July is a brilliant time to be in London.
It’s a sturdy 20-25 degrees, the evenings are long, the pubs are full and, contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t rain as much as you’re led to believe growing up in Australia.
As a sports fan, I’ve also got a smorgasbord of options to fill my boots. Wimbledon, The Open, classics like Ascot and Henley and as a cricket fan, The Ashes, where at the time of writing this blog, Australia are two-one up and well on our way to a famous series victory (I hope this ages well).
The summer months are also a particularly good time for reading by the beach or in the park. Indeed for those avid readers of government reports on defence, strategy and geopolitics, this July has been especially bountiful.
I’m talking of course about two major reports from UK Parliamentary Committees. The first, a scathing defence procurement report by the House of Commons’ Defence Committee; the second, a no-holds-barred report by the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament (ISC) on the real and growing threat to the UK’s national interests from China.
And it would be remiss of me not to mention the latest iteration of the UK’s Defence Command Paper (DCP) released on 18th July, two years after the previous Command Paper. In summary, “The DCP23 outlines how the British Armed Forces will modernise and adapt to the changing global picture and, in particular, we will prioritise investment in science and technology to ensure we have a force greater than the sum of our parts”.
For those with keen eyes, it’s not too dissimilar in its ambition to Australia’s Defence Strategic Review (DSR), which was also publicly released earlier this year in March. The DCP and DSR come as both countries seek to continue to define and establish their position in the world in a rapidly changing context, as well as reinforce key understandings of China. They also make honest admissions about the state of the procurement and the defence apparatus as a whole.
There isn’t space here to delve in-depth into each of these papers but, as an Australian living in the UK, I can’t help but compare the two countries. It struck me how, in light of AUKUS and global strategic competition, Australia and the UK have become increasingly intertwined, while of course maintaining some differences, naturally.
Honest truths: Both the UK and Australian Defence Forces are not deemed fit for purpose.
The admonishing and honest report tabled in the UK by the Defence Committee is decidedly pointed in its derision of a British procurement system that is “crying out for help”. Titled “It’s broke – and it’s time to fix it” the report found that the UK procurement system is “highly bureaucratic, overly stratified, far too ponderous, with an inconsistent approach to safety, very poor accountability and a culture which appears institutionally averse to individual responsibility”… It really is a rather damning report.
However, the report makes 22 specific recommendations to seriously overhaul the procurement system and make it ‘fit for purpose’ in the 21st century. Focusing on individual responsibility, culture, skills development and empowerment, this transformation will be no easy feat, but the UK won’t be the only Western country with the impetus to do so.
One of the key findings in the DSR was that the Australian Defence Force (ADF) is also currently ‘not fit for purpose’ and that a faster schedule for force generation, including procurement, is needed. As a result, another inquiry is underway in Australia.
In July, the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade closed submissions to an inquiry into the performance of the Department of Defence in supporting the capability and capacity of Australia’s defence industry.
SoftIron made a submission in light of our Sovereign Industrial Capability Grant from the Department of Defence, recommending that Defence do more to engage Australian industry content and support existing investments into capability.
Although we will have to wait until March 2024 for the findings of the inquiry, I anticipate that like the UK report, it too won’t be overly flattering.
But why is procurement and interaction with industry in the spotlight now? I don’t believe there is a single answer, but I would point to a lack of results following previous reviews, and the stark reality of being under-prepared and under-resourced in the effort to quell a revanchist Russia and China.
I’ll say, however, that when I recently attended an industry day run by the UK MoD, one of my takeaways from the event was an acceptance by Defence that procurement hadn’t kept up with the rapidly changing global context, and there is serious endeavour to make it more streamlined, rapid and consultative with all industry stakeholders and academia.
Here’s hoping that actions match the words. Ultimately, both countries need to abandon the pursuit of the perfect solution or process and focus on delivering timely and relevant capability.
Called out: China is a long-term systemic threat.
In the report on China by the ISC, the Chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee, The Rt Hon. Sir Julian Lewis MP, said “China represents a risk on a pretty wide scale”. The threat from China comes as no great surprise, but public acknowledgement by Britain of the scale and breadth of the threat until now has been rare. The increasingly outright public recognition, particularly by the ISC, and the attribution of cyber attacks, should be applauded.
This report also draws attention to the ‘known unknowns’ of China’s computer exploitation and cyber espionage capability. It says:
“In relation to the cyber approach, whilst understanding has clearly improved in
recent years, China has a highly capable cyber – and increasingly sophisticated cyberespionage – operation: however, this is an area where the ‘known unknowns’ are concerning.”
I’ve written previously about the threat of Chinese interference in the supply chains of critical ICT infrastructure. The concerning reality is, we don’t know how exposed we are, and therefore ensuring and securing the provenance of ICT infrastructure is vital.
If it feels like there has been an increase in epoch-defining reports about ambitious plans and strategy, you’re probably not wrong. Whether it’s Covid, the war in Ukraine, China’s rise in the Indo-Pacific, or probably a sum of these factors and others, the number of reviews has certainly increased in a rapidly changing global context.
Both the DSR and DCP clearly set ambitious long-term agendas, recognise vulnerabilities and call for a strategic sharpening.
They both also place a significant emphasis on deterrence and increase the spotlight on science, innovation and technology, alongside how the respective Defence forces will work more closely with industry and international partners.
And the key takeaway is that both countries recognise the need to do more.
Global Britain is returning with force.
The DCP affirmed Britain’s commitment to NATO, Europe and the Indo-Pacific and outlined the establishment of a UK Global Response Force. The Response Force is designed to ensure the UK’s ability to “get there first” in global conflict situations. The outgoing Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace MP, said in his speech to the House of Commons that “the indivisibility of operational theatres in today’s world, means we must be constantly ready to respond globally, to support our allies”.
Similarly, Australia recognises the need to do more of the regional security “heavy lifting”.
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence, Richard Marles said, “The Defence Strategic Review, and the Government’s response, is about maintaining peace, security and prosperity in our region.” Renewed focus on upgrading Australia’s northern bases and working more closely with regional and AUKUS partners will enable this.
However, for all their ambition, the DSR and DCP are probably less revolutionary than some public debate suggests and confirms many earlier aspirations and objectives, including broadly adhering to the policy courses set by the previous Australian government’s 2020 Defence Strategic Review and the British 2021 Defence Command Paper.
And the reviews won’t slow down from here on out. The Albanese government has accepted the DSR’s recommendation for an inaugural Defence Strategy in 2024 and there will almost certainly be more reviews falling out of the DCP.
Unfortunately, the sheer number of reviews can create uncertainty for industry partners in the private sector, especially SMEs. Projects go on hold, decisions are delayed and people are moved on. At times, it could be hard to see the value in yet another review.
However, in an unpredictable world, what is certain is that no one can be confident about how the balance of power will play out globally over the next few decades. Even the smallest sharpener could prove vital for peace and stability.
Speaking of sharpeners, I think it’s time for a gin and tonic in front of the cricket.