Where will Defence find 18,500 more people?
17 Mar 2022|

Last week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced an increase of 18,500 to the Department of Defence’s full-time workforce by 2040. I’ll spare you the (semi-)snarky commentary about (semi-)announcements this time and get straight to unpacking what we know about this measure.

The government hasn’t released a detailed breakdown of what the 18,500 will be doing, but it did provide some high-level information to the media. From that, it appears there will be two phases of growth. Over the next decade there will be 12,500 new positions. Those have already been assigned to particular new capabilities. In the second decade there are 6,000 more positions, which seem to be more of a general pool that will be assigned to roles as Defence’s long-term requirements are better understood.

Around 2,000 of the first 12,500 are Australian public service positions, with another 2,000 in the following 6,000. That’s understood to be in addition to the roughly 540 new APS positions announced in Defence’s mid-year budget update that are intended to help deliver AUKUS programs and the sovereign guided weapons enterprise. All up, that’s a 15% increase to Defence’s APS numbers. Since more public servants generally isn’t a vote-winner outside the nation’s capital, the government hasn’t been playing this up. But it suggests the government has realised Defence can’t deliver its huge investment program without people to run acquisition projects. Some of those new positions are also going to be in the Australian Signals Directorate for cyber capability.

That leaves around 14,500 new full-time uniformed positions in the Australian Defence Force. Considering the ADF’s strength is currently a little over 60,000, that’s a very substantial increase of around 25%. That prompts two key questions: what are they for and can Defence actually recruit them?

There’s a simple answer to the first question. They are needed to operate the new capabilities that are already in Defence’s investment plan, the 2020 force structure plan that accompanied the 2020 defence strategic update (which ASPI has analysed in some detail). It gave Defence around 1,000 additional people as an immediate measure but stated, ‘A detailed proposal for … longer term growth will be considered by Government in 2021.’

Since then, Defence’s workforce planners have been hard at work mapping people to those planned capabilities. The aggregated answer is the 18,500 additional people, which the government has now considered and agreed to. The $38 billion to pay for those people over the next decade is already built into Defence’s 10-year funding model set out in the 2020 update.

A cynic might say there’s little new in the recent announcement. But it’s important to align capability with people and the government has now done that. There’s no point acquiring military systems if you don’t have the people to operate them effectively.

Those people are needed to increase the number of submariners from 800 to potentially more than 2,000, to operate new land-based strike capabilities and to conduct cyber and information warfare, among many other tasks associated with new capabilities.

What Australians won’t see is a new, dedicated emergency response function. Despite the uninterrupted chain of civil emergencies over the past several years, it looks like Defence is still planning to meet those contingencies with its core warfighting capabilities. Whether that makes sense is a separate conversation.

The second question is whether Defence will be able to recruit those people. We’re all familiar with stories of Defence’s struggles to recruit and retain people. And recent history isn’t particularly encouraging. The ADF has only grown by about 2,000 people since the 2016 defence white paper, or fewer than 400 per year on average. It now has to sustain average annual growth of twice that for 20 years.

But there are also grounds for optimism. The current force is only 0.23% of Australia’s population—less than one-quarter of one percent, or only one in every 400 Australians. While a future full-time ADF strength of 75,000 to 80,000 sounds like a lot, it will still be only a very small percentage of Australia’s population. Considering that our population has grown by around 34% over the past 20 years and neither major political party seems to want to fundamentally change our immigration policy, it’s reasonable to assume future population growth will be similar. Put another way, the ADF just has to preserve its current share of the Australian population to achieve the target.

However, the issue may not be numbers of people per se but developing the skills required for the new capabilities. Some of the new positions will be for people with skills the ADF currently doesn’t have and who will take years to train (like nuclear-qualified submariners). Others require skills that are highly sought after and can attract much higher remuneration in the private sector (like cyber experts). The hit to migration wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic certainly isn’t helping as it has increased competition for skilled people.

The key may not be in recruitment, but in retention. The ADF has averaged a separation rate of 8–10% over recent years. In essence, that means it’s losing 5,000–6,000 people per year, many of whom are already trained and highly skilled. If it can reduce that by 1,000 per year, it will have basically cracked the problem. Of course, that’s easier said than done. It comes down to giving ADF members a competitive employment offer. Defence is aware of this and working on it. The business case for an east coast submarine base is as much about recruitment and retention as it is about the strategic drivers of a two-ocean navy. And the ADF’s total workforce system seeks to provide its members with some of the flexibility that Australian workers now take for granted.

The question isn’t so much about whether the growth is achievable; it’s about whether a defence organisation that is used to developing and working to 20-year plans can meet the threats posed by an uncertain world that’s rapidly changing. The 2020 update rightly said we can no longer count on 10 years of warning time. The day Russia’s Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, many pundits and politicians were still saying it wasn’t going to happen. And now we face the prospect of China’s Xi Jinping exploiting war in Europe to further his own designs of remaking the regional and global order.

Aligning workforce requirements with capabilities is a good thing. But if we aren’t getting the people we need for 20 years, that means we won’t be getting the capability we need for 20 years either.