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Reader riposte: Strategy or risk management?

21 May 2012 09:20

Peter Layton writes:

Jim Molan makes some interesting points in his protracted debate with Hugh White concerning finding the strategic rationale behind Australia acquiring the two new large amphibious vessels. In this there are two matters of relevance, albeit a trifle historical and perhaps pedantic.

Firstly, Jim implies that the 1990s defense strategy had no linking operational concepts that joined strategy to capability decisions. Actually there were several Opconcept documents that did do just as he described. And yes, they did play a crucial role in guiding, justifying and explaining the capability development decisions of the day. He is right that such concepts are needed but perhaps missed that they were there, albeit they may not have led to the capability development decisions he sought. He was maybe thinking of other scenarios than the defence of Australia that would have better supported more desired force structures.

Today there still remain official Opconcepts fulfilling the function Jim identified. The rather useful if rarely read Australian Strategic Framework 2010 notes on p. 23 that: 'As the White Paper and DCP describe the ends and means for military activity respectively, the Future Joint Operating Concept (FJOC), environmental and joint enabling concepts (FMOC, FLOC and FASOC), describe the generic ways the ADF will operate...' So Defence has a construct it believes links strategy to means. Defence believes it has Jim's 'linking mechanism.' It is a separate debate about whether these concepts are correct or sufficient in some normative sense.

Secondly, this blog debate illuminates a bigger issue. The 2000 and 2009 Defence White Papers are not truly strategies in the oft-used Art Lykke construct of ends, ways, and means where 'ends' are the strategic objectives, 'ways' the courses of action and 'means' the resources.

Both White Papers are explicit in stating that they are built upon a risk management approach. Risk management is not strategy in the sense of ends, ways, and means. Strategy seeks to use means to achieve a defined end; it is end-centred in that sense. Risk management is the reverse; it seeks to build up means that may, or may not, be used for an as yet undetermined end.

Risk management is means-centred. In strategy, the ends come before the means; in risk management the means come before the ends.

Jim and Hugh's blog discussions nicely illustrate this disconnect. Jim's focus is on endeavouring to link the LHD purchase to some strategic objective. The means are thus in search of a justifying end. Hugh on the other hand has some strategic objective in mind that the LHDs as means do not meet. In this case though, ends and means are not linked because a risk management approach is instead being used.

So maybe in trying to create some 'after the fact' strategic rationale for buying LHDs it might be better to ruminate on the utility of these great warships to risk management, as it is under such an approach that these vessels seem to have been acquired.