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The First Principles Review: The View From Down Below

Last week the Minister for Defence announced the release of the First Principles Review of Defence. Since the Tange Review in 1973 there have been over 40 individual reviews into the corporate, organisational, and strategic process of defence. It does not take a mathematics professor to conclude that it is an average of one review per year. In spite of this, however, the First Principles Review promises to make a significant change to the way that the Australian Defence Organisation (ADO) conducts its business, albeit the goals are certainly ambitious. Here is my take on the recommendations; hopefully it will provide a bottom-up view of the issues the ADO faces. After all, it will the younger generation that will inherit any problems that these changes create.

The entire essence of this review can be summed up by the tagline offered by the Team: ‘One Defence.’ According to the report, its key features are:

  • A stronger and more strategic centre able to provide clear direction, contestability of decision-making, along with enhanced organisational control of resources and monitoring of organisational performance;

  • An end-to-end approach for capability development with Capability Managers having clear authority and accountability as sponsors for the delivery of capability outcomes to time and budget, supported by an integrated capability delivery function and subject to stronger direction setting and contestability from the centre;

  • Enablers that are integrated and customer-centric with greater use of cross-functional processes, particularly in regional locations; and

  • A planned and professional workforce with a strong performance management culture at its core.

So what major changes will we see over the coming months and years? Firstly, there is the complete gutting, and discarding, of the Defence Materiel Organisation and the Capability Development Group. The role of these two organisations are to define, acquire and sustain military equipment and not always to the liking of those in uniform. Beyond the numerous executive and star-level removals, the alternative offered by the Review Team is to create a ‘Capability and Acquisition Group’ under a Deputy Secretary, who will then report to the Secretary. The significance of this change, and others, is that it removes the artificial barrier at the handover stage between procurement and utilising new capabilities. As Andrew Davies mentions, this will be a large workload for the new DepSec, and a variety of discussion has been had over capability development (for more discussion see Australian Strategic Policy Institute blog posts by Mark Thomson and Andrew Davies).

The recommendation to retain the diarchy raises a few alarm bells, a sentiment shared by Allan Behm, who worked on the 1998 review into the Australian Defence Headquarters. It is an unusual construct in that the Secretary of Defence and the Chief of the Defence Force are, in an organisational chart setting, equals under the Minister for Defence. Behm does not attack the utility of the diarchy, and neither do I, but he suggests it might be time to examine the contemporary utility of such a unique organisational construct. Many of the higher-level management changes stem from the need to retain the diarchy structure. For example, the creation of an Associate Secretary position to liaise and integrate with the Vice Chief of the Defence Force. One of my mentors indicated some personal reservations regarding some of the changes in that it risked degrading some of the military-civil relations developed over the years. Division of structure and responsibilities can be useful for providing guidance, but the on the opposite end it could culturally polarise the uniformed branch from the plain-clothes side of the house.

Upon initial inspection there is nothing alarming about the recommendations presented. All of them have been presented in a logical manner that address the challenges presented by the ADO’s present situation. I am sure most readers are unfamiliar with Defence might be asking: why aren’t all of these changes already in place? The simple answer is that one change somewhere in years gone by has outlived its usefulness and now requires change. As the Review Team state, effective implementation will be the key in order to see the full effects of the recommendations presented. Perhaps this is where the dozens of previous reviews have failed – after all, the devil is in the detail!

Nam Nguyen is the Australian National Security and Defence Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email for more information.

Image Credit: Australian Army Lieutenant Colin Soane and Gunner Travis Stewart in US Pacific Fleet Photos (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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