Australia’s most pressing defence challenge: skills
24 Jun 2024|

The evolution of warfare in the 21st century has ushered in an era of cyber conflicts, artificial intelligence  and autonomous systems. Those technological advances have fundamentally altered the nature of military engagement, demanding a profound shift in the skills and capabilities of modern armed forces.

For the Australian Defence Force, this paradigm shift presents a daunting challenge: a widening skills gap that threatens to undermine its ability to fulfil the ambitious objectives outlined in the 2023 Defence Strategic Review and the 2024 Defence Portfolio Budget Statements. The ADF is haemorrhaging skilled people to the civilian sector. It must rebrand itself as a modern, technologically advanced organisation that offers challenging and rewarding careers and use targeted recruitment to get the tech skills that it needs.

Competitive remuneration must also be part of the solution. So should career flexibility and, for people already in the services, training to meet new technological challenges.

While the 2016 Defence white paper acknowledged the need for technological adaptation, the ADF’s response has been sluggish and insufficient.

The white paper accurately predicted the rise of cyberwarfare, AI and autonomous systems. However, its vision for a technologically adept ADF has not been realised. A 2021 report by the Defence Science and Technology Group revealed a ‘critical shortage’ of personnel with qualifications in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), particularly in cybersecurity and software engineering. That lack of expertise hampers the ADF’s ability to leverage emerging technologies and leaves it vulnerable to sophisticated cyberattacks.

The traditional military model, with its emphasis on hierarchical structures and long training cycles, is ill-suited to attract and retain highly skilled tech talent, so the ADF is losing skilled people to the civilian sector. The talent drain is exacerbated by the increasing demand for those skills in the civilian sector, driven by the rapid growth of Australia’s digital economy, which is projected to reach A$315 billion per year over the next decade.

The war in Ukraine highlights the need to adapt to the technological realities of modern warfare. The effective use of commercial off-the-shelf technologies, such as drones and satellite imagery, by Ukrainian forces underscores the need for a military workforce that’s agile, adaptable and proficient in rapidly integrating new tools and tactics. The war has also highlighted the devastating impact of cyberattacks on critical infrastructure and the importance of information warfare in shaping the narrative of conflict.

The AUKUS pact, with its focus on advanced capabilities such as nuclear-powered submarines and hypersonic weapons, further intensifies the pressure on the ADF to close its skills gap. The pact’s success hinges on the seamless collaboration and technological interoperability of the three partners. However, if the ADF lacks the necessary expertise, it risks becoming a liability, hindering the pact’s full potential. As John Blaxland, professor of international security and intelligence studies at the Australian National University, succinctly puts it, ‘AUKUS is a wake-up call for the ADF to invest in the skills and capabilities that will be essential for the future of warfare.’

Many of our allies and like-minded nations are making significant strides in military technology and innovation. The US invests heavily in attracting top STEM talent and fosters a culture of innovation within its armed forces. Israel, renowned for its technological prowess, has seamlessly integrated cutting-edge technologies into its military doctrine.

In contrast, Australia’s progress in adapting to the digital age has been slow and incremental. The ADF’s chief, General Angus Campbell, acknowledged that in a 2021 speech, stating, ‘We are not moving fast enough in embracing new technologies and ways of operating.’ That lag could undermine Australia’s ability to effectively collaborate with allies and deter potential adversaries. A 2022 report by the Australian Industry Group noted that 83 percent of businesses in the defence industry sector are experiencing skills shortages, further emphasising the depth of the challenge.

The rapid rise of China, combined with the ADF’s reliance on advanced technology for everything from communications and intelligence gathering to the operation of sophisticated weapons systems, makes the skills gap an existential threat to Australia. In a conflict, the lack of technical expertise could severely hamper the ADF’s ability to operate effectively, leaving the nation vulnerable to cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns and other forms of asymmetric warfare.

If the status quo persists, the consequences for Australia’s defence posture are dire. The ADF’s operational effectiveness would be severely hampered, its ability to deter potential adversaries would be weakened, and its capacity to respond to emerging threats would be compromised. The growing skills gap could erode public confidence in the ADF’s ability to safeguard the nation, leading to a loss of morale within the ranks and a decline in recruitment.

The ADF’s image problem is a significant barrier to attracting the tech-savvy talent it desperately needs. The traditional perception of military service as primarily focused on combat roles is outdated and unappealing to many young Australians with the skills that the ADF requires. To compete with the private sector, the ADF must rebrand itself as a modern, technologically advanced organisation that offers challenging and rewarding career opportunities in a variety of fields, including cybersecurity, data science and AI. The rebranding effort should emphasise the its commitment to innovation, its role in protecting Australia’s national security and the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to society.

The way forward: a bold call for action

The ADF’s skills gap is a complex challenge that demands a bold and comprehensive response. This includes:

—Targeted recruitment: Actively seek out people with in-demand skills, not just those who fit the traditional mould of a soldier. Cast a wider net and look beyond the usual recruitment channels, including by targeting universities, tech companies and even the gaming community.

—Flexible career paths: Create more flexible career paths that allow for lateral movement and specialisation, enabling personnel to develop their skills in areas of interest and relevance to the ADF’s evolving needs. This could involve offering shorter, more focused training programs, as well as opportunities for sabbaticals and external training.

—Competitive compensation and benefits: Offer competitive salaries and benefits packages that are commensurate with the skills and expertise required in today’s military. This includes not only financial incentives but also flexible work arrangements, professional development opportunities and a supportive work environment.

—Upskilling and reskilling: Invest in comprehensive training programs that equip existing personnel with the skills needed to thrive in a technologically advanced environment. This includes partnerships with industry and academia to leverage their expertise and resources. It also requires a commitment to lifelong learning and a culture that values continuous improvement.

—Culture of innovation: Foster a culture of innovation and experimentation that encourages personnel to embrace new technologies and develop novel solutions to complex challenges. This involves empowering individuals to take risks, tolerate failure and learn from mistakes.

The time for complacency is over. The ADF must act decisively and urgently to bridge its skills gap and ensure its relevance in the 21st century. The stakes are too high to ignore.