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Op-Ed: The COVID experience – Observations from someone astride two business sectors

I finished a 37-year career in the Australian Army in December of 2018. Given the pace of recent events it now seems like a very long time between the end of my first career and the start of my new journey in the private sector in 2020. 

I finished a 37-year career in the Australian Army in December of 2018. Given the pace of recent events it now seems like a very long time between the end of my first career and the start of my new journey in the private sector in 2020. 

I immersed myself in the innovation and education system, attaining an honorary Professorship with Monash University, and in Australia’s increasingly vibrant defence industry with roles in government and both Australian and international companies.

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This combination of recent experiences gives me a relatively unique perspective on the impact of COVID-19 on Australian security and business.

Those who have worked with me will know the importance I place on leadership. Put simply – leadership matters, as Australians have seen first-hand over the last eight weeks. I believe that it is important for Australians to acknowledge how well our system of governance has held up under the pressure of a global pandemic.

Our governments have come together in a national cabinet at federal and state level with strong support from opposition parties. Business leaders have behaved ethically and empathetically. Unions have been proactive and positive, and most importantly our health workers and emergency services have been stoic and professional in the face of long hours and at high risk of exposure to the virus.

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Given our proximity to Anzac Day, I wondered what the women and men who fought for our freedoms would think of Australia’s national response to a global pandemic in 2020. I think our veterans would be pretty pleased about what they fought to achieve. There is a lot of hard work ahead for all of us, but let’s give credit where it is due and thank our leaders for their efforts.

On a wider scale, COVID-19 has quickly exposed cracks in our global system. Countries hastily retreated into self-interested positions, closing borders and holding onto essential supplies. Following this crisis, we need to address our national resilience in the face of exogenous shocks.

Cheap, responsive global supply chains have proven to be addictive, but under pressure our reliance on them has been exposed as a vulnerability. From a manufacturing perspective, the most pressing and immediate consequence of this shock has been the shortage of medical personal protective equipment, but the true effects were deep and unpredictable across many industries.

The next crisis on the level of COVID-19 might take away 60 per cent of antibiotics we import from China, threaten fuel security or even cause a shortage of construction materials. We mustn’t turn our back on global innovation and efficiency, but we will need to develop national resilience plans that maintain critical manufacturing capability in Australia.

Another global trend that was supposed to introduce a new world of openness and transparency was the emergence of social media. Instead, we have been exposed to torrents of misinformation – both intentional and accidental that have put our people and community at risk.

In the face of this flood of disinformation, organisations have had to become unimpeachable sources of truth. Employers have had to move quickly to be sources of trusted health and hygiene information in ways we had not expected would be necessary.

I have been very proud of my colleagues at Boral as we moved quickly to communicate with a diverse workforce, impacted in very different ways from plants in China, across the US, to sites across Australia. Our leaders have embraced positive, open messaging that have inspired connection and confidence among our teams.

In the military information domain, the Commander of US Forces in Korea, General Robert Abrams, has set the benchmark for positive use of social media to engage with his people in a campaign to #KilltheVirus. I served with General Abrams in Afghanistan and am not surprised by his strong leadership and the success of his efforts to preserve his force.

Serving Australian military leaders have been understandably cautious about not getting ahead of the government in adopting these modern communications tools. However, if leaders are absent in any communications domain they risk that others will fill the space.

While there has been plenty to do maintaining business readiness in the face of the pandemic it has been fascinating to watch the complex challenges faced by the military. The removal from operations in the north-west Pacific of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt will be studied for many years.

The ship’s captain exercised informed disobedience to protect his crew from a COVID-19 outbreak on board, with consequences that eventually led to the resignation of the Secretary for the US Navy. The ADF leadership have declared there has been no impact on readiness in our force as a result of the pandemic.

This is a predictable response, but in real terms every day that passes without collective training is a day in which readiness declines.

While the ADF may not be conducting collective training it has been busy since being called to assist with the bushfire emergency. I think it is fair to say that the mood of the country lifted when the ADF joined the fire response in January.

Aside from my pride in seeing our soldiers contribute to such an important endeavour, I was delighted to see the Navy’s superb amphibious ships being introduced to the nation when evacuating citizens in Gippsland.

The smiling professionalism on display from ADF personnel was something I was used to seeing, but many Australians were seeing these capabilities for the first time. The Fleet Commander, Forces Commander and Air Commander, who crashed through readiness and delivered highly versatile capabilities on almost no notice should be highly commended.

Our governments have learned to love the responsiveness of the ADF; it does what it is told and it does so quickly. The federal government again deployed elements of the ADF to support the states during the COVID-19 pandemic response.

The ADF may often be an effective arrow in their quiver, but the ADF’s use in these situations should be carefully balanced against the need to maintain military readiness.

While I was again impressed by the personable, professional approach taken by the unarmed young men and women involved with escorting state police patrolling our streets to enforce social distancing, the speculation about the health of the North Korean leader suggests the ADF may soon have more challenging tasks. Clausewitz reminds us that what can go wrong, will go wrong and it is possible Australia may be called upon to react to a regime collapse on the Korean Peninsula in the midst of a global pandemic.

As Australia’s collective response to this crisis progresses, our attention is slowly turning to preserving our gains and safely restarting the economy. As a significant element of the discretionary spending capacity of the federal government, Defence will become a focus for attention about where every dollar is spent.

Some choices are obvious. Our national shipbuilding efforts stimulate complex manufacturing across a variety of associated industries and Defence infrastructure investment link clearly with getting Australians back to work. Less clear are the benefits of investing in systems sourced almost exclusively overseas.

Regardless of whether Kim Jong-un defies predictions about his death and maintains control of North Korea, the PLA signalled China’s strategic intentions by maintaining the tempo of exercises in the approaches to Taiwan in recent weeks, so it will not be prudent to turn away from the Defence Integrated Investment Plan altogether.

When the time comes, I hope that we should see a transparent process in which the government reviews every dollar it spends on Defence to ensure the right balance between modernising our Defence Force and the need for restarting our economy and creating a new level of national resilience.

Gus McLachlan commenced his career at the Royal Military College, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in 1985. He completed his 37-year career with the Australian Army,retiring as a Major General in December 2018.

On leaving the military, Gus McLachlan was appointed Adjunct Professor at Monash University where he advises on Defence research. He is a Director of the Williams Foundation, a National Security “Think Tank” and is on the Board of US and Australian Defence technology companies.

Gus McLachlan has been responsible for generating Australian Defence capability in cyber space, electronic warfare and command and control systems. He completed two years as Head of Army Modernisation, during which time he worked closely with industry to commence a major recapitalisation of Army equipment and to network the systems of the Army.

Gus McLachlan’s military career concluded after he led Land Forces Command where he was responsible for 35,000 women and men of the Army. He led a major structural transformation of the command in order to field new cyber and electronic warfare capacity.

In January of 2020 he commenced his current role as Head of People for Boral Australia. Gus was made an Officer in the Order or Australia (AO) for his contribution to Army Modernisation.

Op-Ed: The COVID experience – Observations from someone astride two business sectors
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