The confusion continues in Defence

Comment on the recent Defence white paper is marred by confusion about what constitutes a military capability. For example, there is talk about the "fragile capability" represented by our current submarine fleet. The remark implies that the Collins Class is a capability. In fact, it is not. Another version of the same comment states that a Collins Class submarine is a "fragile platform". This is very different in meaning, although closer to the truth.

Divorced from the interminable jargon of Defence, the term "capability" implies, in the minds of normal people, an ability to do something. Submarine hulls, or platforms, on their own, are unable to do anything that is militarily useful, unless crewed by competent people and armed appropriately for the operational task.

A Collins Class submarine sails through Sydney Harbour.
A Collins Class submarine sails through Sydney Harbour. Photo: Department of Defence

"So what?" you might ask. "Does it really matter if the subs are called platforms or a capability, fragile or otherwise?"

Yes, it does matter. Capability has a special meaning in Defence, and that meaning includes more than platforms alone. It is what can be done with platforms. If we are confused about what it is, how can we manage it?

The confusion is the tip of the iceberg – a symptom of organisational dysfunction in Defence. The result is blurring of responsibilities, the pursuit of parasitical agendas, and the disruption of any rational strategic planning process.

At the core of the dysfunction is the uneasy relationship between the public service and soldiers. Standing armies are rightly distrusted unless they are under civil control. This has resulted, in Australia and elsewhere, in an unnecessarily split management narrative in which the public service provides some aspects of capability and the military others.


The dysfunction disguises the fact that the ADF appears better than it is. It can cope with asymmetric warfare, but not symmetric warfare. Blowing up mud huts in the Middle East is not the same as facing the Chinese. The problem is not exclusively Australian. Other western nations experience comparable dysfunction. The organisation is simply not good enough for its purpose. It can deliver platforms but not capability. In order to appreciate why this is so, we need to delve into the past.

Historically, weapons that were more than personal weapons (eg, sword, rifle, spear, etc) soon became platforms from which to launch a capability to achieve some military effect. Platforms (ships of the line) were used at Trafalgar to achieve the effect of denying Napoleon the opportunity to invade England. Platforms (fighter aircraft, radars, etc) were used in the Battle of Britain to deny air superiority to the Luftwaffe. Platforms (ships, aircraft, artillery, missiles etc) were used in the Falklands War to eject Argentina from the islands.

Having the platforms is not enough. It is how those platforms are used that marks the degree of actual capability. It used to infuriate Napoleon that the French had as many ships as the British, but that the Royal Navy so dominated the French Navy that the French rarely left harbour.

With fewer and inferior aircraft, the Israeli Air Force destroyed the much larger Egyptian Air Force in 1967. Theirs was the better capability, despite the platform deficit. In our own region, there are platforms with comparable performance to ours. However, capability is usually severely lacking. High performance aircraft sit on the ground with no competent crews to operate them.

In Australia, and for much of its life, the Collins class has been severely affected by our inability to crew the boats. The platforms existed, but the capability did not.

In medieval times, kings did not normally maintain standing armies. If a casus belli were to arise, then the king would raise an army, tax his subjects sufficient to pay for it, and then embark on his campaign. The introduction of artillery contributed to the notion of lead time. It took significant time and expense to produce cannon and its necessary supply of powder and rounds, and the training of artillery men. An era began in which a king could not quickly decide to go to war. The time taken to raise an army started to expand. Some provision had to be made against surprise attack, or other action contrary to a national interest. A standing army, therefore, could act as a sort of deterrence, making war less likely.

However, the introduction of a standing army begged the questions of what it was standing there for, and how ready was it for that purpose, and what was the cost. In other words, what capability was required? These are still very good questions today. So, let's eliminate confusion and clearly introduce three terms which should dominate the management of standing military force. These terms are platform, capability and effect.

We need to start with effect. Effects are governed by firepower, accuracy and choice of delivery. In former times, effects were achieved by concentration of individually deficient weapons. For example, the Brown Bess musket was so inaccurate that it only became effective if fired by concentrated groups of soldiers. Nowadays, technology has markedly increased the potential effect of single weapons. This gives many more choices of effect to operational commanders. These choices often come at vastly different cost.

Modern examples of desired effects are to destroy an urban target, to destroy a hostile, opposing airborne target, to deliver tactical airdrop, or to sink a submersed submarine. In network-centric war, desired effects are usually collaborative, requiring a joint commander and networked communications. Note also, that contemporary accuracy has modified necessary effects.

So, following strategic analysis, and with desired effects established, Defence planning should proceed to define the preferred means of achieving those desired effects. Then comes the responsibility for delivery of that capability.

Even though Defence forces have been structured to share the functions that produce capability, service chiefs are usually required to deliver that capability. This is dysfunctional. The result can be that platforms start driving capability, and, when capability starts driving effect, Defence planning is turned on its head.

Parasitical agendas start to interfere. For example, the new submarine fleet is all about jobs in the unsustainable shipbuilding industry, rather than what effects are to be achieved by that capability. We seem to have decided, nevertheless, that a desired effect is the destruction of an enemy submarine, and that the best way of killing it is by one of our own subs.

Meanwhile, there is turmoil in British Defence planning because the replacement for the current Trident submarine fleet may be vulnerable to submersible drones, whose disruptive technology is just around the corner. Let's hope we've got it right. An estimated life cycle cost of $150 billion is a lot to pay for a lemon.

We've already had a "first principles" review of Defence, and that review has started to correct the dysfunction. The proposed business model clearly recognises the unified nature of capability management. However, it undoes all the good it potentially does by retaining the diarchy and giving the secretary continued responsibility for key aspects of capability delivery. The confusion continues.

Peter Rusbridge spent 15 years in the Royal Navy, 21 years in the RAAF, and 21 years in industry. He is writing a book about the application of asset management to Defence.