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Defence Materiel Organisation Probability of Failure:

Pfail = 1.0

Air Power Australia - Australia's Independent Defence Think Tank

Air Power Australia NOTAM

   23rd February, 2011

Dr Carlo Kopp, SMAIAA, SMIEEE, PEng,
Head of Capability Analysis, Air Power Australia

Contacts: Carlo Kopp
Peter Goon

Mob: 0437-478-224
Mob: 0419-806-476

A Royal Australian Navy Kaman Seasprite helicopter in 2007. The Seasprite program failure was characteristic of DMO practices which persist. The program resulted in the much publicised cancellation and withdrawal from service. None of the root causes of the Seasprite failure have been addressed (©2007 Carlo Kopp).

Air Commodore Bushell's extensive monograph on the Defence Materiel Organisation, published this week by Air Power Australia, is the most detailed forensic study produced to date, exploring the root causes of dysfunction in Australia's Defence acquisition bureaucracy1.

This monograph adds the hard, detailed engineering perspective and brings into stark, chilling relief the problems which are fundamental to the debate, which should currently be raging in the Office of the Minister for Defence and in the Australian media, over accountability for the “wicked problems” in the senior management echelons of Defence and the DMO.

The author of this study is well placed to comment. Being the last Senior Maintenance Staff Officer, Headquarters Support Command, of the Royal Australian Air Force, he is able to make direct comparisons through experience between the current acquisition system, and the acquisition system it replaced. Air Commodore Bushell's perspective is that of a highly experienced professional engineer, who spent decades doing engineering and engineering management the way it should be done – with rigour and intellectual discipline.

The monograph is a large document, but this inevitably reflects the nature of such studies, which must exhaustively trawl through a multiplicity of broken or underperforming acquisition projects, to divine the truth buried beneath reams of flowery bureaucratese, the latter designed to confuse, misdirect and thus mislead legislators and oversight bodies as to the true state of the organisation under scrutiny.

What is the punchline? The Defence Materiel Organisation lacks both the internal governance structures and the technical expertise in its pool of senior personnel to manage and mentor those charged with the responsibility of performing its intended task with any semblance of rigour and focus on outcomes. Either of these two impediments is lethal in its own right in any large organisation, but when combined they guarantee organisational failure.

Air Commodore Bushell's monograph dissects in detail the historical evolution of the DMO from its predecessor organisations, showing step by step how the organisation lost its way, and embarked upon the path to progressive and deepening deskilling, as experienced professional engineers and engineering managers were replaced by generalist managers and, ever increasingly, bureaucratic administrators.

The ANAO, which is Australia's equivalent to the US GAO, Major Projects Review 2008 – 2009 is then forensically analysed, and the bureaucratic language of DMO managers deconstructed carefully to expose the underlying truths. Over and over again, we observe outright denial behaviour by senior DMO bureaucrats, who appear unable to accept, understand, and possibly even apprehend the extent of the organisation's management and technological deskilling or the inevitable results it produces. Process is layered upon process, accountabilities and responsibilities are ever increasingly diffused, in a manner that conceals the root causes of DMO's failure and its inability to reform itself.

The inevitably lengthy Annex A of the monograph explores each and every project covered in the ANAO MPR document, and identifies patterns of behaviour and improper practices project by project.

What Air Commodore's Bushell's monograph shows with sparkling clarity is the ultimate folly of trying to replace highly experienced and technologically competent engineering professionals with technologically unskilled generalist “business managers” in a large enterprise that is primarily responsible for specifying and procuring technological products, many of which genuinely qualify as “state-of-the-art” high technology products.

The failure of the DMO is yet another case study in a long series of failures observed across technological industries over the last decade, where technologically illiterate personnel have been employed as substitutes for experienced engineering managers. The more senior the management post staffed in this fashion, the faster failures have arisen, and the deeper the damage inflicted.

Readers in the United States and Britain might carefully reflect on the findings of Air Commodore Bushell's study, since the concurrent failure in both governance and staffing competencies, which has brought Australia's defence acquisition system to a state of “thermal death”, are no different to the root causes of manifold failed programs in the American and British acquisition bureaucracies. The zeal with which Canberra Defence bureaucrats have adopted and internalised every single management “fad” developed in the Washington and London Defence bureaucracies has given this failure a globalised dimension. As the common behaviours surrounding the failed F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program across all partner nations show very clearly, Western taxpayers are confronting a globalised disease in acquisition bureaucracies, which are failing in governance under the burden of massive internal deskilling.

Prima facie this presents as a pandemic of the “Dunning-Kruger effect” across these organisations2.

Is there any possible escape from the “gravity well” of combined governance and deskilling failures?

The answer is yes, but to do so requires an honest acceptance of the fact that the fundamental models used in the current management and governance of our acquisition bureaucracies, and the idea of replacing technologically skilled engineering professionals with technologically unskilled generalists, are both complete failures which have been shown consistently not to work, and which cannot be made to work.

These fundamental and inevitable realities continue to be rejected by senior bureaucrats across Western acquisition bureaucracies, since to accept these ground truths would be to accept that they themselves should be replaced by engineering managers competent in project engineering and military technologies.

Until political leaders in Western nations confront the reality that their cadre of senior bureaucrats are unable to fix problems which are an inherent consequence of the generalist bureaucrat's basic thought process, the haemorrhage of Western taxpayers' hard earned funds will continue unabated, and the West will continue in its ongoing strategic decline as military acquisition programs continue to fail.

Tiger ARH. “For a project that is said to be 27 months later than originally planned, with some major elements up to 62 months late, has been re-baselined, and is still facing considerable challenges, to be assessed as “still expected to deliver the required capability within the approved budget” stretches credibility. (©2007 Carlo Kopp).


1 Bushell E.J., An Analysis of Defence Materiel Organisation Major Projects Management and What Needs to be Fixed, APA Analyses APA-2011-2, Vol. VIII APA-2011-02, URI: http://www.ausairpower.net/APA-2011-02.html.
2 Ehrlinger, J. et al. Why the unskilled are unaware: Further explorations of (absent) self-insight among the incompetent, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 105 (105): 98–121, 2008, URI: http://www.psy.fsu.edu/~ehrlinger/Self_&_Social_Judgment/Ehrlinger_et_al2008.pdf

© 2011, Carlo Kopp

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