Diagnosing Dysfunction in Defence Management

Defence is like a giant waterfall. Inside, it seems to be constantly gushing with change. Walk 10m away and it looks exactly the same as it did five days ago, five years ago, 50 years ago. — Greg Sheridan, ‘Open Letter to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Defence Minister Richard Marles’, Weekend Australian, June 4

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Department of Defence in possession of a large budget must be in want of full effectiveness. With apologies to Jane Austen, the history of Australian defence administration since Federation suggests a different truth, namely that full effectiveness has always been an elusive goal. A major reason for this situation is that the running of Defence is too often seen by both politicians and public servants as a matter of applying the latest ideas of civilian management theory for corporate efficiency. Such methods are seen as vital to ensuring that new weapons systems and military platform projects arrive in timely fashion to serve policy and strategy. The problem with this outlook is that Australia’s defence system transcends any commercial or managerial model found in the civilian world. What might be styled the “Defence enterprise” forms one of the great Commonwealth departments, but one which is unique in composition and identity since it consists of three distinct and different components: the political class, the civilian bureaucracy, and the profession of arms.

This essay appears in October’s Quadrant.
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While Australian defence is not alone among liberal democracies in facing this tripartite composition, it remains deficient, even intellectually backward. Despite a large comparative international literature, the interdisciplinary field of civil-military relations remains an area of study that is utterly neglected in Australia. There has been no significant scholarly or applied research completed in Australia for forty years, leaving the nation without the body of knowledge on civil-military relations that is common in such countries as the United States, Britain and Canada. As a leading Australian Defence Force (ADF) officer, Colonel (later Major General) Stephen Day noted in 2004, “the conduct of civil-military relations in Australia is in need of correction, codification and scholarly study. [There are] shortfalls in both the structure and practice of civil-military relations.” Since 2004, a willingness to engage in such correction and codification has not been in evidence in Australia. The result of this neglect has been predictable. Successive waves of well-intentioned, managerially minded, but civil-military illiterate reformers have been unable to diagnose the causes of Australia’s defence dysfunction or even develop a prognosis that reflects an organisation dominated by civil-military elements. Defence effectiveness is concerned with four major areas: policies (the defined ends of any state’s defence and military efforts); programs (choices among options to achieve policy aims); processes (management efficiency of programs); and proprieties (expending resources allocated according to the legislature). In every one of these areas, the interaction of civil-military elements must be understood if a nation is to be properly armed and defended.

An inability to accurately contextualise the workings of Australia’s defence organisation in terms of modern civil-military relations is one of the historical reasons frustrating long-term successes in delivering capability outputs for such important projects as new aircraft, submarines and frigates. The question to be posed in the national interest is not how aspiring reformers can make the Defence Department function with the efficiency of a private sector company. Rather, the question is: What are the unique features of civil-military relations at play in Australia and how do these features help us to better understand the Defence enterprise’s organisational culture, so allowing us to improve policy, strategy and the development and delivery of military capabilities that underpin both?

To answer this important question, this article examines four areas. First, to provide context, it outlines the field of civil-military relations and its critical importance to Western liberal democracies. Second, it explains the weak underpinnings of Australian civil-military relations through analysing the dynamics between Australian political authority, the armed forces and public service between 1901 and 1975. Third, it dissects the Department of Defence’s post-1975 civil-military diarchy system of governance to determine whether its functionality remains fit for purpose. Fourth, it examines the implications of what has been called Defence’s “broken backbone” in the twenty-first century in the context of an era of growing strategic danger for Australia.  

The Importance of Civil-Military Relations

Civil-military relations in liberal democracies may be defined as a field of study devoted to analysing the interaction in defence organisations between elected politicians on one hand, and senior military professionals and public servants on the other. In practice, civil-military relations are influential in three ways. First, they help to define the culture of any modern defence organisation. Second, they assist in determining the making of policy, the direction of strategy, the acquisition of capabilities, and the execution of operations. Third, a knowledge of civil-military relations is crucial if senior Defence employees are to understand the complex decision-making that surrounds preparation for, and the use of, military force by liberal democracies. As the British scholar Martin Edmonds notes in his edited 1986 book The Defence Equation, the pattern of civil-military relations that exists in a liberal democracy determines whether the “elusive equation” between the elements of policy, strategy, capability and organisation can be successfully balanced to produce defence effectiveness.

Until recently, the single most influential study of Western liberal democratic civil-military relations has been American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington’s 1957 book The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations. The influence of Huntington’s book spread across the Anglosphere and came to dominate Western civil-military relations scholarship for half a century. Written at the height of Cold War, The Soldier and the State reflects Huntington’s anxieties about the survival of American liberalism in the face of the rise of a new nuclear-age “military-industrial complex”. Huntington pondered the question of how, in such conditions, Athens could be prevented from becoming Sparta. He argued that America’s liberal democracy was best secured by separating the societal imperative of civilian control from the functional imperative of military effectiveness. This separation was achieved by a civil-military compact that ensured subjective control of the armed forces (exercised by elected civilian authorities over the military) but ceded professional autonomy, or objective control of military affairs, to the armed services (exercised by senior officers over members of the profession of arms).

Huntington’s model was aimed at fostering a politically neutral military whose attention was directed toward professional mastery of the “management of violence”, not intervention in politics. Huntington believed that “politics is beyond the scope of military competence” and his notion of a trade-off between civilian political control and an apolitical “autonomous military realm” run by uniformed professionals was highly influential. The Huntington model became the central feature of Anglo-American civil-military relations in the second half of the twentieth century as “the technician’s model” of pure military professionalism.

Today, most military theorists and practitioners see Huntington’s notion of rigidly separate political and professional military realms to be obsolescent for three reasons. First, defence policy and military operations in the twenty-first century’s mass communication societies demand integration, not separation, of civil-military effort. Effective defence policy requires a close dialogue between politicians, public servants and the armed services to ensure that optimum strategic outcomes occur at the highest levels of strategic policy-making. The military is the partner of civilian politicians and bureaucrats and, while senior military officers cannot possess a veto over decision-making, they must have a voice in the strategic deliberations that occur in democracies. The American political scientist Richard Betts puts matters well in his 2012 book American Force: Dangers, Delusions and Dilemmas in National Security, describing the civil-military relationship in any healthy liberal democracy as one characterised by “equal dialogue [but] with unequal authority”.

The second weakness in the Huntington model is its failure to anticipate the evolving character of the profession of arms. The twenty-first-century armed forces officer is no longer simply a soldier, sailor or aviator, but increasingly a national security professional with joint service and inter-agency responsibilities that span wider areas of government. As the senior American officer Major General William E. Rapp argues, many senior military leaders thrust into the higher realms of national security are ill-served if they adhere only to Huntington’s separation model of civil-military relations. Writing in 2015, Rapp notes, “being politically aware … is in fact essential to the military’s strategic effectiveness”. Huntington’s model of civil-military relations failed to distinguish in officer education between the unwelcome pursuit of political partisanship on the one hand and the important need for political literacy on the other hand. It was left to another contemporary study by John Masland and Laurence Radway, Soldiers and Scholars: Military Education and National Policy (1957), to make the case for the study of politics by the profession of arms. The authors pointed out that in military service, “political sophistication is as desirable as technical expertise” because it is always necessary for the senior officer understand the practice of statecraft. Western militaries must be schooled “to think politically, to be in touch politically, but not to become involved politically”. A politically illiterate senior officer can only be a liability because as, General Rapp observes, “senior officers must understand the strategic political space into which they will offer their military advice”.

The third weakness of the Huntington model is that it has proven to be unworkable in the waging of warfare, particularly in protracted conflicts. Observing the West’s strategic floundering in Afghanistan and Iraq, the British scholar Sir Hew Strachan notes in his 2013 book The Direction of War that “the principal purpose of [Western] civil-military relations is national security; its output is strategy”. Strachan attributed many of the Western coalition’s problems in producing effective strategy to the influence of Huntington’s separation model, which he argued convincingly had proven “profoundly dysfunctional to the waging of war in the twenty-first century”. In the 2020s, the gravest danger facing mature Western democracies is not a phantom fear of military intervention in politics, but failure to develop strategy as a product of constructive dialogue between politicians, civil servants and military officers. Strachan went on to call for “a revised system of civil-military relations” founded on notions of unity of effort and equality in counsel with the aim of unifying governmental efforts in the pursuit of strategic goals. Today, the pursuit of an “equilibrium model of civil-military relations” based on integration, partnership and the values of liberal democratic ideology is the aim of most leading Western defence establishments.

The immature underpinnings of civil-military relations in Australia

Although the Huntington model is now rapidly fading throughout the West, its influence in Australia remains enduring and has hampered the development of a deeper understanding of civil-military relations for effective defence management. This lack of understanding has consequences not only for strategic decision-making but also for the shape and purpose of defence organisation. The late Brendan Sergeant, a former Associate Secretary of Defence, alluded to the “ghost of Sam Huntington” at a Canberra defence seminar in June 2021 when he noted, “civil-military relations in Australia are a really big issue and I agree with those who have said that the discussion is immature”.

Few officials, scholars or military practitioners seem to understand how the nation’s civil-military relations have been shaped not just by Huntington’s ideas but by three other historical features in the administration of the Australia’s defence organisation. The first of these historical features is the British constitutional foundations of Australia’s defence system and the curious ministerial weakness that has been spawned from a neglect in exerting political authority. A second feature has been the character of Australia’s strategic culture and the long shadow of independence by service chiefs and service departments that has been cast by that culture. The final and perhaps most decisive historical feature shaping Australian civil-military relations is the powerful public service role in running the Defence Department. It is a strength symbolised by the executive power of the civilian Secretary of Defence which has often eclipsed the influence of both government ministers and uniformed chiefs of the defence force.

The Constitutional foundations of Australia’s Defence and the weakness of Ministers

Under Article 51 (vi) of the 1901 Australian Constitution, the Commonwealth Parliament has the sole power to make laws with respect to “naval and military defence [alongside] the control of forces to execute and maintain the laws of the Commonwealth”. In keeping with British constitutional practice, the 1903 Defence Act makes the armed forces the servants of parliamentary government with the Governor-General representing the Crown as titular commander-in-chief. In practice, the armed forces take their instructions from a Westminster cabinet through the Minister for Defence. As one Minister for Defence, Bill Morrison, put it in the 1970s, “civil [political] control of the Services has never been a point of issue in Australia”.

In many ways, the British constitutional foundations of Australia’s defence make Huntington’s separatist philosophical influence over Australian civil-military relations even more puzzling. Australia’s civil-military relations have been institutionally shaped by British governance in an interplay between two distinct twentieth-century British models of defence administration developed by Sir Maurice Hankey and Lord Louis Mountbatten respectively.

The Hankey model of defence governance involved a decentralised system of federated civil-military committees devised by Sir Maurice as Cabinet Secretary and Secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence between 1912 and1938. The Hankey system is impelled by a desire to harness the collective expertise of the armed services and is best summed up by the philosophy that “those responsible in the armed services for executing approved policy should also formulate it”. In practice, this approach requires a multitude of civil-military committees each striving to serve a central purpose of aligning policy, strategy and procurement to the needs of army, navy and air force at every level of activity. The Hankey committee system, directly linking planning and execution of strategy to the institutional framework of the single services, was duplicated in Australia from the late 1940s and flourished until the mid-1970s. Australia’s adoption of the Hankey system was intimately associated with the long career of Sir Frederick Shedden, Secretary of Defence between 1937 and 1956, whose closeness to Hankey was symbolised his nickname, “the pocket Hankey”.

The second British model of defence organisation that has been significant in Australia is more recent and involves a centralised model, or functional system, first devised by Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, Chief of the Defence Staff from 1959 until 1965. Mountbatten had been a Second World War commander of Allied combined operations and was a strong proponent of inter-service co-operation and joint military organisation. With strong political support from the Macmillan government, he successfully accelerated centralised defence reform in Whitehall from inside the armed forces. The Mountbatten model was driven by the need for joint fusion over single service autonomy and espoused a philosophy that the “service chiefs should be advisers to, not executors, of a central policy”.

A version of a central, functional organisation developing policy, strategy and capability was only adopted in Australia during the mid-1970s and with significant differences from the original Mountbatten model. As we shall see, in Australia, the foundational process of defence centralisation was dominated by public servants since, unlike the British armed forces of the 1960s, the Australian military of the 1970s lacked both the strategic sophistication and effective joint service organisation to assume a leading role. Only in the twenty-first century have the military elements of the Mountbatten system been more fully realised in Australia’s defence structure in parallel with the Australian Defence Force’s maturation as a higher-level military institution.

The most striking aspect of Australia’s defence organisation, as it evolved through local manifestations of both the Hankey and Mountbatten models of civil-military governance, has been the executive weakness of the Minister for Defence relative to the single services and, above all, to the influence of the public service. Political weakness was apparent from 1901 with the first Minister of Defence in the Barton government, Sir James Dickson, described as being “the man with the least stature in the whole cabinet”. From this inauspicious beginning a pattern was set for over a century of a revolving door of defence ministerial appointments. Statistics are revealing. Of Australia’s fifty-eight defence ministers between 1901 and 2022, only twelve have served longer than three years—and nineteen have lasted less than a year.

Between 2001 and 2022 alone, there have been thirteen defence ministers, with only three serving longer than two years. Ministerial churn has meant that most incumbents have been presented with the role of co-ordination rather than control, with even the longest-serving defence ministers often being wrapped in an aura of ineffectiveness. Sir Philip McBride, Australia’s longest continuous-serving defence minister, who held the position in the Menzies government from 1950 to 1958, found the portfolio’s maze of committees so bewildering that he spent much of his tenure tending to his sheep station in South Australia.

Australia’s Strategic Culture and its Strong Service Traditions

A second feature inhibiting a mature grasp of Australia’s civil-military relations has been a national strategic culture historically reliant on the support of “great and powerful friends” and for volunteers, as opposed to conscripts, for defence needs. For most of the first half of the twentieth century, Australia’s regular forces were composed of a cadre of command and instructional staff. This cadre was so small that, as the Australian military scholar T.B. Millar sardonically remarked in 1982, they “could not have taken Botany Bay on a Sunday afternoon”.

The volunteer First and Second Australian Imperial Forces of the two world wars were much larger, but they operated not on home soil but as expeditionary forces in allied formations led by British and American commanders. It is from this expeditionary history that Australia’s Anzac (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) martial tradition springs. The Anzac tradition draws overwhelmingly on the egalitarian spirit of the citizen-in-uniform serving overseas. Beyond iconography and ceremonial purpose, Anzac is not central to the pattern of Australia’s professional military development after 1945. Moreover, until the late twentieth century, because Australia’s navy, army and air force usually performed as separate components in allied forces there was limited co-operation between the services.

Australia’s strategic culture of service traditions bred separate fiefdoms rather than any unitary identity in the armed forces. Single-service parochialism was a major feature of Australia’s long-service professional military forces after 1947—a situation reinforced by the Korean and Vietnam wars—which involved overseas contingents made up mainly of troops. Service chiefs espousing a separate warfare ethos of land, sea and air, as opposed to a joint strategic tradition, came to dominate Australia’s military organisation. Service interests were further protected by the provision of separate ministers and boards for the navy, army and air force, making central control difficult well into the 1970s. Inter-service rivalry for resources and the practice of short rotational postings for military officers inside the Canberra bureaucracy further entrenched a separate service ethos over any unitary defence purpose. Under these circumstances, Huntington’s separatist philosophy of military professionalism fitted comfortably with single-service notions of securing autonomy from civilian interference and encouraged an intellectual reluctance to consider any national variant of Australian civil-military relations.

The Dominance of the Secretary of Defence and the Public Service

Alongside many weak ministers and a strategic culture fostering a proliferation of single service interests, the powerful role of the public service has been another feature retarding an understanding of the importance of civil-military relations in the management of Australia’s defence. The formulation of Australian defence policy has long been dominated by public servants, with politicians often cast in the role of referees between the competing ideas of a dominant civil bureaucracy and the demands of the individual armed services. While Australia is hardly unique in having powerful civil servants in its Defence organisation, the influence of the public service over defence policy has arguably been stronger here than that in any other peer English-speaking democracy.

After Federation, a Department of Defence was created under a secretary as permanent head who derived authority from the 1903 Defence Act as the civilian official responsible for advising the minister on policy and administration. By 1939, the secretary was responsible for co-ordinating three subordinate service departments of the army, the navy and the air force—each with its own military board and a civilian service secretary in a committee-laden system that lasted until 1972. The rapid turnover of defence minsters combined with service officers’ short postings into the central bureaucracy led to an accretion of power and corporate memory by career public servants. For much of the twentieth century, successive governments came to rely for policy advice on a handful of long-serving defence secretaries. Indeed, four defence secretaries, Sir Frederick Shedden, Sir Edwin Hicks, Sir Henry Bland and Sir Arthur Tange, served twenty-six ministers between them in the period between 1937 and 1979. Shedden in his near two-decade reign set the tone for bureaucratic supremacy in Australian defence matters. During the Second World War, Shedden was sometimes seen as more influential over defence policy than Australia’s top soldier, General Sir Thomas Blamey, leading some British generals to wonder if he held the position of Australia’s “civilian Commander-in-Chief”. Shedden became the supremo of a huge web of committees comprising the “higher defence machinery” in a system that perplexed successive ministers. Writing in Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph on April 8, 1956, the journalist Alan Reid described Shedden as “the unchallenged Czar of the Australian defence set-up” and bewailed a situation whereby, through a combination of inertia, indifference and ineptitude, policy responsibility had “pass[ed] from the Parliament and the Ministers to the public service”.

In 1958, following a major review of Australia’s defence organisation led by Lieutenant General Sir Leslie Morshead, the Menzies Coalition government attempted to re-impose ministerial authority over the defence system. Morshead recommended a Mountbatten-style integration of the three service departments and the Department of Defence under a single minister. However, Menzies demurred at such a radical reorganisation, and the only concrete outcome of the Morshead review was the appointment of a chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) as the government’s principal military adviser. As a result, the features of strong single services, dominant departmental secretaries and weak ministerial oversight continued throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s.

Diarchy and Division: Australian Civil-Military Relations and the Tange Reforms

By the early 1970s, it was widely accepted in Canberra that the defence machine was, in the words of Sir Arthur Tange, “incoherent, complex and unwieldy” with ministerial power lying less in impersonal statute than in the incumbent’s personal “conviction, persistence and courage”. In 1973, the Whitlam Labor government decided to implement defence reform measures devised by Tange, the most influential departmental secretary in the second half of the twentieth century. Tange, who held the office from 1970 until 1979, believed that the autonomy of the services impeded ministerial oversight and led to “an overweighting of military judgement in the [Defence] Department”. Sir Arthur held a bleak view of the intellectual calibre of the senior members of the Australian military profession, many of whom he believed were Colonel Blimps, intellectually unequipped for the demands of policy advising. As he once quipped, “joining the Navy at thirteen wasn’t necessarily the best way to produce strategic-thinkers”.

Following Tange’s recommendations, the 1975 Defence Reorganisation Act was passed, creating a new defence organisation controlled jointly by a civilian secretary and a military chief, with their powers “exercised subject to and in accordance with any directions of the Minister”. A legislatively enshrined diarchy came into being under which the administration of the department fell under the Secretary while command of the newly named Australian Defence Force (a name coined by Tange, not the military) was vested in a new statutory officer, the Chief of the Defence Force Staff (CDFS)—a position which in 1984 was renamed Chief of the Defence Force (CDF).

Tange was at once an apostle of Huntingtonian separatism in terms of his instincts about the intellectual limitations of the Australian profession of arms, and an Australian civilian version of the reformist Mountbatten. Given this curious mixture, Tange’s diarchy gave Australia a modern and centralised defence system but in an edifice with several contradictory flaws that came to bedevil future civil-military defence organisation. First, the lines of jurisdiction, between “command and administration” as laid down for the CDFS and the secretary, were ill-defined in the 1975 legislation. In practice, it proved difficult to reconcile general areas of departmental defence administration with those areas specific to ADF military administration. Second, the diarchic structure was dominated by public servants because of the paucity of military experts. Civilian officials came to dominate not only Defence’s committee system but also essential functions traditionally under military control—including logistics, technical services, personnel, communications and intelligence.

By 1980, of twelve major committees in the Defence organisation, ten were chaired by public servants. In a striking structural anomaly, the Defence Secretary became a member of the star rank promotion committee, a protocol not reciprocated by giving the CDFS a role in the selection of senior Defence public servants. Not surprisingly, a considerable number of ADF officers came to believe that the diarchic structure was a device that empowered the Defence Secretary while inhibiting the CDFS’s ability to exercise strategic command, deliver military advice and supervise force development. Tantrums and tensions followed. On one occasion in 1978, the CDFS, General Sir Arthur MacDonald, became so frustrated by the diarchic system that he threw a copy of the Army Manual at Sir Arthur Tange’s head, narrowly missing the target.

The military-bureaucratic imbalance in Australian defence organisation was further exacerbated by a third factor, namely the ADF’s strategic immaturity as a joint force. Unlike other Western liberal democracies—notably Britain with the Mountbatten reforms of the 1960s—defence amalgamation in Australia was not preceded by the creation of a joint chiefs-of-staff organisation and a joint strategic headquarters to streamline modern command and control. This was a critical weakness in the Australian Department of Defence. The CDFS and, after 1984, the CDF, possessed only a small staff and had to contend not only with a large civilian bureaucracy but also with the continuing power of the service chiefs who retained their statutory authority under the 1975 reorganisation.

The Tange reforms did not facilitate a joint system of full command under the CDFS because the Australian military continued to operate for far too long as a comfortable confederation of the three services. As a result, the new ADF lacked sufficient military strategists, senior operational commanders, and competent high-level staff officers to successfully staff the central bureaucracy. The imbalance in the 1975 reform measures meant that the Tange diarchy was less a blended river running in a single direction than two unevenly sized streams forced to run parallel but always inclined to diverge. One stream bore the policy expertise but the military inexperience of long-serving public servants; the other stream carried the military knowledge but the policy inexperience of the ADF. For many years after 1975, the twain did not meet.

Increasingly, it was “duellism” rather than “dualism” that came to dominate the Defence organisation. Symbolically, by the early 1980s, after decades of wearing suits to office postings, service personnel were ordered to wear dress of the day to distinguish them as a “band of brothers” from civil servants. The ADF’s lack of control over personnel, logistics and force development policy quickly bred a sense of professional military displacement by a “Tange dynasty” of civilian bureaucrats. In December 1979, the CDFS, Admiral Sir Anthony Synnot, complained to the Minister for Defence: “the present organisation gives me command and administrative responsibility with little or no authority”. Of particular concern to some in the ADF officer corps was the notion that professional military advice on defence policy might be filtered through “institutionalised public service control of the military” in a downgrading of military expertise. These were never groundless fears. As late as 1995, the Deputy Secretary of Strategy and Intelligence, Ric Smith (later Secretary of Defence) remarked that he had detected a persistent, if “mistaken view” amongst some bureaucrats that civil control of the military meant the exercise of public service authority giving rise to constant “ill-feeling among our uniformed colleagues”.

Belatedly, the ADF began to recognise that its adherence to the Huntington model was unsuited to Canberra’s diarchic defence system. For example, in 1980, Air Commodore (later Air Marshal) Ray Funnell argued that to remain relevant in higher policy, Australian military professionals needed to become “skilled operators in the bureaucratic environment”. He warned against any Australian “absolutist [Huntingtonian] profession”. Significantly, from the mid-1980s onwards CDFs such as General Sir Phillip Bennett sought to become “skilled operators” at the bureaucratic-military interface and accelerated the ADF’s evolution towards becoming a modern joint force. Initiatives included the formation of Headquarters ADF (HQADF) in 1983 and the creation in 1986 of the position of Vice Chief of the Defence Force (VCDF) to control new policy and operations divisions. By the first decade of the twenty-first century, ADF officers such as Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, CDF from 2005 to 2011 and Major General Duncan Lewis—from 2011 to 2012, the only former professional soldier ever to serve as Secretary of Defence—followed Funnell’s prescription to master not only warfighting but also bureaucratic politics. As Houston put it in 2013 in an Australian study, The Chiefs: A Study of Strategic Leadership, there was a military art in influencing government decision-making and it involved a combination of “skill, strategic appreciation and guile”.

Nonetheless, before this situation could eventuate there were twenty years of difficulty. In particular, the 1980s were marked by bitter jurisdictional and philosophical battles over military-bureaucratic control of strategy and force development in a near civil war between the ADF and the Defence Department’s Force Development and Analysis (FDA) division. These battles were particularly fierce between General Bennett as CDF and two departmental secretaries, Sir William Cole and Alan Woods. In March 1987, Bennett took the ADF’s dissatisfaction with the civilian-controlled FDA to the Minister of Defence, Kim Beazley, only to find Beazley disinclined to arbitrate in diarchic conflict.

Beazley’s philosophy of civil-military relations appears to have been based on the virtues of Huntingtonian separation since this situation fostered a “creative tension” between civilian bureaucrats and military professionals. Beazley believed that decision-making in Australian defence matters resembled alchemy as much as analysis and was “more akin to ancient church councils in its product than to the town hall meeting approach democracy contemplates”. He was not convinced that the ADF always gave ministers “objective advice” on strategy and force development, and he preferred a situation in which “civilian advice from the Defence Department is also required as part of the formal system of checks and balances inherent in a democracy”.

Ministerial adherence to a separatist philosophy of civil-military relations when combined with the bureaucratic-military structural imbalance of the diarchy encouraged an organisational culture of distrust and managerial ineffectiveness inside the Department of Defence. In the 1990s, these cultural problems could only be ameliorated in the diarchy by numerous committee compromises over jurisdiction and by improving inter-personal relationships. These approaches were fostered by less confrontational CDFs such as Generals Peter Gration and John Baker and more conciliatory secretaries such as the long-serving Tony Ayres.

Yet compromises and personal relationships were not enough to prevent a creeping devitalisation of Defence administration. Between 1982 and 2014 there was an extraordinary cascade of thirty-five reviews commissioned to try to improve departmental effectiveness and reduce bureaucratic-military friction. In late 1987, a parliamentary inquiry into Australia’s defence system suggested that while ministers possessed statutory authority, most chose to exercise little control, leading to “inadequacies in political supervision”. The inquiry described the diarchic structure of the higher organisation as an “arbitrary construct” incapable of fostering a corporate philosophy of unity and collaboration but only “a culture of confrontation and bargaining”.

In 1996, a Defence Efficiency Review found that despite attempts to develop a “more collaborative culture”, defence organisation was based on personalities rather than institutional design. The report stated that “the effectiveness of the higher defence arrangements, however, should be founded on appropriate structures rather than personal relationships”.

Despite the weakness of the Defence Department, the ADF continued to steadily develop as a joint force throughout the 1990s. ADF headquarters became a stronger strategic-level instrument of command with officers undertaking longer tours of duty. The role of the CDF grew, especially as departmental secretaries ceased to be permanent heads after 1994 and were appointed on fixed contracts. Between 1997 and 2011 there were five secretaries as opposed to three CDFs.

 The Implications of Defence’s “Broken Backbone” in the Twenty-First Century

By the 2020s, the ADF had successfully evolved from a federation of single services into a joint entity displaying considerable strategic maturity and operational effectiveness—as demonstrated in East Timor in 1999 through Afghanistan and Iraq from 2002 to 2014, to its more recent roles in bushfire relief and the COVID-19 crisis. In contrast, during the same period, the Department of Defence appeared to be on a downward spiral into dysfunction, with Russell Offices riven by reviews, increasingly bloated in staff and plagued by cost over-runs and capability delays. Between 1998 and 2014, the number of senior departmental executives went from 201 to 374 (an 86 per cent increase); junior and middle-ranking civilian staff grew by a mere 5000 (a 7 per cent increase); and 335 committees proliferated in a central organisation of some 16,000 public servants.

In February 2000, in a remarkable public condemnation of his own department, the Secretary of Defence, Dr Allan Hawke, stated bluntly that the Defence organisation had undergone “more reviews than Gone with the Wind” but none had prevented “a culture of learned helplessness” from gripping its senior leaders. In May 2000, his successor as Secretary of Defence, Nick Warner, declared that “Defence has a ‘broken backbone’ [in] the enabling, supporting parts of the business”. Despite these harsh critiques and another avalanche of management reviews—some twenty alone between 2008 and 2011—little appeared to change in Russell Offices. In 2012, in “a review of the reviews”, the scholar and journalist Henry Ergas described the Department of Defence as “a place of fiascos” in which “there are many plans, but no plan; myriad accountabilities, but no accountability”. He noted the strange disparity in public perception in which “the Australian Defence Force is held in high regard; the Department of Defence is not”.

Although all thirty-five reviews of the Department of Defence in the forty years since Tange have noted the persistent challenges of failing ministerial responsibility, bureaucratic-military disunity and poor accountability, most consider these flaws to be managerial rather than conceptual and structural. This flawed diagnosis only accentuates a dysfunction which Allan Hawke described in 2008 as symbolic of Defence’s “perpetual Groundhog Day”. In 2015, in what was the most comprehensive report since 1973, the First Principles Review: Creating One Defence, the leadership and budgetary practices of Defence were described as belonging to an “organisational model and processes [that] are complicated, slow and inefficient in an environment which requires simplicity, greater agility and timely delivery”. The review recommended a stronger, more strategic centre; end-to-end capability development; better integration mechanisms and improved performance management procedures. Under a “One Defence” scheme, the command and administrative authority of both the CDF and the VCDF were increased at the expense of the service chiefs who, after 2015, finally lost their statutory authority.

Yet like all previous reviews before it, the 2015 document shrank from recommending the abolition of the diarchy. The review concluded that the diarchy’s mixture of public sector skills and military knowledge provided a “contestability of advice” to the government in two key areas: joint warfighting and policy-making. A fresh division of diarchic responsibilities in force development and capability output was then implemented in the Defence organization—this time between the VCDF and his civilian equivalent, the Associate Secretary. Yet this measure carried an uncomfortable echo of the very mechanisms that caused so much military-bureaucratic polarisation during the 1980s. This is because, although the VCDF is accountable for force structure and capability proposals, the diarchic contestability process enables the Associate Secretary to exercise a civilian veto power over the ADF’s recommendations.

Here it is useful to note Martin Edmonds’s ominous warning in The Defence Equation, that unity of effort must ensure that capability matches likely commitments because “once a country has fallen behind the state of art in any technology, let alone defence technology, the chances of ever successfully catching up have proved to be small”. In Australia, having twin groups responsible for force structure and capability development runs contrary to military effectiveness and tends to conflate policy input with strategy output. In the words of Colonel Michael Scott, writing in 2022, there has been a “degradation of military strategy” in the Department of Defence due to the failure to create a core unified staff that reports directly to the Chief of the Defence Force.

For the above reasons, cynicism about the efficacy of defence reform in Australia remains widespread because history, structure and culture inhibit the efforts of the most well-intentioned reformers. In October 2017 in an address to a Royal Australian Navy conference, Liberal Senator Linda Reynolds (later Minister for Defence, 2019 to 2021) observed that the 2015 First Principles Review had come to almost exactly the same conclusions as the Department of Defence’s very first report, the Anderson Review of 1915, namely that Australia’s defence organisation resembled “a series of fragments working in disunion”. She bewailed the existence of over a century of dysfunction marked by “applying the same wrong remedies over and over again”. In August 2020, Reynolds, as Minister for Defence, stated even more gloomily, “we have got the right capability plan [from the 2020 Strategic Update], but we don’t have an organisation that is yet adaptable enough to deliver”.

Critics in the media, notably the Australian’s foreign editor Greg Sheridan, have been relentless in attacking the Defence Department, accusing it of “performative symbolism” and “paradigm paralysis” in arming the nation for a rapidly changing security environment. In October 2021, in an unusual conflation of Gilbert and Sullivan and Charles Dickens, one serving major-general told me of his frustration with the civilian bureaucracy: “Despite all the reviews, the Department of Defence is the very model of a modern Circumlocution Office. There are Tite Barnacles on every floor of Russell [Offices]. What goes in never comes out.”

After persistent challenges in exerting political supervision, a multitude of short-lived and unsuccessful reviews, and a long history of bureaucratic-military friction, it is difficult not to question the efficacy of the current diarchic defence organization—the essential arena for Australian civil-military relations—as a suitable governance model for the twenty-first century. Unlike the famous ancient Spartan diarchy before it, the modern Australian version has not successfully unified celeritas (the warfighting role) and gravitas (the civil peace role) into holistic organisational effectiveness for national defence. In part, this is due to the reality that the ADF has been an expeditionary force engaged in far-off “wars of choice” for its entire history and thus separate from the concerns of a Department of Defence operating on home soil.

Until the April 2022 China-Solomon Islands security agreement there has been no regional crisis to concentrate civil-military minds on the nation’s direct defence as an existential Australian concern. In many respects, Australia’s governing defence diarchy is less like Beazley’s “ancient church councils” than a sad exemplar of the managerial and military analyst Elliot Jacques’s description of a dysfunctional or “non-requisite organization”. Its opposite, a requisite, or successfully functioning organisation, is one that does not depend on personalities or any form of separate endeavour. A requisite organisation is one whose very structure provides effectiveness through measures of trust-inducement, team working, context setting and unified task assignment; its lines of accountability and authority are intimately aligned through a “managerial accountability hierarchy” running from apex to base.

Ironically, after long years of failed reviews, the challenge to defence reform in the 2020s is now the factor of time. Australia’s strategic circumstances have deteriorated so quickly over the past two years that rapid change is now imperative. Only a revolution in defence philosophy and a willingness to embrace both tough reforms, and higher levels of expenditure are likely to reverse our fortunes. We face a revisionist and bellicose China intent on driving the United States out of East Asia, incorporating Taiwan into the mainland by force and strategically penetrating Australia’s traditional sphere of influence in the South Pacific. As the Indo-Pacific order undergoes serious strain from Chinese strategic ambition, a parallel breakdown in the European security order, symbolised by Russia’s war on Ukraine, is occurring, adding to a global strategic uncertainty that is antithetical to Australia’s interests.


In Australia, there has been an unwillingness to employ modern civil-military relations as a conceptual framework to guide problem-solving in defence affairs between politicians, public servants and uniformed professionals. The existence of a formal diarchy in the governance of the Department of Defence over the past four decades has encouraged an approach to administration that is focused on civilian managerial solutions. The intellectual flaw in the department’s managerialism is that the bureaucracy seems to consider that a partnership of dissimilar entities in the form of civilian and military stakeholders can understand each other without any formal knowledge of the field of civil-military relations. Yet, without such knowledge, there can be no conceptual framework to help create a skilful “defence equation” of unified policies, programs, processes and proprieties. In any modern defence organisation, the diverse cultures of civilian managerialism and occupationalism on the one hand, and of military professionalism on the other hand, must be governed by an infusion of appropriate civil-military concepts and norms aimed at fostering institutional unity.

In his 2001 history, The Department of Defence, the late Eric Andrews concluded that Australia’s defence organisation is “an extreme example of a horizontally divided structure” composed of politicians, public servants and service personnel with attitudes shaped by a collective failure to coordinate aims and policies. Twenty years on, this horizontally divided structure continues to endure alongside the archaic remnants of a Huntingtonian philosophy of civil-military separatism. It is impossible, then, not to be gripped by the French Nobel laureate Romain Rolland’s pessimism of the intellect in studying Australia’s defence history; but in a darkening strategic time, one also clings to an optimism of the will for consolation. A more constructive and modern approach to comprehending civil-military relations in Australia’s defence apparatus is necessary to help produce the right strategy, capability and force development for the dangerous years ahead. All Australians, then, should fervently hope that the old will die and, that the Albanese government’s August 2022 announcement of a new Defence Strategic Review will defy long odds and somehow herald a new era in Australia’s defence history.

Michael Evans is the General Sir Francis Hassett Chair of Military Studies at the Australian Defence College in Canberra and a professor in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Deakin University in Victoria. This article draws on material from a chapter from The Routledge Handbook of Civil-Military Relations (2022) and from proceedings in the Centre for Defence Research, Civil-Military Relations in Australia: Past, Present and Future (2021).

6 thoughts on “Diagnosing Dysfunction in Defence Management

  • Botswana O'Hooligan says:

    A great illustration is of course the F-35 and an ever greater illustration will be the all electric “Bushmaster” that is silent running but extremely silent when it runs out of ergs and produces very little heat except when the small fuel powered generator is required to charge the lithium battery over several hours, the battery that explodes into a fireball if hit by a stray missile. A sensible government would consider sourcing defence out to Woollies or Wesfarmers with a condition that nothing be sourced from the Middle Kingdom.

  • BalancedObservation says:

    Very very impressive long detailed coverage of defence issues but …

    The Ukraine war has surely overwhelmingly told us it’s hardly worth debating the excruciating detail of defence policy unless we get two key things right first:

    1. Acquiring the very latest short and long range conventional rocket defence capability in order:
    (a) To deter the use of long range conventional weapons in softening up tactics against us, and
    (b) To hold things up till the cavalry can arrive.

    2. Our own credible nuclear strike capability to help ensure:
    (a) The cavalry are not dissuaded from arriving by the threat of nuclear attack by our likely potential invader.
    (b) The cavalry are actually persuaded to help because they are our close allies and if they don’t help we’ll be forced to defend ourselves with our own nuclear weapons against a potential invader.
    We are wealthy enough to afford the above. And if we want to exist long term as a free independent country, we can’t afford not to afford the above.
    I’ll leave the rest of the detail to others.

  • Steve Spencer says:

    ” … one which is unique in composition and identity since it consists of three distinct and different components: the political class, the civilian bureaucracy, and the profession of arms.”

    I would argue that defence isn’t really that different from other public service departments if “profession of arms” is replaced by ‘service delivery”. In this respect, they all fail for the exact same reasons and should be considered barely fit for purpose.

    Perhaps (and I hope) there is a difference however, in that the people doing the ‘delivery of service’ in the military are well trained, motivated and dependable – not something one could say about those in other public service departments.

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    Having worked as a middle-ranking staff officer in the Department of Defence in Canberra during the transition to, during, and for some time after the Tange era, for nearly 20 years, my most persistent memory is of the general ignorance of the actual business of Defence displayed by the average public servant and most of the Ministers of the era. My impression was that Defence was perceived by both politicians and public servants as a political backwater. Ambitious public servants worked assiduously to find jobs in other departments, and most of the Ministers during my time were mediocre at best, particularly the Coalition’s.
    In Air Force Office, it was a very rare public servant in my area who had ever set foot on an operational RAAF base or who had any concept of the activities there. Many gave the impression that they couldn’t care less.

  • Geoff Sherrington says:

    Professional military people have skin in the game — their own skins that they want to protect by being good at warfare. Bureaucrats have skin in another game, self-promotion, risk aversion and related topics like the knighthoods of old and inventing new policies that show them off whether the policies are good or bad or lead to others getting killed. Politicians should keep a distance with defence in charge, their main function being to discern whether it is the will of the people to commence a combat (and when to stop).
    We people need a strong, competent, decision making military. Minimal bureaucracy, for the blindingly obvious reason that few past bureaucratic exercises have succeeded and most caused harm. In my teens, we were taught that government bodies were like town councils, there to employ the disadvantaged unemployables.
    Why else has it taken all those years since the decisive Hiroshima/Nagasaki action for Australia to start to join the nuclear age — but even then with submarines a decade off. Incompetence shows.
    Geoff S

  • BalancedObservation says:

    I stand 100% by what a I said above. Nothing I’ve read in the article and in comments here convinces me otherwise. We need the latest rocket technology and capability for both defence and attack; and we need a credible nuclear strike capability.
    You can fill the defence department up with all the best defence specialists in the world at every level in the bureaucracy. You can make them all ultra efficient with the best state of the art processes but if they don’t come up with what I said above you’re wasting your time.
    Why? Because Ukraine has surely told us without the capability I talked about our defence against our obvious potential predator is simply not credible.
    I’m not arguing that’s everything we need but without such a capability as a base there’s no point in turning up unless you’re only worried about an invasion from New Zealand.
    Of course there are problems with an inefficient bureaucracy and typical bureaucratic seat-warmers instead of military experts – but you’ll find pretty much the equivalent case in most government departments in different settings. Twenty years at senior management levels in government tells me that.
    The above capability is what we need as a base to be effective. Far better to have it than to be ultra efficient in what we’re doing now. With the sort of capability we have now, we will probably not survive as a free independent country. It’s as a simple as that.
    You may be optimistic about Ukraine and think a similar outcome is acceptable to us – but I don’t. At best that’s how we’d wind up without the capabilities I talked about above as our base because Ukraine didn’t have them.
    And Ukraine is far from victorious yet. And if Ukraine is ultimately “victorious” what do you think it’s going to look like? What’s likely to be left?
    We’re fortunate to have been warned so starkly. We need to seize the moment to get the critical issues right that will start making our defence credible. We can worry about the minutiae later.

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