Tim Barrett, former chief of the Royal Australian Navy and one-time head of the naval aviation test and evaluation organisation, has called the branch’s operations research (OR) “patchy, siloed and ... not well understood”. He’s called for a contemporary “OR roadmap” as the branch makes its way into the 2020s.
Writing in ASPI's The Strategist, Barrett makes the argument that the fleet's regeneration over the course of the next decade is an ideal opportunity for Australia to make significant changes to structure and strategy – not just in terms of the fleet itself, that is, but how deployments are analysed. To that end, he calls for a "thinking navy", arguing the OR is a crucial piece of this puzzle.
Operations research – what is it?
The term "operations research", rather than a vague piece of typical military jargon, is also called decision science or operations analysis. At its core, it is the study of applying mathematics to business questions. A sub-field of applied mathematics, it interfaces with a broad range of disciplines including data science and machine learning. And as Barrett notes, most if not all successful businesses today understand and apply OR in their day-to-day operations.
One illustrative example cited by the US Naval Academy, in its description of the operations research major, is the the synchronisation of stop lights to ensure smooth traffic flow throughout a city.
And in fact it's worth bearing in mind that OR allegedly grew out of issues faced by the Allies during World War II, helping to guide military planners in their decision-making. In one example, operations research showed that to minimise the losses of trans-Atlantic shipping to German U-Boats, it was best to use a small number of large convoys as opposed to a large number of small convoys.
While OR might have proved itself invaluable to naval planners in the past, some allege that the RAN needs to fully embrace the doctrine from a top-down standpoint. Barrett, for example, says that it is all too often undervalued by policymakers, given that a navy's objectives are "less easily measured than the profit and shareholder value of a corporation". Indeed, that is true – particularly in the current era.
While it's hard enough placing a monetary value on national security, the RAN is also deployed in support of humanitarian or coalition operations that are of immeasurable value and hard to quantify. Unlike Army or the RAAF, Navy's function also hinges largely on its operation as a deterrent force; that is to say, deployments are continuous and cyclical in nature. As many have pointed out, this means that there is a need for constant evaluation and monitoring that might not apply to the other branches to the same extent.
OR also plays an important role in the acquisitions process, as fans of the feature film Moneyball might be aware. According to DST's Marc West, mathematical analysis has been brought to bear as the branch has purchased mine-hunters, destroyers (and their replacements), frigates (and their replacements), the Arafura Class patrol boats, and more recently the amphibious LHDs.
A better grasp on this type of analysis, Barrett reasons, could help determine the fleet's "pedigree, status, condition, preparedness and weapon system performance", as well as ensuring that commanders can better execute activities.
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OR and the RAN – putting the pieces together
Though Barrett was fairly cutting in his assessment of RAN's OR capability, others have been more optimistic. Marc West, who works as an analyst within the field for DST, says that "OR is one of the core capabilities of DST Group".
He notes that OR has a long and varied history within Australia, including under the guise of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (the CSIRO precursor), the Royal Australian Navy Experimental Laboraty (RANEL), the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO), and various government departments and service research branches.
Operations research guides the RAN from acquisitions, as mentioned, through deployment doctrine down to the minutiae of personnel rotation. So where does Barrett take issue? As a former member of the cadre of elites that run the RAN, Barrett seems to believe that Australia doesn't seem to share the "culture" of mathematical strategy at the elite level. To this end, he points to the US Navy's keen embrace of OR.
Head of US Naval Air Forces Vice Admiral DeWolfe Miller said, "I love data", and demanded that it be applied rigorously to an overhaul of maintenance practices at all levels to produce these results, and to give him concrete progress reporting.
It is this sort of love of mathematical planning, Barrett writes, that allowed the USN to increase the mission-capable rate of its F/A-18 Super Hornets from 250 aircraft on average up to 340 across the period of just one year. Now while DST analysts like West might understand the value of their work, RAN leadership doesn't throw their weight behind these sorts of strategies publicly to the same extent.
Operations research is a fascinating space, and one that is only likely to evolve and grow in importance as tensions in our backyard are brought to bear. As China moves to assert its presence in the South China Sea, and as Australia looks to bolster its supply lines across the Indo-Pacific, maintaining a thorough understanding of mathematical efficiency can only help us to deploy our resources effectively.
Reading between the lines, Barrett seems to raise an interesting point – that while the US holds OR to the limelight, it is barely mentioned on the public stage in Australia. The USN runs a separate operations research diploma for those wishing to enter the profession directly from school; meanwhile, in Australia, it barely returns a mention on search engines.
From its early naval applications by the British Coastal Guard through to its use in the modern battlespace, OR seems to have been adopted by the more forward-thinking of military planners. The question is whether we count ourselves among those, and whether we look to enter the 2020s proactively or reactively.