The Canberra officer (4): taming the service chiefs
22 Apr 2014|

"GEN Sir Phillip Bennett, royal governor of Tasmania, prepares to place a wreath at a memorial during a service, part of ceremonies commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea." (May 1982)

When the chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force make a combined visit to the Prime Minister, it can mean coup, revolution or war. So when the three service chiefs met John Howard, in Sydney on Friday 4 April 1997, elements of all three were in the air. The conflict was all inside the Defence Force. The Chief of the Defence Force had staged a coup over the previous two decades as he’d been slowly absorbing the powers of the service chiefs. Within a week, the government was scheduled to release the Defence Efficiency Review, tipped as the most important reorganisation of Defence in nearly a quarter of a century. As a result the war over lines of command and power flared into open revolt.

The review marked another phase in the evolution of jointery, the taming of the service tribes and elevation of the Defence Force chief so his power matched his title. As the military shifted from the Old to the New Testament it created new names and identities—crucially, the Australian Defence Force and CDF (wonderful examples of the invention of tradition).

In this evolution, the Chief of Defence Force Staff in 1976 replaced the Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee. From chairman to chief was a shift that mattered. Under the changes, the service chiefs were responsible to the Defence Minister, through the CDFS, for command of their services, but service chiefs still had the right of direct access to the Minister.

In 1984, the CDFS became Chief of the Defence Force (CDF)—a recommendation of the Utz report that the top military job had to have clear authority to match its responsibilities. The first CDF, Sir Phillip Bennett (pictured), built substance into the new name and continued the fight to get staff to go with it. Mobilising the symbols, he had the sign ‘Headquarters Australian Defence Force’ placed outside his Russell office and the number plate ‘ADF 1’ placed on his official car.

Horner judged that the expanding role of the CDF and the creation of joint commands meant that, by 1988, the service chiefs had been ‘removed from the chain of command for operations, much as they had been in World War 2.’

The tribal battles still raged. Horner noted that in 1996, the CDF, General John Baker, announced significant changes to the command and control arrangements because he ‘believed that the 1974-76 reorganisation had left the ADF without a command structure above the tactical level, and that the services had been slow to rectify this shortcoming…Baker knew that he did not have the staff to command the ADF adequately.’

All this brings us to the service chiefs who fronted the Prime Minister in 1997 to ask for more time to implement the Review; their argument wasn’t to turn back the tide but to slow its  pace. They got a good hearing but little sympathy.

A week after that meeting, the Defence Minister, Ian McLachlan, made the Review public; at the press conference, the flags of the Army, Navy and Air Force were in the room, but the service chiefs weren’t. McLachlan was flanked by General Baker and the secretary of Defence, Tony Ayers. The service chiefs’ no-show said what had to be said about the revolt. That fortnight ranks as the last major pitched battle at the top of the ADF over the principles of jointery and the CDF’s role in giving advice to the government.

In May 1997, as the dust settled, Baker claimed that the new command arrangements ‘are probably at the forefront of military thinking in the world’ while admitting there was ‘still a degree of rivalry between the services and there always will be.’

Looking at the first century of federation, Horner concluded: ‘By 2000 the ADF had developed a uniquely Australian command structure… The ADF now had a single commander, the CDF, who could both advise the government on military matters and exercise strategic command of the ADF.’

The service chiefs still matter hugely as tribal heads and as elite examples of the skills required to be a Canberra officer. Indeed, part of the mandate of the chiefs of Army, Navy and Air Force is to foster a cadre of officers who can step up to operate in the Canberra system. The service chiefs run the system to produce a CDF to reign over them. The taming of the service chiefs over 40 years was necessary not just to establish that hallowed military goal, unity of command. It was vital so the military could produce one man—the passenger in ADF 1—who could drive the ADF’s interests.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.