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Defence procurement decision-making - the need for wider political debate

By Luke Auton - posted Thursday, 26 August 2004

The defence procurement process in Australia has received an unprecedented level of public attention over the past two years. The reasons for this are clear enough. Several procurement projects have suffered from extensive cost over-runs, whilst the in-service dates for a number of capital equipment purchases have been pushed back by a considerable length of time.

It could be argued that there is nothing too out of the ordinary about that. The acquisition and integration of advanced military technology seldom runs smoothly. The problem is that there has unquestionably been a widespread mismanagement of departmental resources, and what might best be described as the re-emergence of a culture that promotes self-interest amongst each of the services. There are, in short, serious structural faults now plaguing the procurement process.

All this raises questions about the capacity of defence officials when it comes to handling acquisition in the future. After all, the forecasted cost and complexity of some of the projects already being undertaken (or at least assessed) in Australia are set to dwarf those of the previous 40 years. Much of the resulting public attention has been focussed on finding a way to improve the managerial side of the procurement process. The key point that has been too readily overlooked by commentators, however, is that this process is hampered from the start due to poor decision-making practices. This goes far beyond intra-service machinations. It is in fact a lack of strategic direction that is the fault.


Perhaps the recently released Defence Capability Plan (DCP) provides the best starting point for assessing this current lack of direction. The DCP incorporates a number of important assumptions about the future of warfare and the nature of operations in which Australian forces will become engaged. The plan reflects previous pronouncements on Network Centric Warfare (NCW) by referring heavily to the significance of interoperability to the Australian Defence Force (ADF). As the Future Warfighting Concept paper released last year makes clear, the development of NCW technology provides the necessary framework for the adoption of “multidimensional manoeuvre” across the three services. The basis of manoeuvre warfare, which constitutes the war-fighting doctrine of the ADF, is the application of technology to enable the rapid concentration of strength through the employment of joint forces. This echoes the “transformation warfare” planning currently being honed by the US military, the focus of which is the tailoring of force structure to joint operations, coupled with an increasing emphasis on asymmetric warfare.

The parallels, of course, are in no way coincidental. The primary objective that has been incorporated into the development of the “multidimensional manoeuvre” warfare doctrine is an increased degree of interoperability with the forces of likely allied countries – particularly the US. This is to be achieved not only through the pursuit of a similar doctrine, but also through the adoption of more tangible variables such as logistical systems and hardware. The important thing to note is that coalition warfare, along with the attendant prospect of expeditionary conflict, is now a key element in long-term ADF planning. This represents a significant departure from the “defence-in-depth” approach of the past three decades.

Despite this the fundamental principle underpinning national security remains the defence of the air/sea gap, combined with the ability to conduct counter-offensive action against any power that seeks to attack Australia. The fact is that this principle is largely incompatible with current strategic thinking. After all, the requirements of a force effectively tailored to tactical coalition warfare are markedly different to those patterned on continental defence and the protection of maritime approaches. It is a failure to reconcile this issue that has led to what is effectively a diminution (as evidenced by the decision outlined in the DCP to retire the F-111 bomber far earlier than expected) in Australia’s ability to carry out high-level strategic operations.

Whilst there are financial and technical concerns that should be taken into account, the increased tempo of conventional weapons proliferation in the region brings into question the wisdom of allowing any decline in the offensive capacity of the ADF. There clearly exists a requirement to find a more sustainable balance between Australia’s strike capabilities and those needed for future coalition campaigns. Such a requirement exists not only because current strategic thinking on expeditionary warfare is so out of step with key defence priorities, it exists because of an obvious mismatch between current strategic thinking and ADF doctrine.

The manoeuvre approach, regardless of what defence officials have been inclined to believe, is in all reality incongruous with the principles of coalition warfare. Despite its purported value in facilitating allied interoperability, the “totality” of multidimensional manoeuvre is inevitably reduced by wider coalition requirements. The problem for the ADF is that through necessity they will become increasingly keyed into “niche” roles aimed at supporting offensive operations conducted by senior coalition partners (as was the case in Iraq), which will undoubtedly have a detrimental impact on defence decision-making in the future.

The linkages between national strategy, doctrine and force structure therefore need to be redefined in order to avoid many of the pit falls now facing procurement policy in Australia. Whilst it is the case that steps are already being taken in this direction (as recommended in the Defence Procurement Review 2003) there continues to exist a requirement for recasting the wider political debate on strategy in Australia. There have been too many mixed messages recently on where Australian strategic priorities should lie, and on what form ADF capabilities should take in the future. Only when a more coherent line is taken on this issue, can the wider defence establishment be expected to develop a consistent and reasoned approach to capability-based procurement decision-making. This will in turn make the management of resources an eminently easier task.

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About the Author

Luke Auton teaches strategic studies at the Australian National University. He is currently a PhD candidate in military and diplomatic history at the Australian Defence Force Academy

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