History of Kokoda
Professor Ross Babbage, AM is Founder of the Kokoda Foundation. For the first five years of the Foundation’s existence, he served as the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the organisation, stepping down to move into semi-retirement at the end of 2009.
Professor Babbage is also Managing Director of Strategy International (ACT) Pty Ltd, a defence consulting and education service delivery organisation. He served as a special advisor to the Minister for Defence during the preparation of the 2009 Australian defence white paper.
Professor Babbage’s career background is unusual in Australia as he has served as a senior government official, a senior executive in the corporate world and also as a senior academic.
Professor Babbage served for 16 years in the Australian Public Service, holding several senior positions, including Head of Strategic Analysis in the Office of National Assessments, and leading the branch in the Department of Defence responsible for ANZUS policy. Professor Babbage was Assistant Secretary, Force Development in the late 1980s, carrying responsibility for the analysis of all major defence capability proposals and the preparation of recommendations for the senior Defence committees and for Cabinet.
The idea of establishing a not-for-profit foundation to undertake creative work on Australia’s future national security challenges first surfaced for discussion in the 2002-2004 timeframe. Informal discussions amongst senior national security professionals – both within and outside government – revealed a consensus that the Australian national security community was suffering from two key problems:
First, there was a shortage of innovative research into Australia’s most serious future security challenges both within government and outside.
Second, for a range of reasons the Australian national security community had failed to adequately develop a new generation of advanced national security analysts during the 1990s. Urgent remedial measures were required.
In consequence, the case for establishing a new national security think tank specifically to address these two priorities soon developed. This new foundation was to be designed from the outset in order to:
First, conduct research into the tough security and defence challenges likely to confront Australia over the forthcoming 25 years. Most of these challenges were seen to be multi-disciplinary and very demanding and best undertaken through close partnerships between relevant senior officials and trusted outside experts.
Second was the need to strengthen the next-generation of strategic thinkers and strategic leaders by encouraging their professional development, facilitating their involvement in some of the Foundation’s challenging research projects and providing means for them to network with senior officials, researchers and others to mutual advantage.
Many government ministers, officials and Defence Force officers offered immediate encouragement. What’s more, several special people were so enthusiastic that they offered to roll up their sleeves, get the organisation running and serve on the board of this fledgling organisation. Those very special initial members of the foundation were Peter Nicholson, Simon Harrington, Gary Waters and Brice Pacey.
Others soon offered substantial assistance. The Department of Defence and key parts of the ADF were very interested from the outset. Indeed, in a remarkably short period of time the Department of Defence agreed to provide seed funding for an initial three years to help get the Kokoda Foundation up and running.
Peter Hewitson, the Managing Director of Jacobs Australia quickly appreciated the strategic significance of what was happening. Here was a new low cost organisation containing experienced and trusted strategic and operational thinkers who wished to work closely with the official community to help resolve Australia’s future security challenges. He asked to come on board as a major sponsor from the outset. Jacobs has played an important supporting role ever since.
Many others soon caught the vision and offered to help, either as members, volunteers or simply as sympathetic and supportive officials, largely behind the scenes.
During the second half of 2004 a constitution was drafted, the Foundation was duly registered as a not-for-profit corporation, a website was established and many enthusiastic professionals started to sign up as members.
One of the early issues that needed to be resolved was the name that this new foundation should carry. The inaugural directors wanted to find a name that conveyed a sense of important security challenges, which implied a sense of innovation and success in the face of adversity and that resonated with the Australian people. Several possibilities were discussed but a consensus quickly emerged that this new organisation should be called the Kokoda Foundation.
For the benefit of any readers who are unfamiliar with Australia’s history during the Second World War, the name derives from the campaign that was conducted in Papua New Guinea in and around the village of Kokoda following the Japanese landing on the northern coast of that island. The Japanese force soon advanced past Kokoda and along a narrow track across the Owen Stanley Range in an attempt to capture Port Moresby. From Port Moresby the Japanese would have had a springboard for subsequent operations into northern Australia. The allied high command realised that the Japanese had to be stopped and forced back and this was done by a relatively small number of Australian troops and in atrocious conditions. This Kokoda campaign was arguably the most difficult campaign for Australia during the Second World War. It was also a campaign that Australians simply could not afford to lose.
And so it was that a decision was taken to call this new organisation, the Kokoda Foundation. This was to be a foundation that researched the most difficult security challenges Australia faces for the future. The aim was to focus its primary research efforts on the security challenges that Australia simply could not afford to get wrong.
By the middle of 2005 it was clear that the newly-formed Kokoda Foundation was on a roll. The first two research projects were launched and both proved to be successes. The three closed workshops undertaken for the New Air Combat Capability Study broke new ground. The subsequently published Kokoda Paper prepared by Peter Nicholson and David Connery was the best report on the topic and was very well received.
The Defence Transformation project, that summarized the results of no less than 16 closed workshops involving very senior officials and others also resulted in a successful Kokoda Paper.
From the Foundation’s early planning stages, the absence of a refereed journal in security and defence affairs in Australia was seen to be a serious omission. Graduate students who needed to publish in refereed journals to win points and funding for their host institutions had been forced to look primarily to North American and European journals. Not surprisingly, those offshore journals had little interest in publishing articles on Australia’s national security planning concerns. A key consequence was that Australia’s best young minds in the field were effectively being forced to publish overseas on topics other than Australia’s national security priorities. This situation needed to be remedied quickly.
The Foundation Board soon committed itself to launching a quality peer-reviewed journal, to be known as Security Challenges, even though it realised from the outset that this would prove to be financially expensive. Christopher Michaelsen, an outstanding PhD student at ANU, quickly caught the vision and, with help from David Connery, a young Army officer, developed a business plan and started encouraging people to write. With an outstanding Editorial Board gathered, the material for the first three editions soon flowed in. By late 2005 Security Challenges was finding its feet.
The Board of the Foundation saw an opportunity to share the insights of leading strategic thinkers who visited Australia by hosting occasional public meetings. Early landmark presentations in this series were delivered by Professor Ramesh Thakur, Professor Andrew Mack and General Raghavan from India.
Within a few months of the Foundation’s establishment a small Foundation office was opened in Braddon and staffed on a part-time basis by Kathy Harrington. Kathy’s administrative experience was soon evident with effective office systems established and a quality edge introduced to Kokoda events.
There was a desire to conduct a major international conference early in the Foundation’s life. This was seen to be a way of focussing the strategic community’s attention on a key issue, of progressing an important national agenda, of encouraging young strategic thinkers, of helping to establish the public profile of the Foundation and, hopefully, of raising a little money to fund the Foundation’s research.
The Next Generation Threats to Australia conference was developed in close consultation with senior Defence and other officials. Held in late October 2005, it brought leading strategic thinkers together and, in some respects, it set a new standard for such events in Australia. The concept of working delegates hard to reach some key conclusions, the running of parallel research committees and the polling of delegates twice for their judgements were particularly notable innovations.
In early 2006 the Kokoda Board decided to build on the Foundation’s initial success by launching two important new programs. The first new program was to be an Australia-United States strategic dialogue that was to engage senior Australian and American security leaders on an important future challenge through a three-phase program, comprising a public Seminar-Dinner, a Closed Workshop and a closed weekend Strategic Dialogue. The first of these three-phased programs was held in November 2006 focussing on the Future of the Australia-United States Alliance. This high-level strategic dialogue was an immediate success and soon became a signature annual event for the Foundation.
The second new program designed and developed through 2006 and launched in early 2007 was the Young Strategic Leaders’ Forum (YSLF). While the Foundation worked hard from its very beginnings to involve and encourage young strategic thinkers, the Foundation Board decided in 2006 that it was time to establish a program designed specifically to foster the knowledge, professional development and networking of young professionals already working within the national security community and university students wishing to join that community.
The initial YSLF program was a series of monthly seminars led by eminent national security leaders. The first of these was held in Canberra in March 2007 and was addressed by Professor Harry Harding from George Washington University on the key topic of China’s Strategic Future. During the course of its first year the numbers attending these seminars grew to average 30. By late 2008 the average attendance was 50 and was continuing to rise.
A second element to the YSLF was added in May 2008 with the holding of the first YSLF weekend Congress on the South Coast of NSW. This special weekend program was organised to provide an opportunity for 85 young strategic leaders to work alongside some 10-12 senior national security leaders to analyse a major national security challenge over the course of a weekend. The first of these weekend YSLF Congresses focussed on the key themes for the forthcoming Australian Defence White Paper. It was an immediate success and, as a consequence, further YSLF weekend Congresses have been conducted at six monthly intervals ever since.
The YSLF program grew rapidly and there was soon pressure to extend YSLF activity to some of the state capital cities. This led to the launching of a YSLF monthly seminar series in Sydney in November 2009. The first of these seminars was addressed by General Michael Hayden, former Director of the United States Central Intelligence Agency. By the end of 2009 the YSLF had over 600 young strategic thinkers registered as members.
The rapid progress of the Kokoda Foundation would not have been possible without the strong support of four key groups of people.
First, the senior officials of the Australian national security community have worked closely with the Foundation’s leadership every step of the way and have been an invaluable source of encouragement and practical support.
Second, the members of the Foundation caught the vision for the organisation and worked hard and long to ensure that the Foundation succeeded.
Third, although the Foundation has operated on an exceptionally lean business model from the outset, it could not have developed in the way it has without the strong and loyal support of its key sponsors. The initial launch sponsors of the Kokoda Foundation were the Department of Defence and Jacobs Australia. They continue to provide invaluable support. In the years since, substantial additional assistance has also been provided by:
Fourth, a strong team of experienced professionals has been so motivated by the Foundation’s vision that they have volunteered to serve, without payment, for various periods on the Foundation’s Board. These special individuals are:
The Kokoda Foundation would not be the organisation that it is today without the very generous contributions of these people
Updated April 2010