Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 01:20 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 01:20 | SYDNEY

Defence: How not to improve policy contestability

4 February 2010 09:42

Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan is author of Running the War in Iraq.

Andrew Davies, author of a recent ASPI paper on re-establishing contestability in Defence, may have lots of very good ideas. The re-establishment of internal contestability mechanisms that look like the long-disbanded Force Development and Analysis (FDA) staff division in Defence HQ is not one of his better ones. Neil James of the Australian Defence Association gives a good assessment of the idea in the ADA's Defence Brief No 140.

It would be hard to claim that there has been a marked decline in Defence efficacy between the periods when FDA had influence up to the late 1990s and then after its demise. There must, then, be other problems in Defence, so a simplistic advance into an FDA past may not be the answer.

Andrew quotes a 1987 RAND study about the cultures, values and priorities of the three US Services to explain what he thinks is the problem with Defence force structuring. He says the Service cultures are so strong and entrenched that a body outside these cultures is needed to contest their claims.

For example, Andrew says you need to understand the army culture to understand why armies want tanks and artillery (I thought you would also need to understand the nature of combat). Each part of the RAND study has an element of truth but it is a shame Andrew did not list the fourth relevant culture in Defence force structuring, the civilian defence bureaucrat.

The predominantly civilian bureaucratic culture that I perceived in FDA was just as strange as the three Service cultures that Andrew refers to and has as many generalisations. It was characterised by:

  • An assumption that civilian intellect would always triumph over military experience.
  • A belief that air and maritime tactics were so simple that anyone could understand them and land tactics so bizarre that they were not even worth addressing.
  • An inability to understand that strategy is based on sound tactics and sound tactics is based on ideas, people, equipment and training.
  • The belief that the end product of the department is the written word to the minister rather than usable military capability.
  • A childlike fascination for simplistic military history leading to a belief that there are simple answers to complex problems.
  • And finally, a cavalier attitude to the creation of effective military capability based on the fact that to many members of FDA, it was all just a clever bureaucratic game.

Of course, contestability of advice is required, and it should be both a uniformed and civilian function. But why should we focus only on an FDA style of contestability? To solve Defence's problems, I would look just as closely at strengthening the joint commanders at the expense of the Services, accountability of leadership, or alignment and consistency of strategies, to mention just a few.

Photo courtesy of the Department of Defence.