Averting Australia's defence force demise

Australia's military faces seven major risks, five of which are already full-blown problems. This is beyond politics and demands a bipartisan solution now.

The Australia Defence Department’s 2012-17 corporate plan should make every Australian shiver. It is clear that the warnings of former senior military officers have been ignored and the dramatic events of the last half-decade have not sunk in to the defence chiefs who are still living in the world of ‘make believe’.

And you can tell that by looking at the seven risks the defence chiefs have isolated. Five of them are not risks at all – they are entrenched problems having well and truly happened. A corporate board would describe them as events that need to be managed or problems that need to be overcome. When adverse events have taken place they are no longer risks.

In this analysis of the seven risks, I am grateful to Peter Goon and Carlo Kopp of the defence think tank Air Power Australia for their a input. This analysis is also informed by the efforts of all who worked and contributed to the recently published Senate Committee report on defence, including the words of Senator David Fawcett from South Australia.

So let’s go through the five risks that are not risks at all because they have actually happened:

Risk one

The Joint Force-in-Being is unable to meet expected Government tasking, due to ineffective advice and/or misalignment of planning with Government priorities, leading to loss of trust and confidence and an inability to meet national strategic priorities.

A series of defence equipment failures including Super Seasprite helicopters, Wedgetail AEW&C, and Collins Class submarine, to name but a few, have led to a "loss of confidence and trust”. And the Joint Strike Fighter debacle is the biggest mistake of all because it means we will no longer be able to match the countries to our north in the air.

Risk two

The investment program is not sufficient to deliver the force and organisation envisaged under the Defence White Paper

The defence department has not spent money wisely and it is well documented that there has been extensive waste. There has now been massive expenditure cuts by the government. There is no way that defence can deliver the force and organisation envisaged under the defence white paper. The 2012-17 plans should have set out how it would manage the cuts rather than state that they were a risk.

Risk three

The workforce does not have the required skills, numbers and commitment to meet capability and institutional needs

The defence department has been de-skilling for many years and this has been well documented. The fact that defence does not have the skills is clearly a major problem. It’s not a risk

Risk four

Defence is unable to manage its costs, leading to the need to seek further supplementation from government or a significant diminishment of the Defence mission

This so called ‘risk’ is a good description of what has taken place over the last decade. Again it’s a serious problem and not a risk.

Risk Five

Non-compliance with legal and other obligations, which leads to prosecution, other sanctions and reputation losses.

I can’t imagine what the defence department chiefs have been doing over the last couple of years as scandal after scandal, inquiry after inquiry has been hitting the headlines. The chiefs now have a very angry minster that has made it clear that his department has suffered reputational loss

(I will not detail the two risks that are genuine risks rather than a description of events that have already happened and are now real and present problem).

I must emphasise that this does not simply represent an attack in the Gillard government. This is a problem that goes back to the Howard years. But the Gillard government has been unable to fix the problem. The ultimate result of bad management is the Joint Strike Fighter which cannot match its Russian/ Indian or Chinese rivals. The American defence chiefs are not much better and we should be working with them to overcome the JSF problem instead pretending it does not exist.

But with defence papers like the latest 2012-17 plan it is clear we are still in the land of ‘make believe’. This is an issue that is too important for a mutual blame game. It should be handled in a bipartisan way by both parties and action should be taken before the election.

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