The military's partiality for steady, orderly progress may be a cliche, but it is especially evident in the Australian Defence Force's latest leadership reshuffle announced on Friday. Mark Binskin, Vice-Chief of the ADF, will assume the top post in July, succeeding General David Hurley who has occupied the post since July 2011. The vacated deputy's role will go to Chief of Navy Vice-Admiral Ray Griggs, who will in turn be succeeded by Rear Admiral Tim Barrett. Air Marshal Geoff Brown stays put in his job as Chief of the Air Force.
There had been speculation that Chief of Army Lieutenant-General David Morrison might depart the ADF along with General Hurley, but his term has been extended by a further 12 months, ostensibly to complete a restructure of the army and to steer an armoured vehicle acquisition program through its initial stages. Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell, the soldier controversially appointed by the Abbott government to take charge of the military side of Operation Sovereign Borders – and whose success in stopping the flow of asylum-seeker vessels has made him a favourite in Coalition circles – is tipped to succeed General Morrison in time. Air Marshal Binskin had a small role in Sovereign Borders, too – standing in for a short period while General Campbell took leave – a duty that did his already promising promotion prospects no harm at all.
Though he did leap-frog several other more senior contenders to become air force chief in 2011, Air Marshal Binskin has long been considered Chief of the Defence Force material. The former fighter pilot’s operational command experience is extensive and notable. He served as director of the Combined Air and Space Operations Centre responsible for allied air operations in Iraq and Afghanistan – a post normally occupied by Americans – and is a graduate of the Harvard Business School’s advanced management program.
That said, the challenges that await him, are significant: they include the completion of a new defence white paper laying out Australia’s future defence strategy; the integration of the highly expensive F-35 joint strike fighter into the air force’s flight line; consideration of a new submarine to replace the Collins class boats (and whether these should be built here or bought off the shelf); the requirement to reduce cost blowouts and delays on a raft of major acquisition projects; and the imperative to continue reforming the defence culture of hazing, sexism and a lack of accountability. To that might also be added the requirement for bridging the responsibilities and duties of military officials and public servants working in the Department of Defence (the so-called diarchy) to better achieve the defence aims of the government of the day.
The problems of culture, diarchy and frequent cost blowouts go back a long way – testament not just to their intractability but to what has seemed, on occasion, to be a distinct lack of stomach by our top brass to confront them in any meaningful sense. General Morrison’s video response to the Skype sex affair (and his passionate commitment to making the army a more inclusive institution) were welcomed by many Australians as evidence that things had changed, at least on the cultural front. Air Marshal Binskin can be expected to maintain that momentum, but what of his determination to get to grips with organisational shortcomings and other persistent management failures?
The decision by Prime Minister Tony Abbott to extend the Chief of the Defence Force's term from three to four years will allow Air Marshal Binskin to play a longer and more thoughtful game. The approaching end of Australia’s military operation in Afghanistan – the most involved and costly since Vietnam – will remove another potential distraction, too. But whether the new Chief of the Defence Force can ensure that Defence delivers better value for taxpayer money remains to be seen. By reversing the expensive and highly questionable strategy of building warships and submarines in Australia, the Coalition could trim defence outlays substantially. A hard-wired propensity for pork-barrelling and patronage makes that an unlikely prospect however.
Continuity of leadership is vital to ensuring the maintenance and improvement of the ADF's military skills and capability. Air Marshal Binskin will undoubtedly provide this. But steady, deliberate progress must continue to be made on all fronts.