The Australian Defence establishment has had the couple of months from hell recently, what with a damning report into an appalling culture of alcohol abuse, sexual terrorism, command breakdown and cover-up aboard HMAS Success; and the revelation that maintenance failures have rendered two Navy fleet support vessels, HMAS Kanimbla and Manoora, unserviceable for some time to come. The Minister for Defence, Stephen Smith, was so dismayed by the latter that he has explicitly condemned the culture which permitted such an outcome, and has taken measures involving external intervention, to put matters right.
Several years ago I prepared a list of major defence projects which had gone off the rails big-time. These include (not the complete list):
the construction of HMAS Tobruk in the late 1970s (delivered 293 days late, as against the original contract, and 22 days late even against an amended contract; 42% over budget and also heavier than intended, with negative operational consequences). This matter was adversely reported on by Parliament's Public Works Committee in Report 223 (1984 – not online, unfortunately).
the Inshore Minehunter Project in the late eighties (produced two vessels which never left Sydney Harbour on operations and were subsequently decommissioned – cost: in excess of $100 million). See Senate Hansard 15 Oct 2003, p.16492.
the notorious Collins submarine project, with remedial costs probably approaching $1 billion, despite which the six boats have never really met their original capability objectives.
the JORN over-the-horizon radar project, delayed for years and with losses estimated at $600m (see E.M. Andrews, The Department of Defence, Oxford Uni Press 2001, p.289).
the original purchase of Kanimbla and Manoora from the US (thought to be a bargain-basement coup at $61 million, ended up costing about $340 million because both vessels were severely affected by rust unrevealed in the pre-purchase inspection and required extensive remedial work). See Ian McPhedran, 'How the RAN was ripped off', Canberra Times, 21 March 1996 – not online; and my list, cited above.
the Army Bushmaster vehicle project where, instead of receiving over 370 vehicles for an approved project cost of $316m (a notional unit cost of $854,000) we received only 299 vehicles for the same price – a notional unit cost of $1,057,000, or in other words an overrun of almost a quarter.
the Seasprite naval helicopter project (cancelled in 2008; those helicopters delivered were returned to the manufacturer; cost: about $ 1 billion).
Military organisations by their nature have unusual internal cultures. In many respects this is a good and necessary thing stemming from the unique nature of military service. A substantial part of military training is specifically designed to inculcate the culture into new recruits because, without it, they would never be able to manage the challenging demands they may face on operations.
However, there can be too much of a good thing. It is, for instance, obviously necessary that a ship's company have a sense of "family", of corporate identity and unity, if you like. Yet this same sense, if not properly managed by the command hierarchy, can run amuk, as it clearly has on HMAS Success where serious personnel abuses and public misconduct by crew members has apparently become part of the ship's culture. Significantly, even the recent searching inquiry into this affair had to report that it did not believe it had uncovered all the truth, because crew members continue to lie and cover-up in order to protect each other from the consequences of their actions.
It might be that the Navy (or anyone's navy) is especially vulnerable to this kind of failure, because each ship on operations is an isolated unit with only remote access to the rest of the service, let alone the nation at large, for weeks on end. But this only imposes on the command structure, all the way to the top, an obligation to manage effectively the problems inherent in maritime service. It is not as if such inherent vulnerabilities are something new and unforeseeable, they have been there for as long there have been navies. Nor does any such vulnerability explain, let alone justify, the Navy's atrocious record of major project management.