The Power of SMEs in Defence Acquisition and Sustainment
May 21, 2023
The Australian Defence Force (ADF) is tasked with the essential responsibility of defending the nation's sovereignty and national interests. To do so effectively, the acquisition and sustainment of cutting-edge defence capabilities are crucial to achieving this mission.However, there have been notable inefficiencies in the procurement and sustainment of ADF projects.
A solution lies in the increased involvement of specialised Small Medium Enterprises (SMEs) to provide a greater return on investment (ROI) and improve overall effectiveness in managing international prime contractors. How you ask? Read on.
The Inefficiencies in the Australian Defence Acquisition and Sustainment Projects
The defence acquisition and sustainment landscape is often marred by delays, cost overruns, and performance shortfalls.These inefficiencies are a result of multiple factors, however, some of the top contenders for this include:
Complexity of Projects: Defence projects often involve highly specialised systems and technologies that require a deep understanding of specific domains, making them inherently complex.
Bureaucratic Processes: The extensive bureaucratic red tape involved in defence projects can contribute to delays and inefficiencies, ultimately resulting in higher costs.
Lack of Competitive Pressure: The defence industry often operates in a monopolistic or oligopolistic environment with few suppliers, limiting competition and the ability to leverage market forces for cost reduction.
Limited Risk-Sharing: Contract structures often place the majority of the risk on the government, leading to a lack of incentives for prime contractors to minimise costs and project delays.
The Case for Specialised SMEs in Defence Projects
Specialised SMEs possess unique capabilities and advantages that make them well-suited to address the inefficiencies in defence acquisition and sustainment projects. Small business accounts for between 97.4% and 98.4% of all businesses, depending on whether you define a small business based on number of employees or turnover. Small business contributed almost $418 billion to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2018-19, equivalent to over 32% of Australia’s total economy. Small business employs over 4.7 million people and 41% of the business workforce, making it Australia’s biggest employer.
What does this bring to the defence dilemma?
Agility and Flexibility: SMEs are generally more agile and adaptable than larger organisations, allowing them to respond to changes in project requirements more effectively. This agility also enables them to integrate cutting-edge technologies and processes faster than larger counterparts.
Specialised Expertise: SMEs often focus on niche areas, cultivating specialised expertise that can be invaluable in complex defence projects. This expertise enables them to develop innovative solutions that align with the specific needs of the ADF.
Cost-Effectiveness: SMEs typically have lower overheads and operating costs than larger organisations, enabling them to provide services at a more competitive price. This cost-effectiveness can translate to significant cost savings for the ADF and improve overall project efficiency.
Local Knowledge and Networks: Australian SMEs possess extensive local knowledge and networks, allowing them to better navigate the Australian defence landscape and regulatory environment. This understanding can contribute to more effective communication and collaboration between stakeholders, ultimately reducing project delays and risks.
So why is there a significant reluctance or a lack of utilisation of SMEs in the Australian Defence Sector? Is it deemed that SMEs are not up to large scale Defence projects and delivering what the large (incredibly large) international primes do? Perhaps. Or, do we need to adjust the paradigm on this subject?
SMEs ... lower overheads and operating costs than larger organisations, enabling them to provide services at a more competitive price.
The Role of SMEs in Managing International Primes
In addition to their innate advantages, specialised SMEs can also be instrumental in managing and optimising relationships with international prime contractors and assisting our Defence agencies.
They can achieve this by:
Bridging Cultural Gaps: SMEs with international experience can act as cultural intermediaries, helping to facilitate effective communication and collaboration between Australian defence stakeholders and international primes.
Ensuring Compliance: Specialised SMEs can assist in ensuring that international primes adhere to local regulations, contractual requirements, and industry standards, reducing the risk of non-compliance and associated penalties.
Enhancing Performance: SMEs can drive performance improvements by offering specialised expertise and innovative solutions, helping international primes to overcome technical challenges and meet project milestones.
Providing cost effective support through experience and understanding of the defence landscape to defence projects that are increasingly bogged down by internal skills shortages and legacy allegiance to prime consulting companies.
The involvement of specialised SMEs in Australian defence acquisition and sustainment projects offers a compelling solution to the inefficiencies currently plaguing the sector. By capitalising on their agility, specialised expertise, cost-effectiveness, and local knowledge, SMEs can provide greater ROI, improve project effectiveness, and better manage relationships with international prime contractors. If the existing situation has only ever embraced the same solution mix, why are we surprised we keep getting the same results? Embracing the capabilities of these SMEs will not only enhance the overall performance of defence projects but also strengthen the Australian defence industry by fostering innovation, collaboration, and competition in our own highly capable and experienced back yard.
To fully harness the potential of SMEs in defence projects, the Australian government and ADF should consider the following recommendations:
Encourage Collaboration: Actively promote collaboration between SMEs, primes, and the ADF by establishing industry forums, conferences, and workshops. These platforms can foster knowledge sharing, identify synergies, and cultivate strategic partnerships that lead to more efficient and cost-effective project outcomes.
Streamline Procurement Processes: Simplify and streamline procurement processes to reduce bureaucratic red tape, making it easier for SMEs to participate in defence projects. This can include implementing measures such as standardising contract terms, reducing paperwork, and providing clearer guidelines on procurement requirements.
Promote SME Participation: Implement policies and incentives that encourage the inclusion of SMEs in defence projects. This can be achieved through initiatives such as setting targets for SME participation, providing funding support for research and development, and offering preferential treatment to SMEs in tender evaluations that do not see them exclude in preference to large Primes.
Enhance Capability Development: Support SMEs in building their capacity and expertise through targeted training programs, grants, and mentoring initiatives. By investing in the development of these specialised skills, the ADF can ensure a steady supply of local expertise to support its projects.
In conclusion, the active engagement of specialised Australian owned and operated SMEs in the Australian defence acquisition and sustainment projects presents an opportunity to address the inefficiencies that currently beset the sector. By fostering a collaborative and innovative environment that capitalises on the unique strengths of SMEs, the ADF can deliver more effective and cost-efficient projects that better meet the needs of the nation's defence.