Admiral Prune: Defending Australia Part 4 of 4: People and Process

Apr 9, 2022
Australian defence force cadet
A significant growth in ADF numbers is overdue. They shed 13,000 uniformed people between 1985 and 1995. Image: Flickr / Grahame

After thirty years of hand wringing about our deteriorating strategic circumstances, Australians have a right to know from the new government how it will fix Australia’s military weakness, without waiting decades. They must start with “The System”.

In Part 1 we examined the government’s defence policy objectives and proposed what we consider would be a sensible military strategy to achieve them. In Part 2 we argued that today’s ADF and the force in prospect will not deliver the strategy. In Part 3, we suggested what the ADF should look like, with a focus on hardware and industry. We noted that government will have to spend more and spend more wisely.

The sort of Defence we propose will require many more people – another part of our defences that we have got badly wrong.


On 10 March the Prime Minister and Minister for Defence announced plans to increase the number of ADF personnel “by around 30 per cent by 2040, taking the total permanent ADF to almost 80,000 personnel”. Depending on how you do the arithmetic, that puts today’s strength at about 60,000.

Other sources put it as high as 72,000, showing Navy at 16,000, Army 40,000 and Air Force 16,000. These counts might include Reserves serving full time, of which there are many. With the ADF employing large numbers of Reserves already, one wonders what sort of reserve force we really have. We have not examined that question but it warrants a closer look.

A significant growth in ADF numbers is overdue. The ADF shed 13,000 uniformed people between 1985 and 1995, following an extensive commercial outsourcing program, the Defence Efficiency Review and the Defence Reform Program that followed it. These cost-saving measures famously gave us Defence’s broken backbone, according to then Defence Secretary Nick Warner, in 2008. We agree with him, although it’s worse than he realised.

Australia’s defence needs have grown as the strategic environment has become more threatening. Also, since that large downsizing, our population and GDP per capita have grown substantially.  Australia needs a much larger military than we have and we can afford it. But we face a massive catch up.

The additional people announced by the government will barely cover existing shortfalls that are preventing the three Services from properly staffing what they have, and we need them well before 2040. For example, currently Navy does not have enough people to fully crew all the ships of our modest fleet. Frigates remain un-crewed and parked on the hard stand in Henderson, sometimes for years, reportedly being upgraded. If Navy fully crewed the fleet, it would not be able to do all the other things required to sustain itself. We must remember that the three Services are their own providers of almost all the specialist training they need. No one else trains combat ready pilots, submarine captains, chief engineers, or battalion commanders. The Services have also sustained a high operational tempo since the Kuwait War. There is very little ‘fat’, that essential extra depth that provides resilience against shocks, such as a recruiting slump, or high separation rates, both of which are being experienced today. Or, in the worst case, large numbers of combat losses.

All three Services have been part of an ADF involved in Australia’s longest war in history as well as many other, non-warlike operations. But the nation at large was not on a war footing. For evidence of the damage to ADF people, of whom too much has been asked of too few for too long, one needs only look at veteran suicides and the separation rates.

Defence is a technology intensive enterprise. Specialist skills and experience are essential, and they take time to acquire. The days of turning out, in under a year, competent versions of even the most junior and unskilled sailors, soldiers, airmen and women, ready to fight are long gone.

The forces proposed in Part 3 will require many more people in the Navy and Air Force than government is proposing. What we propose has implications for the role of the Army too, which we have not discussed. We may not have 18 years to wait, as the government’s plan proposes, to fill the existing hollow logs.

The Public Service component of Defence is just as important. They have been subjected to endless reviews and efficiency dividends, as the most recent review, the 2014 First Principles Review of Defence, pointed out. That same review cut thousands of people from the acquisition organisation, leaving it ravaged and desperately short of the skills and resources required to do the massive job asked of it. Engineering and project management expertise are in particularly high demand and short supply. Like industry, Defence’s Public Servants are a fundamental input to Defence capability. They always have been.

How did we get here?

There are many factors that have contributed to this situation. Constant reviews and organisational changes, a very high rate of ‘churn’ in Defence’s people, and budget cuts during the global financial crisis all figure. But there are embedded structural issues as well. Long-term participants and spectators, like us, also see entrenched, contributory patterns of sub-optimal behaviour.

One pattern is that we replace what we have with new versions of the same thing, often in smaller numbers. In part, this is because we are committed to the Balanced Force concept, which flows from a military strategy that seeks to be “all things to all people”. And each Service must have “its turn”.

This is “The System”, that has delivered Australia’s defence capability today. “The System” is an inflexible sequence of decision making by ever more senior people in committees with little or no specialist knowledge that are fed a dense forest of complex technical paperwork in a volume beyond the capacity of anyone to master.

We mentioned earlier the cuts to the acquisition organisation. The intent may have been to get those people doing things differently and perhaps also doing different things, but that’s not what has happened. The overall number of people has hardly changed because the public servants that were shed have been replaced with contractors and consultants. Is that more cost effective? Probably not.

One example is that some 35 per cent of the staff in the Future Frigate Project Office today are contractors or consultants. Another example is that Defence had a larger project staff overseeing the Future Submarine Program than the project management staff of the company contracted to deliver it.

It is wise not to assume that contractors and consultants have the experience and expertise to make up for Defence’s own shortcomings.  For complex acquisition projects like frigates and submarines, if project staffs and leadership do not have the necessary skills and experience, big things will likely go wrong.

Take the Hunter class frigate program, where Defence’s own engineering review recently reported serious problems that were predicted but ignored or not understood. Then there is the contract for the re-design of a ship whose UK owners were still designing it, but which Defence said was a mature design. The $6.27 billion for that contract is much more than we should pay. Public statements suggest the UK is paying a more reasonable $2.5 billion.

“The System” seems also to have lost the corporate memory to recall that combat hardware sourced from the UK and Europe has not often been well-suited to Australian conditions, going back as far as World War II. The most recent manifestation is Army’s European helicopters, which are being retired prematurely and replaced with American equivalents. Changing ships and submarines is much harder, but even changing aircraft isn’t cheap. Yes, it is much more expensive to do things twice than doing them right the first time.

The Defence process is risk averse and adversarial and the people are driven to a short-term focus. But they end up selecting some of the most high risk and expensive platforms and systems on offer. Sight has been lost of the basic purchaser-provider model and the important boundaries between those two roles. This is a cultural issue, in part a result of powerful lawyers in so-called commercial roles who over-ride the people who must manage and execute the projects. Between the process red tape, Defence’s matrix organization, layers of committees and the lawyers, “The System” has become sclerotic and process driven, with diffuse, collective accountability. A proper focus on good and timely outcomes is sorely wanting.

Responsibility for decisions causing today’s problems lies with Ministers to be sure but they tend to act on advice if they trust it. Defence leadership carries that obligation – but who exactly? Even with “One Defence”, that is anything but clear. If it isn’t clear who is responsible and can be held accountable; probably no one is.

It’s “The System” and it’s working perfectly. The problem is, it regularly fails to produce what Australia really needs.

(I rarely post nom de plume articles but I do so in this case because there is an unfortunate record in the Defence establishment of reprisals against those who challenge its policies. I have confidence in the people who know ‘Admiral Prune’ well. They regard him highly and recommended him to me. John Menadue)


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