Wednesday 08 Apr 2020 | 23:19 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 08 Apr 2020 | 23:19 | SYDNEY

How not to do defence planning (part 2)

16 February 2009 13:44

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

Reader Chris Skinner challenged me to offer some ideas on defence planning. I took up the challenge in three parts; this is part two, in which I will offer some suggestions about what to do to improve the process.

In part one I suggested that a popular error in considering defence planning is to assume the process is an honest attempt to reach clarity and consensus to produce capability that works, and that the uninitiated often fail in the popular debate because they mix contingency planning, specific scenarios, long term defence planning and hope. All of these can then easily be confused by bureaucratic argument.

I postulated that the only determinant of defence planning, apart from being able to offer realistic options to government for current wars, is to gain the maximum flexibility in capability within the budget allocated. This is important because of an obvious failure to predict the future (just look at Defence 2000) and the overwhelming importance of funding in the process.

I look forward to the PhD student who takes the last forty years of Defence White Papers and analyses what they achieved in terms of producing real capability. I do not hold a brief for larger or smaller defence budgets. I am, however, concerned that the defence capability that our society buys gives us some real and usable value.

From my observation, we have consistently failed to meet our own strategic guidance over the last 40 years. This is difficult to prove because strategic guidance is so vague in its wording that you can take any meaning that you want from it. Imprecision does not help to turn words into capability, and makes it almost impossible to assess what was achieved.

Take for example, Defence 2000. Begin at para 8.9, on land forces, and read until para 8.36. As you read it, remember what has happened to Army in that period, what capability actually existed, how it changed, and the problems Army is still having in providing options to government for Afghanistan.

One of the greatest problems that we strike with defence planning is the link between the top level (our strategy or strategic guidance) and the bottom level (call it 'tactical') where capability is produced and used. Defence planning is a process, but a process and its product (the written word) is not usable to achieve security. What achieves defence is actual capability produced (not just materiel purchased) which is usable for the task.

Often the political and bureaucratic process thinks its job is completed when it produces an eye-pleasing White Paper and allocates certain funds only vaguely linked to capability. Its attention is brought back to defence if there is an embarrassing failure (SeaSprite) or it wants to do something military and it cannot (Afghanistan). But the feedback loop is normally non-existent.

I do not believe that the process of White Papers can be changed or will be changed in the foreseeable future. In the absence of traditional threats, the establishment has no incentive to be any more precise. What I would impose over the top of the current system is the necessary link between the strategy and the doing.

I would require the production of what I call an 'operational concept' (others may have a better name). An operational concept explains what the forces can actually do (and how they can do it) in certain circumstances. At the moment, the elements of Defence that need guidance interpret the vagaries of our policy to suit their own needs. Not only does this produce a disjointed force, but those who could have produced more specific guidance, if they had the courage, then complain about vested interests and inter-service rivalry.

Regardless of the imperfect method of arriving at a force structure, what is critical is to know what precisely the ADF can actually do as a result of that policy, now and in the future. Knowing how many battalions or ships or planes is certainly interesting, but knowing what the ADF can do as a joint force is what is important. If the White Paper requires the land force to 'respond swiftly and effectively to any credible armed lodgement on Australian territory and provide forces for more likely types of operations in our immediate neighbourhood' (para 8.10, Defence 2000), what does this really mean?

If a similar style of requirement is in the next White Paper, the questions I would demand the defence establishment and the Minister be required to answer would be:

  • What kind of a balanced joint force could be produced from the ADF and other elements of our society in what time periods, over what distances, against what generic threat and with what concurrent activities, if this White Paper was actually implemented?
  • Is this force capable of conducting effective modern operations, and if so, against what kind of generic enemy?
  • Can such a force be sustained and for what period of time?
  • What can the force do now, and what can it do in various time periods out into the future?
  • How can this force adapt to the unknown?
  • Where, specifically, are the risks?

To claim that this could not be produced for security reasons is rubbish – I could just about do it now for the US military, with a bit of research I could do it for the UK military, and I have actually done it for the Australian military in a too-highly classified document. The reason it is not being produced now is to avoid the political and bureaucratic embarrassment of failing to meet our own guidance, or revealing the real assumptions that lie behind the policy.

What this suggested approach does is increase public accountability. I do not care what kind of bizarre bureaucratic and political process is used to get to a policy, as long as that policy produces capability that can be used in some way. But at this stage, we do not know if the capability can be used, or more importantly, what it cannot be used for.

We are currently expected to be satisfied by the knowledge that a ship will be purchased, that a battalion (whatever that is) will be formed, or that a group of planes will be acquired. Then we are expected to be even more satisfied when a White Paper uses words such as swiftly, effectively, credible, rapid, professional, well trained, flexibility, balance, short notice, wider range, combat weight, etc.

By linking the strategic policy with the tactical reality, we the punters have a chance of knowing exactly how much security we are buying, and how to democratically judge the government that is buying it. For that reason alone it is unlikely.

Photo by Flickr user play4smee, used under a Creative Commons license.