The ADF should recruit in PNG, and here’s how to do it
1 Jul 2024|

We should look to Papua New Guinea as we open up Australian Defence Force recruitment to foreign citizens, and we may be able to learn from Britain on how to get the process right.

Opening recruitment to the Pacific, as well as to the Five Eyes, makes sense given Australia’s historic ties to the region and our geographic proximity. In particular, PNG offers significant advantages given it forms both a bridge and buffer to Southeast Asia in its position as a diplomatic ally and a major trading and development partner.

However, successfully bolstering the ADF’s ranks in this manner means getting the recruitment process right. In this, Australia can take advantage of the experience of Britain, which has a long history of successful foreign service with the Gurkhas. These Nepalese recruits have served in the British Army for more than 200 years, while it also has about 2000 Fijian soldiers.

In looking to recruit from PNG, we should model our process on Gurkha selection. Specifically, each PNG province would have its own selection centre, with final selection in Port Moresby. Participation would be voluntary and open to those with or without defence experience. Testing would be rigorous, with successful candidates proving not just their strength and intelligence but their acceptance of ADF rules and regulations and their commitment to its goals and the security of the greater region.

Where and how new recruits would then serve has been the subject of much discussion. Forming a Pacific battalion, in which recruits from the Pacific would be concentrated, does not look like the right initial approach. A better starting point may be the model that Britain uses for Fijian recruits, dispersing them across a range of units to learn and work among other soldiers. By doing so, Australia could fill gaps more broadly and more quickly. In the longer term, the method would equip PNG recruits with a greater breadth of experience, contacts, knowledge and skills.

There are certainly risks and complexities in recruiting from PNG—or any of the Pacific islands. No two of these countries are the same, nor are their needs, political ideals or existing military ties. Cultural requirements, pastoral care and wellbeing, and appropriate education and training are just some of the integration considerations to be addressed. Meanwhile, potential offers of family residency or fast-tracked citizenship would need to be balanced against the return of skills to recruits’ home countries.

Our allies’ foreign recruitment success, and the fact that we’ve managed to navigate many of the above issues over several years of the Pacific-Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme in Australia, prove that partnering with the Pacific to solve our ADF recruitment problem holds much promise. However, there’s more to do in terms of boosting recruitment, with the ADF needing to grow by 30 percent by 2040 to meet Australia’s defence needs.

An April ASPI report by Bec Shrimpton and Zach Lambert cited views from several Australian and Pacific island leaders, ranging from pro-Pacific recruitment to anti-foreign enlistment altogether. But recruiting foreigners is a necessary, logical step.

Some also argue that Britain’s recruitment success is incomparable, since commitments from Nepal and Fiji were cemented long ago, over many years, and in desperate and volatile circumstances. But the ties between Australia and the Pacific islands also stretch back over time. We are close not just geographically, but through long-established cultural ties, particularly in terms of diplomacy and defence, including on the battlefield. Consider, for example, the 3500 Papuans and New Guineans who fought alongside Australia in World War II.

Born in Britain,  I had the privilege after graduating from Sandhurst of serving as an officer with the Queen’s Gurkha Engineers. I have seen first-hand how foreign recruitment has been broadly successful in Britain.

I now work with PNG provinces in employing agriculture and food processing workers via the PALM scheme. Leaders there are keen to explore all Australian opportunities for their people, including in defence.

One of the arguments against Pacific recruitment points to the gap that would be left in recruits’ home countries when they joined the ADF. However, like workers in any of the PALM scheme industries, what recruits can expect by way of compensation goes beyond much-needed income. They would also obtain training and skills that would benefit their communities and economies upon their return.

Recruiting from PNG—which has a limited defence force of its own, with around 4000 people—and forming a collective security approach that’s respectful of the country’s independence and sovereignty could enhance regional security while adding to PNG’s future capability.