Our Military Future: Can We Put Up a Fight?

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.
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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

29 thoughts on “Our Military Future: Can We Put Up a Fight?

  • Solo says:

    As a conservative male in my 40s I’d never fight overseas to spread US hegemony/banking interests. I wouldn’t fight for the idiots in Canberra either, busy running the country into the ground, elected by uneducated fools sprung up from our equally ridiculous education system. Additionally, given we import so many migrants who have zero allegiance or interest in Australia other than monetary benefit you have to ask the question – what in Australia has so much value that you’d choose to die for it? Our once enviously good country has been hollowed out and filled with parasites who can’t take a joke, who view mateship and community as poison, are illiterate and innumerate but loud and opinionated. Get that mob to walk into the machine guns first, and then we’ll talk about defending the nation.

    • lbloveday says:

      Here the China Armed Forces recruitment video proclaims “Peace behind me; war in front of me” which gives a clear indication of what China sees in the future.
      Contrast with Australian Armed Forces recruitment ads – they are more concerned ensuring they recruit “appropriate” numbers of transgenders, homosexuals, Muslims, females, dwarfs, handicapped… you name it (other than big, strong, brave men, especially white men), and in the meantime hunt down heroes like Ben Roberts-Smith while desk-jockeys like Brigadier Lyn McDade, who has never seen war let alone been in one, brought charges of man-slaughter against Australian soldiers (dismissed by Chief Judge Advocate, Brigadier Ian Westwood, on the grounds that soldiers had no legal duty of care to civilians during combat.

    • ARyan says:

      So you wouldn’t fight but it is OK for others to do so – send the unemployed, the poor and migrants (of colour of course) instead. My memories of the later years of the Vietnam War include those with the same mind-set, though less focussed on immigrants of colour of course – the White Australia Policy lingered then). Funnily enough, those who support these wars and are keep to suggest who should go instead of them, are usually those who are exempt. Parents of Liberal Party voting primary producers were pretty good at this. No, not the Nationals – their cockies were poorer than the Liberal Party voting cockies – their boys often couldn’t get the exemptions from the draft.

      • Solo says:

        Mr Ryan, the projection in your comment is such that it can be viewed from Jupiter.

        • Jack Brown says:

          Indeed. On social media when one states a personal view and others respond with ‘you’ and ascribe views to this ‘you’ and then go on to show how inconsistent the original view is, to prove one’s personal view wrong, then strawman projection and ad hominem arguments inevitably follow. No wonder Mr Ryan’s point never emerged. Again the use of ‘you’ is the giveaway.

          • Jack Brown says:

            And I see in a later comment that it is replete with ‘you’ and ‘you people’ asking why ‘you’ think such-n-such when when he asks ‘why do you think such n such’ he is asking for an explanation of his own strawman projection. It would be more useful to play the ball not the man to make valid points.

  • john.singer says:

    As a 1952 Nasho I have witnessed our capacity to defend ourselves decline while at the same time our population has risen about threefold and our Nationalism has declined to a dangerous level.

    Energy is required to be Available, Reliable and Affordable. If we apply the same criteria to the Australian Public Service it is found deficient and that also applies to the Ministry of Defence and the Defence Forces it is meant to serve.

    The social policies of Woke and DEI have weakened us alarmingly and unless we emerge from our stupor with alacrity and wit we will soon be speaking a language which is not English.

    We need to introduce in 2024 a National Military and Civil Service for all 17 year olds to train our youth in the skills and responsibilities of citizenship and it delays their tertiary education or eliminates a gap year it is a small price compared to the defence and rebuilding of a Nation.

    Obviously we cannot afford to re-arm and re-equip or Defence Forces rapidly with conventional weapons so we must innovate building on the electronic and robotic skills of our youth and the ability of our manufacturers to make drones and other remote controlled armaments.

    The crunch time is now!

  • tom says:

    I read somewhere that the recruitment ads in the US had started, for the first time in ages, to focus on recruiting white men rather than diverse members of the rainbow alliance. This is probably a bad sign for what is to come, as the US army clearly thinks it has some actual fighting to do in the near future.

    • lbloveday says:

      Newsweek has an article: U.S. Army’s ‘Anti-Woke’ Ad Sparks War Speculation

    • ARyan says:

      So how many of you folks here think that we are going to be invaded?
      Why do you think that the US defense forces have so many people of colour? Someone has provided a partial answer – their White counterparts are too soft these days – both physically and mentally. People of colour are often poorer and physically fitter due to hardships lived, and in the USA they and their families are looked after in the armed forces – health, education, housing, etc. Less so here, but it must be remembered that it could be deliberate. By this I mean that our predominantly White pool of potential recruits, apart from not being physically fit enough, have a different mind-set. Why might they want to join the armed forces here? Some reasons are mentioned above – mainly due to ideology and outdated nationalism, plus a good dose of mental instability. Our Defense Force Administrations are well aware of this – and why should they provide free housing, health and education to people like that? So that answers why some of you wonder why our defense forces don’t provide enough benefits to bother to join. Toughen up, change your attitude and try to figure out what our defense forces are actually here for. If you think it is because we are just about to be invaded (by people of colour, Communists or Muslims) then you are on the wrong track and should find something else to complain about.

      • Sindri says:

        People join our armed forces “mainly due to ideology and outdated nationalism, plus a good dose of mental instability”?

      • john mac says:

        “You” seem obsessed with race . On that note , African Americans are the most obese people in the US , with a shocking diet , yet many look a the professional athletes as the norm . They are wooed by the military to fill diversity quotas , and few make the front line , so your “cannon fodder’ theory is just that . And as for the poor , well the military is their best way out of poverty , nothing wrong with that either . I do agree that white youth are too soft these days , but if they insist on filling spots with lgbtq hires (who see free sex change ops as a bonus) , why would young white men want to join up ?

  • dtu31393 says:

    The answer to recruitment and most other problems for the ADF will take a couple of decades. We must start again from scratch with a new force. This new force will comprise men only who will be trained as warriors in a harsh environment. These new recruits will form new units that have a separate chain of command to the current ADF. As the new ADF grows, the old ADF withers and dies. A good symbolic start would be to stop the persecution of Ben Roberts Smith and make him RSM of the new army training unit.

    • ARyan says:

      You must be joking. If not too old and frail, perhaps you should trot over to the Ukraine and join one of their militias. They generally lose a Brit or an Aussie every month or so, so there might be a space for you. No skills needed.

      • dtu31393 says:

        No, I’m not joking. I have spent over half my life in the army and have witnessed its decline firsthand. What was once a proud fighting force has lost its ability to fight and win the land battle and is now obsessed with persecuting its few remaining combat soldiers. This is because its leaders are weird, race and gender obsessed losers who sound a lot like you, ARyan.

  • Ian Bruce says:

    This has been “a slow moving train wreck” for decades. As another retired Major (although more recently than yourself I suspect), I can tell you that recruiting and retention have been the number one problem of the ADF (and the Army in particular) since the 1990’s. As a Company 2IC and then OC, I was constantly being pushed by my CO’s about what strategies or activities I was implementing to either recruit new soldiers or retain the ones I had. Every time I hear a civvie say that we need to re-introduce conscription, I wince. If the lazy sods won’t work without being conscripted, what the hell makes anyone believe they will if they are made to join the ADF?

    Firstly, let me address your comment about the “chiefs to indians” ratio. During my last posting, one of my fellow instructors did a search of the DCD (Defence Corporate Directory – a defence force telephone directory if you will), for One Star or equivalent. For those who don’t understand, a One Star is a Brigadier level “General”. The search returned over 1400 results (this in 2017). Admittedly this result also includes Defence Civilians (approx 900!), but honestly why do we need this many people to “command” a defence force of only about 60,000? BTW, we only have one 4 Star general at any one time, in service, that being the CDF (although the Defence Secretary is also classed as such).

    Next, there is the issue of patriotism. I joined in 1983 because I believed it was my duty to serve my country. Youth today believe it is their duty to tear down the country. Whilst ever we let the “teachers” of our kids continue to poison their minds with woke ideology we will never return to a healthy defence force. The march of the Marxists has to be overturned, either by a government with a backbone, or by the parents themselves. Good luck with that.

    As to the equipment that we supply to our forces, how do we root out the inherent graft and corruption behind govt procurement? Again I have had personal experience here, and the inherent lack of purpose displayed by defence civilians involved in this area, combined with a complete lack of strategic planning and foresight by the government/s of the past decades, is utterly incomprehensible. It is no wonder that Defence wastes so much taxpayer money, when projects are started based upon poor or misguided premises, only to morph into giant money wasting and time consuming exercises in futility. Army has attempted to remove the civilian interference factor by bringing the procurement process “in house” under the auspices of Modernisation Branch, but it is still a long, drawn out process ( a process that is largely still controlled by bureaucrats).

    For my part, I am of an age now that it is unlikely that I will be recalled to service and I am resigned to the fact that I will most likely have to defend my family and property on my own.

  • Peter Marriott says:

    Thanks Graham, and everything in dtu31393’s comment rings very well in my ears.

  • Stephen Due says:

    A fine young man from our church desperately wanted to join the army. He signed up. What he found was an organisation so incompetent and an atmosphere so poisonous that he could not get out fast enough.
    We have abused the freedoms our ancestors fought for to such an extent that it is no longer just a question of whether we can put up a fight. Instead we need to ask whether, when the time comes, there will be anything left worth fighting for.

  • Watchman Williams says:

    Australia is, in all respects, utterly defenceless. The culture that once honoured patriotism, manhood in men and femininity in women, is dead. The Fabian revolution of the last 70 years has born its fruit and wokeism reigns. Public administration, including the military, has fallen into the hands of feminism, otherwise known as the masculinisation of women. As a consequence, public policy is dominated by “feelings”, rather than rational consideration of national interest. There is nothing left to defend so why have a defence force?
    To paraphrase Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt:
    “Australia, which was wont to conquer others, has made a shameful conquest of itself. Ah! Would the scandal vanish with my life. How happy then, were my ensuing death.” (Richard 11, Act 2, Scene 1)


    Australia put up a fight? Once maybe, but only just with the mutual help of allies like America, for instance the battle of the Coral Sea and later Kokoda. As for now, with our gutted military capability, we may as well all go down the pub and chant si vis pacem, para bellum into our beers, gravy and chips.

  • whitelaughter says:

    the first half of your article should be replaced with:
    Under international law, both civilians and military personnel have rights. Terrorists do not. Shooting a terrorist contrary to current operating instructions is not murder, but an administrative error.

  • ianl says:

    Here is a viewpoint on a current example of Australian defence thinking:
    The story that an older frigate or whatever is unsuitable to aid in global Red Sea shipping defence, but is suitable to be kept back for allocation to the South China Sea or wherever is an obvious, childish lie.
    The real reason, and quite transparently so, is that service in the current Red Sea circumstance requires action against some Muslim forces. Lakemba would go ape – the ALP together with the politicised police forces are frightened of them.

  • christopher.coney says:

    There is no plausible comparison between the Pell case and that of Mr Roberts-Smith.
    The lack of evidence against Pell was startling to nearly everyone, but the air had been poisoned against him long before he had even been charged. It was not so with Roberts-Smith.
    Your point about the horrible circumstances in which special forces are dropped is taken, but this was taken into account by the military and those others who investigated the killings.

    • Rebekah Meredith says:

      December 26, 2023
      Nevertheless, to my knowledge, Roberts-Smith has yet to be found guilty of any crime, either in a criminal or in a military trial. His failed defamation case hurt his reputation, but it proved nothing about his guilt or innocence. He has been found guilty in the court of suspicion and public opinion and has never had the chance to clear his name. Even Pell finally got that.

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