08 January 2010

Saving money in Defence

Former Labor Member for the Federal seat of Kingston, Gordon Bilney, has an op-ed piece in today’s Australian Financial Review in which he outlines the challenges facing the Rudd Government in the year ahead.

One of these is tackling “the monstrous waste and inefficiency” at Russell Hill.

It is remarkable how many people seem to “know” that there is monstrous waste and inefficiency in the Australian Defence Organisation. Equally remarkable is how few people seem to be able actually to identify where this waste is and how it can be eliminated without impacting upon the capacity of the ADF to fight and win. Many of the solutions I see bandied about sound to me a bit like attempts to repeal the Second Law of Thermodynamics (the one which explains why only about a quarter of the energy in the petrol we buy is actually used to propel the car).

The Department of Defence, a complex organisation that consists of both its civilian staff and its “members in uniform”, receives an almost uniformly bad press. Yet somehow the civilian and military leaders of the Department manage, when requested by Government, to put into the field the right people, with the right kit and the right training, who have performed outstandingly on every deployment. Someone must be doing something right.

Waste is inevitable in every large organisation. No-one should be complacent about that: every organisation should have in place effective continuous improvement programs that seek to find better and more cost effective ways of performing all of the organisation’s functions.  But as I have commented previously, the notion on which the Government’s defence capability development plans depend, that there is an annual $2 billion of waste sloshing around the corridors of Russell just waiting for someone to harvest it, is an absolute fantasy – see Defence savings: the impossible dream and More on the Defence Savings Program for reasons why the savings are not there.

I do, however, have one very constructive suggestion for markedly reducing our defence expenditure: leave Afghanistan. No-one can articulate a convincing reason why the allied forces are there or what outcome we are looking for, and the way it has developed it has just turned out to be a very expensive way of destabilising Pakistan, a country which has never needed much help from outsiders in order to mess up its present or its future.

There is no good outcome on the horizon for the Afghanistan adventure. The most likely scenarios are a Pashtun-dominated regime led by the Taliban, or a Pashtun-dominated regime led by the Pakistani Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence’s (ISI) warlord of choice, someone like the appalling Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

Anyone who thinks that there is a third outcome should think very carefully about the probability and sustainability of that. If history is any guide, any non-Taliban leader in Kabul who is not ISI’s preferred option will be systematically undermined by ISI, using diverted US military assistance funds to do it, in the interests of their fantasy of becoming the dominant power in Central Asia.

Withdrawing gracefully would be a tricky business.  It must be done in a manner that does not make a bad situation worse for our allies, and that does no harm to the alliance with the United States.

That suggests that the preferred option would be to seek to persuade the United States that it is high time for everyone to recognise the realities and withdraw sooner rather than later, in as decent and orderly a manner as we can – just the topic to enliven the forthcoming Ausmin talks between our Defence and Foreign Ministers and the US Defense Secretary and Secretary of State.

 The bottom line would have to be that we are going sooner rather than later whatever the US decides to do: while we can seek to negotiate a decent and orderly withdrawal, we cannot be held hostage by our allies – and everyone understands that. If we think it is a bad idea, we have to act on that assessment, subject to decent management of the process of implementation.

The principal obstacle to moving in this direction is probably the fact that the Prime Minister has said that the war in Afghanistan is the right war, the war we have to win, and as recently as his surprise visit to the troops in Afghanistan in November declared that Australia “would remain in the conflict for the long haul”.

So the Prime Minister would have to admit that he got that one wrong, and our Prime Minister is not a person who has ever been renowned for his willingness to admit error.

Then he would have to try to convince his very good mate Barack Obama that he too had got it wrong, and we have not yet seen many signs that our Prime Minister is prepared to burn up political capital in Washington telling President Obama that he is mistaken about anything.

But how long should we tolerate having young Australians put in harm’s way in the interests of politicians’ vanity?

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