Defence collaboration: An interview with Air Vice-Marshal Warren McDonald

Defence collaboration: AVM Warren McDonald interview

Effective collaboration between organisations must start at the top. As part of our research into collaboration in the defence sector we talked with senior leaders to gain their views on the challenges and opportunities that closer cooperation will bring. In this interview Peter Robinson, Lead Partner, Defence spoke with Air Vice-Marshal Warren McDonald, Deputy Chief of Air Force.

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Warren McDonald

Air Vice-Marshal Warren McDonald, Deputy Chief of Air Force

In your view, what are some of the core principles to a strong collaboration?

Relationships. I can always overcome a bad procedure with a good relationship. It’s investing in that and knowing the people that run the business and knowing how they can help you. It’s part of the reason I call industry on a semi regular basis. We’re human, relationships are important. It’s harder to disappoint a face than over an email. If you go transactional it doesn’t really bring you the outcome you’re after.


Where have you seen strong collaboration between Air Force and industry?

The maintenance of the P3 fleet and also the C130J are good examples where we worked with a company called AGAP that are now part of Airbus. The fitment of satellite communications on the C130J in 12-13 weeks from discussion to delivery. For a company of that size and for the speed at which they brought it on board, and the complexities they had to work through, I thought was exceptional. Being flexible, understanding the customer and willing to take a risk were all core to that.


Intellectual property (IP) is often seen as a barrier to closer collaboration in the defence sector – how valid is this view?

Every company has IP. So does every organisation like Defence. It’s when you choose to put it above a relationship that issues occur - some companies choose to put it above a relationship at every turn whereas others know when they need to play the card.


And how do you see industry and Defence moving forward on the issue if IP?

You have to find examples that demonstrate that a party is hiding behind IP, or that there is a genuine concern. I think in the past there has been some hiding behind IP because it provides a commercial advantage. But when you start to truly push down on that, you find there isn’t such a great IP issue. It’s about having a mature conversation when issues arise and exposing poor behaviour.


Do you feel like you’ve got the commercial skills inside your organisation to have those challenging discussions around IP?

I think we’ve got enough at the moment but certainly not the depth we need into the future as the capability gets more complex. If there is a deficit in understanding of the IP issue, it’s the extent that it can be practically and simply articulated to someone that has to use the kit.


How do you see this dynamic improving?

Hopefully we can get a feedback from industry on how Air Force or Defence, is tracking. Whether they think we’ve changed at all. Sometimes we think we have, but as a matter of fact we haven’t. There are also some unrealistic expectations associated on both sides. It’d be unrealistic on our side to think they’re going to open their arms to everything, which they can’t. And it’s also unrealistic on industry side that all projects will go to them, that particular company.

So, somewhere in the middle, and I think we’re all mature enough to work out where it is. Devoid of an instructional process that pulls it one way or another, that middle space rests with the relationship and trust that we have in each other to have a frank conversation on which way we’re going or not, and how we can deliver something or we can’t. And who is best capable or able to deliver. That’s where success sits.


What role do contracts have in forming and developing collaborative relationships?

I don’t think you’re ever going to get away from having a contract. I find the contract only comes out when the relationship breaks down and no one can figure out how to work together. It’s all about rebuilding those relationships and then pushing the contract back in the drawer. It’s all about relationships and the contract’s a vehicle for delivery. It’s not the way it is delivered. It’s delivered through people, endeavor, and collective trust and risk.


Plan Jericho aims to transform RAAF into a fully integrated force capable of fighting and winning in the information age. What do you think is going to be the biggest collaboration challenge as you transform?

It’ll be getting the primes to work with each other. For examples Air Force is a large portion of Boeing, Lockheed Martin and also Northrop Grumman. It’ll be getting the two major ones, Lockheed and Boeing, to respectfully sit at the table and discuss how they can assist us. ‘Open system architecture’ rolls off the tongue, for most, but it strikes fear in the heart of any major prime. But without it, we will continue to stovepipe and be open to criticism when we look across our major platforms. But that will be driven that way due to IP and due to companies wanting to retain what they have invested. I’ve got faith they’ll undertake to their best endeavour but there may be some high corporate nervousness associated with it.


And what role do you see the Air Force playing in guiding this behaviour?

That’s part of what Plan Jericho is about, trying to change those behaviours. Through engagement, and showing them clearly, if they’re not doing something, what the impact is.


What are your thoughts on the role of leadership in driving greater collaboration at all levels between organisations?

Our push with Plan Jericho is certainly at the younger and more junior ranks in Air Force to engage with industry. It’s vital that they understand what motivates them, what some of the behaviours are, and how to tackle some of the complex issues as they rise up inside the organisation. In the past it’s been held at the bastions such as CASG. So my aim is to push that out so more of our personnel are comfortable dealing with industry, show leadership in engaging with them and develop their maturity in doing so.


Beyond the primes, how does Air Force look to collaborate with Small to Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs)?

We actively look for small Australian companies that have an opportunity and we try to support them in practical terms. For example when I was Director General Capability Planning there were only two companies that hit that mark in the quantum cryptographics field. We’ve been working with them for the last 3 years, helping develop their business case for Defence.

Another area is in the development of a supersonic targeted missile. There’s a company who we believe are worth investment, and we’re assisting them to get access to the Woomera range so that they can test their products.


How do you see Air Force trying to lower some of the barriers to collaborating with SMEs?

I always offered to go on the journey with them. If we’re starting a venture we’ll keep them updated, both the highs and the lows. They tend to appreciate that more than a call at the end whether it be successful or not successful. I’m quite aware and engaged with smaller industries and we do listen to them. It’s sometimes hard finding out who they are and what they have to deliver. But that’s hopefully what Jericho can bring: an opportunity to show their wares.


Do you have set models to help conduct these relationships or is it more learning as you go?

It’s learning as we go. In the past we would just direct them to CASG or DMO and let them fend for themselves. That hasn’t always been a great outcome. It’s not a slight on the people, it’s a slight on the process, and somebody’s willingness to take a bit of a risk. We’re more willing now to take a risk with them. We may pick a particular company that turns out to fail, but I think their willingness to join in partnership, both take a bit of a leadership role in it, and understand that the outcome may not be good, but the outcome won’t be anything if we don’t actually try.

I think if we get to the point where we started documenting everything, then I think we’ve lost what we’re really trying to seek. It’s that broader engagement, comfort dealing with industry, and comfort telling them more than what we have in the past. I’m sure when a major project comes off the rails, and a company goes flying across the lake to vent their displeasure, you may see a knee jerk but our aim is not to shift.  

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