Defence yesterday released the Rizzo Review into the causes of the failure in the Royal Australian Navy's amphibious fleet earlier this year. In Defence Minister Stephen Smith's words, 'it is a damning report'. Defence should be commended for releasing it so quickly to the public. 

The problems are legion:

...organizational complexity and blurred accountabilities, inadequate risk management, poor compliance and assurance, a "hollowed-out" Navy engineering function, resource shortages…and a culture that places the short-term operational mission above the need for technical integrity.

The cultural, structural, and organisational problems the report describes are so entrenched that it would be surprising if they didn't exist elsewhere in Defence. If Navy was a civilian airline and received this kind of report into its engineering and maintenance services, it would be grounded and out of business.

The report's most significant recommendation is to 'rebuild Navy Engineering'. Not just reorganise or fix it, but rebuild the capability entirely from the ground up. Navy is a highly technical force, and engineering capability is the backbone of Navy's technical expertise. The Rizzo team's recommendation is like telling the Army to rebuild its infantry capability or the air force to rebuild its pilot training.

No costs are given but you can bet this rebuild won't be cheap. The review notes 'resource requirements and impacts have not been scoped' and suggests that the 'increase in resources needed to address this plan' will conflict with the ongoing cost-cutting of the Strategic Reform Program.

The review questions whether the skilled sailors necessary to repopulate Navy and DMO's hollowed-out engineering workforce are even available within Australia. As this unrelated Navy brief notes (Slides 11-14), engineering staff in one part of Navy have shrunk from 800 to 60 over the last 20 years, replacement engineering staff weren't trained in DMO or defence industry, and Navy 'has not been able to maintain corporate knowledge'. Rizzo notes that the equivalent engineering staff in the RAAF is seven times larger.

This problem has been known for some time – the review cites studies dating back as far as the inquiry into the fatal HMAS Westralia fire of 1998 and concludes 'the problems...are long-standing, well known to Defence and DMO'. Identifying the problem is one thing; making good on a recommendation like 'reinstate the cultural importance of technical integrity' is another.

There are few good news stories in all of this, but one is worth singling out. The Navy's Seaworthiness Boards – drawn from good practice in the Air Force – were the brainchild of Navy Commodore Vince Di Pietro. They are an example of the kind of smart thinking and smart officers that exist within Navy, but that are hamstrung by problematic command structures, bureaucratic inertia, and an unwillingness to report bad news.

Quite simply, no one in Navy had sufficient power, authority, and knowledge to fix these problems, though that doesn't excuse the incompetence of some officers, sailors, and civilian staff who complacently ignored engineering policy and lived a culture where ships were automatically deemed 'safe to sail' rather than inspected for maintenance failure.

There are three critical issues unearthed by this review that require urgent further analysis.

1. Inaccurate reporting that led to the CDF and Minister being misinformed that amphibious ships were ready to sail back in February, when in fact they were not. The Rizzo Review concludes that the regular Navy Scorecard Reports provided internally to Chief of Navy 'were optimistic and did not adequately identify the key issues and risks'.

Anyone who has seen the kind of simplistic traffic-light reporting that passes for performance measurement in Navy will not be surprised by that finding. But think of the ramifications. If the Minister, CDF, or Chief of Navy ask their people for an honest assessment of where problems exist, they will not get an accurate answer. So no one actually knows how bad things actually are, and Navy's people – for whatever reason – do not want to report bad news.

It's highly unlikely that this problem of dishonest internal reporting is restricted to Navy. It means that when Defence leaders ask if there are any problems, they can’t necessarily trust the answers they get.

2. The looming possibility that the issues unearthed by the Rizzo Review will get worse as Navy accepts into service the large LHD amphibious ships, Air Warfare Destroyers, and other planned future vessels. Simply put, we are adding more complex ships to a Navy that cannot handle the complexity of the ships it is operating now. This Army brief details just how complex the introduction into service of the new LHDs will be.

The Rizzo team concludes that Defence and DMO have not fully grasped the changes needed to sustain this new capability and will need an additional 400 'resources' (that's staff, in layman's terms) to maintain the new capabilities. The review also concludes that 'the team is not confident that Navy and DMO has the capacity to manage the transition period' from the current fleet to the Air Warfare Destroyers and LHDs coming online from 2014. The maritime modernisation of the ADF is in some peril, it seems.

3. Navy's consistent inability to identify and fix its own problems. Maybe it was beyond former Chiefs of Navy to establish the true state of Navy's engineering problems and fix it. Maybe they never properly questioned preparedness assumptions or really stress-tested their organisation. Maybe they were just too busy responding to the busy decade of military deployments after East Timor. These problems were unearthed because of a crisis and will be resolved only with the external pressure of parliamentary, public, and media scrutiny.

Perhaps the lesson we are just now learning is that it's time to put aside the glory of ANZAC, to probe beyond the courage of our soldiers, sailors, and airmen, and for the first time objectively answer one important question – just how good is our Defence force, really?

Photo by Flickr user marta.