As printed in The Australian newspaper, 13 February 2023
The old saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but hoping for a different result is pretty apt when it comes to Australia’s defence.
The latest Defence Strategic Review is due shortly, one of more than fifty over the last fifty years. Almost certainly it will talk about tanks (or the planned lack of), planes, and submarines, and there will be great debate. But strategy is nothing without execution – and I fear the review will miss the elephant in the room: that the Defence organisation simply cannot execute well – particularly procurement – the essential acquisition of capability.
The biggest fundamental challenge for Australia’s Defence servicemen and women on the frontline isn’t which missiles, fighter jets or tanks we acquire, it is the Defence department itself.
We are falling short of building an organisation where people are encouraged to lead, make mistakes as they learn, challenge outdated thinking and pursue new creative initiatives.
Steeped in bureaucracy, the Department doesn’t know how to break free from the quagmire in which they find themselves. One that has been built over decades. More than a strategic review is needed. The military is operationally amongst the best. But corporately? Defence is complacent, meandering, bloated, resistant, dogmatic, unsuccessful but always with a reason why it’s not its fault. With all the behaviours and arrogance of a monopsony (one buyer) comfortable and supportive of an industry oligarchy.
A strategic capability review is one thing but the organisation needs a shakeup, not the usual deck chair shuffle. We owe it to the soldiers, sailors, aviators on the front line – and the rest of the country the Defence organisation serves.
The department is a closed shop, taking the same advice from the same people. Defence needs disruption, to breed a culture of collaboration that opens new pathways to work with the private sector. It needs a rethink and a reset, quickly, and it has proved unable to do this itself. It needs disruption if it is to be disruptive.
A recent review of the Major Service Provider Arrangements, made public last week under Freedom of information laws and despite being heavily redacted, offers a candid glimpse of this closed shop; billions spent with only four companies, locking all others out. It’s not that the companies are bad companies, but they can’t possibly be the only ones with good ideas. This is stifling an industry.
The report went on to note the Defence procurement organisation only wished to use contractors who have Defence experience, concluding: “This is contributing to a narrowing of the accessible workforce and
negating the potential benefits of accessing experience and innovation gained in non-Defence industries.”
Out of necessity, Ukraine found a path to engage the brains of the nation and crowd source innovation. They have adapted, implemented, and accepted that solutions may not be perfect in order to have it now. It is inspirational and instructive.
In Australia we are encumbered by plodding processes, compliance, and an abundance of caution, not capability in the hands of the user; obscuration and ease above effective, timely capability delivery.
We need the department to become more entrepreneurial in spirit. We need to embrace failure, learn from it and try new ideas. The department needs to be open to working with both traditional and non-traditional suppliers. We need to couple activity and delivery with the capability requirement and the user.
In Ukraine they measure their success by their ability to use technology operationally, not by the beauty of the process. If it doesn’t work, they adapt, tweak, or find something better. They move first, they move fast and they don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.
If you want something different you have to do something different. It is a lesson we in Australia need to learn.
For information, we have included access to the MSP documents released under FOI. These documents were not sought by us, made they have been made available.