As the likelihood of conflict spreading in the Middle East continues to rise, Australia’s military capability is falling. A plan to increase the force, from its current 62,000 to 100,000 by 2040, is going backwards, already 3400 under target. There are many factors at work—low unemployment, patriotism undermined by ideology, reduced fitness of recruits, poor support for military families and ex-servicemen, adverse publicity from court cases from the conflict in Afghanistan, inadequate budget allocation, disastrous equipment acquisition—all affecting the country’s readiness.
Former Special Forces major Heston Russell recently won his case in a defamation action against the ABC for adverse comments about his actions in Afghanistan; a payout of nearly $400,000 is now left to the taxpayer, with no administrative action or apology from the ABC. This pattern of behaviour is becoming increasingly common as the organisation ignores its charter obligations of impartiality, and drifts to the left. The military is a common target, along with the Christian church and climate sceptics, as were opponents of the Voice. The expanding Middle East conflict is now reminding us of the importance of supporting a reliable, well-equipped military of our own.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
Click here to subscribe
Earlier this year, the civil defamation trial of Ben Roberts-Smith resulted in the illustrious VC holder being found guilty of murder; an appeal is pending. This outcome provoked a sea of moral outrage from journalists who do not and will not understand the military circumstances. This trial by the media had echoes of the Cardinal Pell conviction. These actions have not in the least been helped by comments from General Angus Campbell, Chief of the Australian Defence Force. To the public this issue is resolved with opprobrium for the military; it is another example of a troubled service, with adverse and inappropriate publicity doing nothing to help recruitment or retention.
Whilst primarily about Roberts-Smith’s defamation, the trial failed to appreciate that operating behind enemy lines in Afghanistan had different demands from everyday life. There was often no ability to take or carry prisoners; those suspected of being the enemy were killed, not out of bravado but of necessity; not to do so could have put the SAS themselves at risk. A salutary example was that of a US special forces SEAL patrol which, in 2003, captured two suspected Taliban; with no ability to keep prisoners, they reluctantly released them. A Taliban attack ensued, with only one of the four SEALs surviving. Most of the Australian military in Afghanistan were in the “safe” Green zone, leaving the action to special forces, with repeated tours being necessary.
The 2020 Brereton Report into special forces activities in Afghanistan, led by General Campbell, revealed this supposed crime, and those of the other accused individuals, who should have already been assessed by a court-martial. The report found twenty-three incidents, involving twenty-five special force members in the deaths of thirty-nine individuals. The difficulty in obtaining further information from Afghanistan means that, to date, no trials have commenced, and the participants remain smeared by innuendo. The report recommended that special forces wear body cameras to document their activity; this approach, supported by General Campbell, is guaranteed to undermine their retention, flowing on to other regiments.
Roberts-Smith’s lack of support by military authorities has tarnished the military image as well as his own, and undermined service morale, with its effect on future recruitment. The SAS Association and Senator Hamilton-Smith have suggested any combat fault lies with those commanding officers and politicians who put special forces in harm’s way in an unwinnable war. General Campbell has added to the damage with his comments; despite being in overall control of the Afghan force, he suggested that many individuals who were awarded service medals should have them withdrawn. His own active service medal award has now been challenged by returned service associations.
Two decades of conflict finished in 2020, with the loss of forty-one lives, and no discernible beneficial outcome, for an estimated $8.5 billion cost. The Afghanistan campaign has bequeathed a legacy of poorly managed medical issues for the 26,000 who served, with PTSD and its associated suicide risk still not being adequately managed. Over the twenty years there were 1600 veterans’ deaths by suicide, a rate 50 per cent higher than the general population; the rate of disability was also much higher. Currently, around 190,000 veterans are classified as having a disability, with 7 per cent claiming PTSD.
The 2021 census showed that over half a million Australians, nearly 3 per cent of the adult population, have served in the military, with around 60,000 now on active service. The recruitment target is around 8000 recruits annually; at the start of Covid in 2020, applications to join the ADF soared by 42 per cent as jobs shut down, but this increase has not been maintained as unemployment has fallen to record lows.
In 2022 Prime Minister Morrison announced a plan to increase ADF personnel by 18,500 by 2040. An extra 2000 will be required to man submarines, additional numbers will be needed in cyber and information warfare and to staff new technologies; a whole-generation approach is needed for developing back-up nuclear technology skills. The recruitment problem is compounded by those leaving; a separation rate of around 10 per cent annually means around 6000 well-trained and experienced individuals leave every year. The latest stats are even more problematic for the army, where 13 per cent leave annually, resulting in the total military force declining by 2000; retention bonuses have had to be introduced to reduce the loss. Currently, the ADF is 5.6 per cent below strength, and achieving only 73 per cent of its recruitment target.
The former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett has suggested the re-introduction of national service; as himself a “nasho” in the Vietnam War, he understands how serving your country can be character-building. Those who have watched the series Yes, Minister might remember the PM’s “courageous” proposal to reintroduce conscription to reduce unemployment, something roundly dismissed by the military, who wanted to select their recruits, rather than having them forced upon them.
There will need to be other options explored, perhaps including financial incentives, such as HECS payment reductions for recruits. The concept of pride in country is being systematically undermined by a rewriting of history in schools, where the black-armband view is affecting patriotism and the willingness to serve country. Australia Day and the flag are routinely derided by the activist media. The Defence Strategic Review has suggested a return to the Ready Reserve Scheme to provide back-up; it was introduced by Bob Hawke in 1991 and cancelled by John Howard in 1996.
If we think it is bad here, look at New Zealand; the country still bans visits by nuclear-powered vessels but expects “Five Eyes” support in time of crisis. Military personnel are in decline there, currently around 15,000, as pay rates and patriotism fall. The ancient ships they still have are hardly sea-worthy, there is no air force to speak of, and the army is grossly unequipped and undermanned. Any attempt to address this parlous situation is tempered by concerns about upsetting China; some reality is perhaps returning with the new Prime Minister’s comments about joining AUKUS—but to contribute what?
Mirroring other countries, authorities have now introduced woke recruiting measures, in a bizarre attempt to increase numbers. In the UK, the RAF has had to pay thirty-one trainee pilots $20,000 each, because “we don’t have enough black, Asian, minority ethnic and females”. In an attempt to recruit more ethnic minorities and women, those white men already selected have had their courses delayed, diversity being the priority, rather than adequate numbers of suitable recruits. Meanwhile, the UK government plans a further reduction in Army numbers, to 73,500 by 2025, the lowest number since 1799!
Similar woke activity is occurring in the US, where a Navy recruitment video included a non-binary individual appearing in drag and promoting the LGBT+ agenda; as with the “Bud Light” saga, it provoked the inevitable backlash. The Navy expects an 8000 shortfall for its annual target of 38,000 recruits; the Army is also missing targets, with its total strength at 450,000 compared with its planned 480,000. As in Australia, part of the problem is low unemployment, and a decline in patriotism—surveys show a disturbing fall from 70 per cent to 38 per cent—with interest in serving dropping from 23 to 11 per cent. Another sad comment on modern society is the applicant rejection rate: because of obesity, drugs, physical and mental health problems, misconduct or lack of aptitude, 71 per cent now fail.
As in the US, Australian recruit selection has had its problems; a referring psychiatrist has commented that inadequate psychological assessment of Australian recruits has led to substance abuse and suicide. General Campbell admitted to the Royal Commission into veterans’ suicide that the admission standard had been lowered to fill gaps caused by early discharges. Interference with traditional selection processes for special forces will also have adverse outcomes for the “sharp end”. Perhaps greater attention should be paid to providing the mentality and equipment the military really needs to fight a war.
The Australian military is following the same woke path as overseas, with advertising using the buzzwords diversity and inclusion, welcoming recruits regardless of “gender, sexuality, ethnic origin, cultural background or sexual orientation”. The new approach includes “diversifying senior level positions so that they reflect the nation’s racial and ethnic makeup”. Gender advisers and instructors have been appointed, to deliver “Gender in Military Operations” education. The Labor Defence Minister, Richard Marles, has lifted a Coalition ban on diversity-inclusion morning teas in the military.
General Campbell has also been involved in expanding these plans, as the department considers its latest culture strategy, “highlighting our commitment to diversity and inclusion”. It is anticipated that military will be involved in LGBT+ celebration days; another sign of the trend is the change in terminology of combat rations packs from one-man packs to one-person packs! What this achieves for recruitment or for service capability remains to be seen.
The US military has 1.35 million personnel, China 2.2 million, Russia 1 million; the UK has only about one quarter of the service personnel it had in 1953. The 2022 defence budgets show a varied picture, with US expenditure of US$850 billion (3.5 per cent of GDP), China $370 billion (3.45 per cent) and Russia $120 billion (4.1 per cent); the European average is around 3 per cent. Australia’s spending increased to $49 billion (2.1 per cent of GDP) in 2022-23. The intention is to increase the budget to $56 billion by 2023-24, an extra $30 billion over the next six years; allowing for inflation the defence budget will actually decrease over the next three years.
There have been repeated defence reviews in the last decade, the most recent being in 2020 under the Morrison government and last April under Labor. The major forward expense has been the unbudgeted introduction of nuclear submarines; the aborted program for a new design cost $4 billion for a nil return, while the date of replacement supply is extending into the future. Meanwhile, the ageing Collins-class subs have increasing problems and will not last another twenty years; doubts of their reliability were again raised by a recent fire in one of the newer boats.
A similar saga is unfolding with the Navy’s Hunter frigate program, also years behind schedule and over budget, with technical problems to be resolved and delivery unlikely in the next ten years. Rather than buy an “off-the-shelf” frigate, a decision was made to develop a new ship, this time involving the UK and not France. Current assessment of this program is that the ships are overweight and under-armed; it may lead to another costly cancellation, again resulting in years of lost time and leaving another hole in our defence.
The Air Force, at least, has seen sense and is re-equipping with seventy-two F35A lightning planes, delivery completing as I write, and another seven Ghost Bat unmanned planes. Following the latest crash, the replacement of the unreliable Taipan helicopters has been brought forward, with all permanently grounded; updated Blackhawks are soon arriving, but there will still be a performance gap.
Another major expense will be new missiles for plane, ship and land launching. Again, planning is repeatedly changed; what few missiles we have will bizarrely be based in Adelaide, where their range would not extend beyond Australian soil. The decision made to buy a state-of-the art air management battle system is pointless without any equipment to manage. The army will replace its tanks and has the new Boxer infantry reconnaissance vehicle, also behind schedule and in significantly reduced numbers.
Meanwhile, we have a supply of obsolete equipment in store, equipment which could be sent to help Ukraine. That conflict has revealed the tactics of modern warfare, and the importance of missiles and drones; although expenditure is increasing, the purchase of this sort of new hardware will be limited by the extra investment needed in forming a dedicated cyber corps. The national budget since Covid is under pressure but, if we are to have a viable defence, there need to be further funding increases to a more realistic level of GDP, otherwise it is likely some programs will have to be cut.
Perhaps a starting point for economic rationalisation might be to reduce the number of top brass; Australia’s “Chiefs to Indians” ratio is ridiculously out of balance and culling at senior level could assist the budget. Otherwise, the projected 30 per cent build-up of manpower will add to the financial difficulties; equally problematic, in the light of the current negativity, is how to recruit that number, and how to increase the retention rate. The planned move of some personnel back to Darwin and Townsville, for strategic purposes, means the retention problems which resulted in them originally moving south in 2010 will recur.
The Greens solution is simple—cancel the military, and divert its budget to woke causes. In the real world we will need missiles, submarines, F-35s and fighting men to save us from bullies. If we do not attempt to help ourselves, can we, like New Zealand, expect the US to come to our aid as their resources are stretched by Ukraine and the Middle East? As the risk of war increases, and the conflict threatens to expand, who will be there to fight—and with what?
Graham Pinn is a retired Army major