During the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Azerbaijani forces used unsustainable drones to target Armenian conventional forces and destroy their tanks, artillery and air defense systems. The conflict provides a broad example of how a competent irregular or asymmetric force targeted by a conventional force can disrupt the conventional doctrinal roles of branches of the military.
In the face of these innovative approaches to force structure, the Australian defense organization must consider adopting a different methodology for its acquisition and contracting processes.
Defense acquisition is largely focused on a small number of exquisite rigs with lead times that can be measured in years. For example, there was a 16-year gap between Australia joining the Joint Strike Fighter program in 2002 and the arrival of the first two Royal Australian Air Force F-35s in 2018.
This means that the complex capabilities that Defense obtains based on the threats envisaged at the time of acquisition are likely to delay the evolution of the threat environment. This lag can be attributed to Defense capability delivery processes and as a result of Defense procurement models and business systems, which operate on appropriate timeframes for more benign strategic circumstances when the lead time in case of conflict was assumed to be at least 10 years.
Defense acquisition and business processes play a valuable role in orchestrating the complex systems and activities that make up an increasingly integrated military and defense organization. However, these processes have been built incrementally over decades to reduce risk and inject predictability into defense budgeting. This remains a difficult prospect as fiscal blowouts occur.
These processes have made the organization risk averse and affected the mental models of Australian Defense Force personnel in a world of regularly changing threats. This is the point the Government has sought to address in its 2020 Strategic Defense Update against the backdrop of Australia’s deteriorating strategic environment.
Long acquisition times due to bureaucratic processes are not unique to Australia. The US Department of Defense uses the planning, programming, budgeting, and executing process to allocate its resources. This process is considered equally slow. Bureaucracy slows procurement systems and inhibits agility and innovation in adopting new technologies. A reform commission was created recently to review the process with a final report expected in September 2023. However, there are doubts about its success given past experience.
A review of existing processes is not the solution. Defense has already revised its capability assessment program and incorporated rapid and fundamental capability assessment cycles into its processes. Yet the system remains a top-down, siloed hierarchical structure in which the acquisition and contracting processes are accompanied by extensive force design and investment decision-making protocols to prevent failures and reduce risks. risks. The result can be a compromise that is not conducive to rapid implementation and innovation.
Rapid acquisition processes have been successful in the commercial and public sectors. For example, NASA faced the same challenges as other government agencies with the costs and long lead times of the systems needed to achieve its goals. In response, it opened the field for new industry entrants with entirely different business models and design and production concepts, from companies like SpaceX. NASA has used public-private partnerships to develop commercial services to resupply the International Space Station, launch satellites, and conduct crewed space missions, including astronaut rotations on the ISS.
SpaceX was founded in 2002 with a mission to make space activities much more affordable and achievable. The company continued to focus on reducing costs across all of its businesses by developing reusable, multi-use components and systems. It has provided affordable launch systems for small and large satellites using the world’s largest operational space launch rocket, Falcon Heavy.
SpaceX worked at a pace that space launch incumbents could not match and accepted the failure of its development and flight programs that others would not tolerate. For example, after the company’s Starship SN9 exploded on landing, Principal Integration Engineer John Insprucker emphasized that the intent of the test was to demonstrate control of the vehicle during subsonic reentry.
SpaceX’s Starship program has suffered multiple failures, each costing an estimated US$100 million in lost revenue, as prototypes were quickly developed for testing and intentionally driven to failure. Last year, he finally successfully launched and landed with SN15. The knowledge and confidence the company gained from its failures and rapid implementation were the reasons for NASA’s $2.9 billion contract with SpaceX to build a lunar lander by 2024.
The success of rapid testing and implementation is not limited to Western countries. Over the past few years, China has undergone an extensive review and restructuring of its state-owned enterprises, which has led to the rapid introduction of advanced variants of military capabilities such as the H-6 bomber. This was achieved by making organizational changes and fostering a mindset of innovation for the military and civilian sectors while also leveraging technologies developed by civilians for military purposes.
Australia’s deteriorating strategic environment means Defense must be ready for irregular warfare in the ‘grey zone’ and be prepared to wage war against high-end asymmetric capabilities. Defense’s well-established processes mean that while it seeks to be ready for high-level warfare by forecasting into the future, it is grossly ill-prepared for gray area conflict due to the inability of existing processes to adapt to emerging issues.
Therefore, separate rapid procurement and procurement processes are required. And they must be underpinned by a philosophy that tolerates failure and is driven by the need to respond to a deteriorating threat environment. It’s not just about the adoption and implementation of fast and innovative systems, but also about the effect such an approach can have in the minds of potential adversaries.