Paddling like mad

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Pop quiz readers; when was the following written by the Lowy Institute?

“The burden of strategic risk on Australia’s national interests is increasing. Those interests are extensive and face a widening range of risks, from coercion or conflict in Asia to resurgent terrorism and aggression in other parts of the globe. Australia’s region is becoming more central to global power balances and strategic tensions. Power balances are changing with China’s rise, and this will encourage risk-taking.

“Conflict between states is more about constant competition and coercion than the prospect of all-out war. The probability of war in Asia is small but real, and greater than a few years ago. Disruptive technologies are altering calculations of military advantage.

“Deep dependence on energy, information, trade and human links with the outside world makes Australia vulnerable. This means that challenges to global order are risks to Australian interests as well. But no country can pay equal heed to them all, or meet them alone.

“Together, these factors mean that the number and kind of security contingencies that could affect Australia will grow. Australia’s defence will involve meaningful contributions to securing its lifelines to the wider world.

“Thus Australia will need to protect its sovereignty, provide security in a troubled immediate neighbourhood, and contribute to the security of the broader Indo-Pacific region and beyond. In the next 20 years, there are many plausible situations in which Australian governments might want military options, including regional crisis interventions, contributions to US-led coalitions, and missions to safeguard maritime interests.”

The correct answer is November 2014. But they could have easily been written at any time in the past five years. The challenges outlined above are perhaps more acute then they were in the lead up to the 2016 White Paper and its associated policy documents along with the suite of guidance the government has released since that time.

In the space of those five years, the RAN, and indeed the wider ADF, have hit a number of important milestones in terms of capabilities old and new. From the LHDs and AWDs hitting the water, to supply ships and venerable DDGs being paid off, a massive increase in Collins class reliability and availability, Navy is in a strong position. At this very moment, the workforce is the largest is has been for 20 years and is on track to grow year on year, with both increases in recruitment and retention across the board. All this sits behind the current headline of the $90 billion national shipbuilding program, the largest recapitalisation of Navy since WWII.

Processes and frameworks are being put in place to make that sure Navy, its Defence industry partners and the wider Australian society can answer this demand. From the workforce and training being shaped by the Naval Shipbuilding College to Plan Pelorus and Headmark 22 within Navy itself, there is a lot of paddling going on underneath the duck on the pond. There simply has to be if the plans outlined in the 2016 White Paper are to be met to answer the challenges outlined in 2014 by the Lowy Institute.

Yet I feel an itch, a point of friction, behind the headlines. Yes there is much work being done on the workforce front but I fear there will still be gaps for both Navy and industry to fall into given the scale of what government has asked of them in the timeframe desired. The concurrency of the Collins Life of Type Extension from a Full Cycle Docking in 2026 (at a yet to be determined location; another editorial all of its own), the build of the first Attack class boats, alongside the Hunter and Arafura class builds plus sustainment of the current fleet means that Navy and industry will be stretched, uncomfortably so. There are also another three ships in the wings for mine counter measures/hydrography with the accelerated retirement of the Huon class mine hunters in the 2020s.

The shell game of funding all these programs alongside Defence’s other major acquisition and sustainment programs will also be a feat of accounting prowess. What will need to be moved to either the left or right at an organisational level to deliver this ambitious program?

The real cause of the itch I fear is that we have taken on an ambitious build program for a force structure that may not be able to meet the demands of the world of the future. We’re paddling like mad but not in the right direction.

This article first appeared in the October 2019 edition of ADM.

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