A ‘total force’ at last? Change in the Defence workforce
5 Dec 2013|

Assistant Minister for Defence, The Honourable Stuart Robert MP, joined Acting Chief of the Defence Force, Air Marshal Mark Binskin AO at HMAS Harman, Canberra to launch Project Suakin, a workforce reform that aims to further support ADF members and enhance the way they serve.   Project Suakin intends to introduce a range of full-time, part-time and casual service categories to support and retain ADF members through long-term, rewarding military careers by providing them with more options to seek as their circumstances change.

The new government is looking hard at Defence’s equipment costs (about 22% of the budget) and operating costs (about 35%) but can’t ignore personnel costs (about 42%). Reducing the numbers of those in uniform may be an option but is politically difficult.

More palatable is using military personnel more effectively under more flexible conditions of service. Project Suakin, launched on 26 November by Assistant Minister for Defence Stuart Robert and Acting CDF, Air Marshal Mark Binskin, aims to do just this—at little cost initially and with savings of $20 million plus p.a. in the medium term. Done properly, this has the potential not just to save money, but to turn the ADF into a highly flexible workforce, thereby increasing retention, improving job satisfaction, enhancing recruitment and better matching skills with requirements.

Developed in detail over the last 3 years, the project seeks to end the legal and administrative barriers faced by service members looking to switch between full-time, part-time and reserve service or between services. At present such changes are often highly complex and time-consuming, if they can be achieved at all. It can take up to 47 weeks, for example, to transfer from the full-time Navy to the active reserve.

By allowing near seamless transitions between types of service the ADF will provide options that suit members’ individual and family situations at any given time rather than see them simply leave or remain frustrated. For uniformed personnel six Service Categories are proposed: Standby Reserves (no obligations), Active Reserve (training obligations), High Readiness Reserve (assured availability for operational service), Non-Permanent Part-time (guaranteed periods and patterns of service), Permanent Part-time and Full-time service. One key change here is making permanent (continuing) part-time service readily accessible to full-time members in place of the present convoluted and burdensome process.

Examples of those who would benefit from the scheme include a young soldier who wants to take a couple of years out from the Army to save up a nest-egg by working in the mining industry; a female sailor starting a family who wants to work part-time for some years or an Air Force reservist who would like to try full-time service. The project helps both men (who tend to want options) and women (who generally seek continuity in employment) and it helps full-timers, part-timers and reservists.

The benefits of Project Suakin for the ADF are also apparent. It retains skills in which it has often heavily invested. The average cost of losing just one ADF member, for example, has been estimated at over $600,000. Equally, keeping the door open for those who’ve left the ADF to return is highly cost-effective. Increased job satisfaction and the ability to move people quickly to areas where they are needed provide further organisational gains.

Project Suakin won’t happen quickly or easily. Complex legal changes are required. Personnel policies and regulations across the three services need overhaul. Benefits and allowances, including superannuation, health support, pay rates and tax-free service days must be carefully calibrated. Management will have to remain flexible while damping expectations among personnel that any change can be undertaken at any time—like any other enterprise, the ADF must consider its operational needs.

Most important is the cultural change needed in the ADF. The idea of an integrated ‘total force’ has been around for decades. But the lingering attitude that only full-time personnel are ‘real’ members of the ADF – because they have more training, more experience and more commitment to serve – needs to fade away completely. Part-time members need to be treated fairly in terms of training, education, promotion and opportunities to serve full-time. This shift in attitudes has already been helped by the fact that reservists have proved their worth in several overseas operations in recent years.

But new attitudes are also needed on the part of political leaders. In the past governments have been chronically unwilling to use their legal ‘call out’ power to require part-time personnel to serve full-time. Not one reservist was called up to serve in Vietnam, a policy which only fuelled the disdain of regulars and National Service conscripts for part-timers. Future governments should see all reservists as available for full-time service and be ready to call them up as required. Now that would be a cultural change.

Hugh Smith is a visiting fellow at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, UNSW Canberra. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.