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Finding your voice - writing, ranting and risk

There’s rarely been a more critical time to debate the Defence of Australia and its interests than now. And as more speculative details of the Defence Strategic Review continue to hit the news cycle, how do members of the Defence sector make reasoned arguments around the best way of implementing its findings? In this instructive piece, Air Commodore Jason “Booj” Begley lays down some practical advice on contributing to the contest of ideas and differentiating between effective writing and destructive ranting.


There’s no better time to put pen to paper in the contest of ideas about air and space power. Because there’s been no more critical time for Defence, its capabilities, or our nation’s future since World War II ended.


The Defence Strategic Review has dropped. Exactly what it says, and more importantly, how Defence interprets that, remains to be seen. But what we all know is that we can’t have it all. The laundry list of ‘wants’ across the services, as distinct from what we genuinely ‘need’, is too expensive (and arguably always has been). More importantly, the skilled workforce to deliver, sustain, and operate those wants/needs also needs to be grown - and that won’t simply materialise overnight.


In the meantime, we’ve got to make the most of what we’ve got. But how can we extract the full potential from our existing platforms and people? How can we contribute to a more effective Joint Force? What processes and structures should we adapt, and what should we abolish?


No doubt you’ve got thoughts on that. Because during your time in Defence, you’ve built knowledge and experience, and seen things work and seen things fail. AFSTRAT encourages you to be an intelligent workforce that offers up innovative solutions, but it doesn’t tell you how to do it. And what if the problem you’re trying to solve is an entrenched status quo that your organisation doesn’t seem keen to change?


You’ve seen others in Defence write. Some for ASPI, the Central Blue, Cove, Strategy Bridge, and even military texts. So you checked Defence’s policy on public comment and social media, and now you’re wondering which 2* is approving publication of all those pieces.


Well, there isn’t one. These authors are simply taking a calculated risk. They see an issue they think needs discussion or debate. And they have a view on that issue to which they are willing to commit their name and their professional credibility.


That sort of risk has a long tradition in Air and Space Power. The will to take calculated risks characterised aviation’s pioneers. It freed us from gravity and led to an independent air force. Continually challenging the status quo allowed us to apply the latest technology and concepts to our platforms, people, and structures so they were always fit to meet the dynamic needs of our strategic environment. Per ardua ad astra is not just a motto; accepting risk to attain progress is the defining trait of Air Force culture. So it’s not a surprise that those passionate about progress will always look to express their views and beg forgiveness rather than seek permission and risk censorship.


But you need to be deliberate. Forgiveness will not only depend on the merit of your argument, but the way you argue. An emotive rant rather than a reasoned argument won’t get much traction. But it will lead the audience to form a view of your credibility, professionalism, and judgement.


Perhaps some examples will illustrate what I mean.


This article from 2021 and another from 2022 do it right. Their author describes challenges he encountered, explained objectively why he thought they needed to be addressed and how they could be. Both drew attention. Some were from layers of the organisation so wedded to process they no longer asked why. And some from senior leaders who appreciated having their long-standing assumptions tested and were willing to look at better ways to do business.


So let’s consider what not to do with a couple of hypotheticals.


In Scenario 1, Government has cancelled your project. Up front, you need to remember the primacy of Government in civil-military relations in our society. You and/or your boss(es) provided (one would hope) ‘best military advice’ on this project. And Government still said no... Directly criticising that decision is a no-no, unless of course you’re willing to quit and do so as a private citizen. But indirect criticism via social media – liking, retweeting or otherwise endorsing others’ criticism of the decision – is arguably worse. Not only doesn’t it add anything useful to the debate, but the petty snarkiness of your approach also calls into question your judgement and military professionalism.


In Scenario 2, ‘shaping’ public debate about projects that may be axed is also high-risk. ‘Wedging’ Government’s decision space is a mortal sin. Public statements that “not having [capability x] will put soldiers’/sailors’/aviators’ lives and Australia’s national interests at risk,” is not the statement of a military professional. It’s an appeal to public sentiment from an individual who can’t produce a compelling logical argument for a capability, but is so emotionally wedded to it that they’ll try anything to assure its survival. You need to be clear on this issue – Government decides what our national interests are and how much risk to them they are willing to accept. The same goes for how much risk they will accept to ADF lives in pursuit of those interests, which they may choose to manage by not deploying the ADF at all.


Sinek says, ‘Start with why.’ Why are you expressing your ideas? You need to be honest about this because otherwise your risk assessment can’t be objective. Is this really about benefiting Defence? Or is it about what you believe you, your tribe or your favoured capability brings to Defence? Is your approach a well-considered, logical argument, one that considers alternatives that also challenge your own assumptions? Or is it simply stating one point of view as though that were fact?


Writing and ranting are not the same, nor are their associated risks. So before you start it’s important to consider some questions. What are the potential consequences you may face if published? Is this important enough to put your name to? How might your professional credibility be impacted? ‘Am I willing to defend my argument with the same conviction as defending my country?’


Finding your voice and getting your ideas out there isn’t easy. Things worth doing rarely are. But we need our people putting their best ideas forward, so that we can discuss and debate them, smooth their rough edges, and get them into action.


Air Commodore Jason “Booj” Begley was born and educated in Sydney, joining the Royal Australian Air Force through the Australian Defence Force Academy in 1991 and completing a Bachelor of Arts degree with Honours in Politics in 1994. He is an Editor of The Central Blue and was formerly the Director General Joint C4, Joint Capabilities Group. He's on Twitter at @ocd_booj


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