Lewis lullaby is tough love for Defence
28 Aug 2012|
Secretary of Defence Duncan Lewis

Defence Secretary Duncan Lewis’ speech to ASPI last week was a message (put nicely) to his own organisation to toughen up: stop squealing about spending cuts and start rebuilding the organisation to handle a harder strategic environment. According to Lewis, his speech was a homage to Sir Arthur Tange’s infamous ‘Tange harangue’, a speech delivered in August 1973 which tore strips off the three Services for their ‘triplicated’ ways of doing business. And although the Secretary assured the audience he wouldn’t repeat Tange’s words that is exactly what he did, but in a subtler way.

The Secretary’s speech deserves careful reading for the messages it contains both to Government and to Defence. The first was about money: ‘If you haven’t talked dollars you haven’t talked strategy’ Lewis said, quoting Tange. The speech repeatedly emphasised the need to match strategic aspirations to the available dollars. Australia’s strategy, Lewis said ‘needs to be tempered by reality, affordability, and informed by the thinking and tasking of other Government agencies.’ Frankly, this is a more realistic appreciation of Defence’s position than in Defence Minister Stephen Smith’s recent speeches to ASPI and the Lowy Institute. Lewis knows that it is impossible to keep cutting spending and expect that there will be no loss of capability. His message is that we need a strategy that fits what Government is prepared to spend.

The second message  was about savings and efficiencies and, in content if not in tone, Lewis was every bit as tough as Sir Arthur in calling out duplications in far too many functions across Defence, particularly in acquisition, human resources management, finance and information and communications technology. His aim is to ‘decrease the number of people that we currently have devoted to them.’ The Government’s mantra is that no ADF personnel will be cut, but after years of reform efforts some of the biggest potential efficiencies are in the uniformed ADF—in training and education for example. Lewis was uncompromising in saying that reform would have to happen: ‘if we do nothing our buying power will erode and diminish.’ In effect he is proposing a trade-off: Defence can make radical cuts, but it needs to retain the savings to buy ‘…the capability we assess we need.’ Talk about tough messages! Lewis is saying to Government, get ready to make difficult judgement calls on personnel numbers; to the central agencies, there is no easy harvesting of cash from his department; and to his own organisation (still sulking from the last budget) even deeper reform is necessary.

Duncan Lewis’ third message was about strategy: ‘As things stand I don’t think we are structured or postured appropriately to meet our likely strategic circumstances in future.’ It’s a line worth reading again. And it’s no small thing for a Secretary of Defence to say. Following that, Lewis went on to talk about Chinese defence spending, the US ‘pivot’, regional economic growth and the rise of ‘more outward looking countries.’ He noted the challenges of managing competing economic interests and the region’s rather threadbare security institutions. It is a necessarily restrained presentation of what Defence considers to be a more worrying set of strategic trends.

The solution Lewis proposes is twofold. First, we mitigate risks to our national security by ‘working with regional neighbours and partners, participating in and fostering bilateral, trilateral and multilateral linkages.’ Defence’s posture in the region—that is, what we do with what we have—is emerging as the lead theme for the next white paper. That will be a refreshing break from big talk about capabilities we don’t have and won’t have for several decades (if at all). The challenge for Defence will be to think big about what can be achieved in regional engagement. Just tinkering with the Defence Cooperation Program won’t be enough.

Lewis’ second response is to ‘reduce our risk by doing Defence business differently. … We have come a long way since Tange ‘harangued’ the Services in 1973, but if we don’t go further – much further – we run the risk of becoming irrelevant.’ Defence, irrelevant? I can imagine how that line will go down at the Russell Offices. It’s an uncompromising message for Defence, but, as Tange might have seen it, it’s right on the money.

Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.