Saturday, March 5, 2011


If five of our submarines were sunk, leaving us exposed, it would be a disaster. If our entire amphibious fleet was destroyed, we would demand vengance from the power that dismantled the capability.

When it happens in peace-time - we just shrug.

Is no one to be held accountable for the crisis in our military?


It's impolite to talk about anyone behind their back or, by extension, after they’ve retired and can’t fire back.  Angus Houston still has another three months before his second contract as Chief of the Defence Force expires, so that’s why this is probably as good a time as any to deliver an interim verdict on the six years that he’s been in the top job. And what a time it has been.

Houston took over as Chief of the Air Force in mid-2001, before his final promotion in 2005 to head the entire military as four-star chief air marshal. This was renewed in 2008. Six years – enough time to really shape the forces. Only 18 people have held the top job since it was created in the late ‘50’s, and just three have been pilots. There can be no doubt that Houston is extraordinarily capable. The story is that last year his wife informed him that he'd been Chief for long enough. But the reality is that another extension was never a real possibility. Particularly now.

His fitness for the job doesn’t raise the lingering question-mark. Even today, after prostrate surgery last year, Houston still begins his day well before dawn with a long km cycle. Then he’ll work until 10 PM, is on call for emergencies all night, and yet remains unfailingly courteous and polite. There are no stories of petty temper-tantrums, or of the Chief losing his cool. It's necessary to work hard to get people to volunteer criticism: if there is one, it's simply that he's ambitious and seems to prefer others who think in similar ways. Then again, that might just be the sour-grapes of those who are passed over talking, because no one's got any real criticism of the way he's performed the job of the past six years.

And yet, and yet . . .

There’s still a great deal left to disturb this glowing analysis and it seems fair to ask what condition he leaves the forces in? It's not good. In fact, its utterly disastrous.

There have been extended occasions during the past two years when the Navy could only put one of its six submarines to sea. The three vessels of the amphibious fleet are currently laid-up, riddled with corrosion. We have no way of moving the Army's (supposedly vital) tanks overseas even if we want too. The Special Forces are struggling to retain enough people, as they cope with the stress of seemingly continual deployments. And Houston's own Air force is pondering how big a hole it will have to manage to cover as it waits for the Joint Strike Fighter to become available. Fortunately (and apparently on his own initiative) a worried former Defence Minister Brendan Nelson acted quickly to buy some Super Hornets to cover this gap, otherwise it would now be a serious disaster. Oh. And Afghanistan. Our soldiers are, again, dying in a war with no way out (Julia Gillard says we'll be there for a decade), for a cause most Australians doubt, and with no strategy for success.

The point is, of course, that none of these problems can be laid directly at Houston's door. If anything, he seems to have been efficient and effective in ensuring that the Forces have been able to complete every mission assigned to them with maximum effectiveness and a minimum of complaints. But this just leads to further questions. If someone with Houston's ability can't manage to produce a more effective military than the one we've got at the moment, who can? Perhaps the structure is now ineffective and the culture has moved beyond control.

Let's deal with culture first. It's necessary to understand that it’s the very ethos that has allowed the military to transcend all the difficulties that have been thrown at it, where the core of the problem lies. Officers look for ways to achieve missions, not for problems that will prevent getting the job done. The amphibious fleet has finally broken because it's been pushed hard and continuously; beyond endurance. Soldiers have travelled to the Middle East for deployment after deployment; beyond endurance. And the Air force has invested its enthusiasm and hope in a development timetable that's fallen behind through no fault of their own. But there is a common problem here, and it's had a disastrous effect. It's a belief in the triumph of willpower and optimism. Unfortunately, at times of peace (and particularly with equipment issues) this is just not good enough. There's nothing wrong with the military mind-set, in fact it's fundamental. Without it no one would bother fighting. But we have to realise is that this attitude is now letting down the troops. The culture needs to change.

Disaster after disaster has surrounded the purchase of military equipment. A "can-do" attitude has seen no problem as too insurmountable to be overcome. The latest example of this is the new submarine, where the Navy now wants to build a conventional vessel twice as large as one found anywhere else in the world, from scratch. Enthusiasm overcomes experience. Hope triumphs yet again. Instead of working within a realistic envelope the boundaries are pushed to unattainable levels. Desire smothers reality.

The second issue is structural. When Defence Minister Stephen Smith replaces the three service chiefs in June he needs to introduce a route-and-branch reform of the way the military does things. Quite understandably each arm of the forces has its own ethos. A simplistic critique suggests the Navy would like to be left alone to re-fight the battle of Jutland; the Army allowed to defeat an enemy brigade in a set-piece assault; while the Air Force looks forward to restaging the Battle of Britain. It won't happen. Unless senior officers are rewarded for focusing on the missions they're expected to accomplish our military will retain the dysfunctional schizophrenia that pervades the command structure.

There's been an explosive growth of star-rank officers and yet no one is responsible for the disasters crippling capability. Why? It's an organisational issue. The three service chiefs have the ultimate say over which units will be formed and the shape of the forces, yet they're not the people tasked with getting jobs done. Houston’s extremely capable, but even he hasn’t been able to reconcile this fundamental structural problem. And the reason is because the system is – to use a technical phrase – stuffed.

Unless this is urgently addressed, similar problems will continue to bedevil the services. Defence Minister Stephen Smith is well aware of these facts. As he begins to ponder who might replace Houston, it seems he’s also beginning to consider if the chaos of the past might be avoided in the future. Changing the organisation might offer an answer.

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