public and private sectors is that organisations have to make a substantial investment in order to achieve, and obtain the benefits from, change. 

And Defence has particular challenges typically not articulated in organisational assessments or change strategies.

First, there’s the inertia of history and of accepted norms, as well as the usual political, institutional, and bureaucratic resistance to uncertainty, novelty and change.  I speculated earlier about competition of organisational forms.  If nothing else bureaucracies are dogged competitors determined to ensure their ongoing existence.

Second, there’s the sunk costs in the form of large, often Cold War-era platforms, plus the manning and skills needed to operate support them.  Force structure and procurement have become prisoners of tradition, impeding innovation, generating a disconnect between old configurations and new systems and so adding to the spiralling costs of capability (Luttwak 2007).   

But that’s not the only dynamic. Over time, systems—whether cars, submarines, or pay systems—experience ‘structural deepening’ (Arthur 1993).  They become increasingly more sophisticated and complex, requiring ever increasing maintenance and specialisation, further entrenching both costs and special interests.

Third, there’s the inexorable pull of business as usual, or BAU.  The constant press of events, the increasingly fragmented nature of work (Mark, Gonzalez et al. 2005), combined with the news cycle and 24-hour media has led to an attention deficit disorder.  Policy-makers and managers find it hard to pay sufficient attention to the slow, the distant and the unlikely—and the sustained focus needed for successful change management.

Read the rest of this entry »

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.

The following statement is remarkable:

“There is not a murmur of dissent, I said to that collective group of defence leaders that they needed to sell this message, they needed to get on board or get out,” he said. (ABC 2009)

Frankly, given that ultimatum, it would be indeed surprising were there any murmuring of dissent at all.  Still, to be fair, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a Defence Department in need of a submarine or twelve, and new pay system, must also be in want of reform*.  

I can understand the frustration of ministers and senior leaders trying to change a bureaucracy such as Defence.  Bureaucracies have inherently high levels of inertia: in a bureaucracy, constancy, certainty and sameness are prized qualities.  

Read the rest of this entry »

August 2020