In mid-2021, I commenced writing a thesis on mobilisation in the Australian Army whilst posted to the US Army Command and General Staff College. I was interested in understanding how we might rapidly grow beyond our current force structures if the red flag went up. As a part of this research, I came to understand how early conscription systems in Australia have supported the nation by providing a depth of resilience as it prepared for, and fought through, conflict.

The full thesis can be found here at the Ike Skelton Combined Arms Research Library, with a summary found here on The Cove.

In mid-2022, I attended the US Army’s Advanced Military Studies Program at their school in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. This program afforded me the opportunity to dive deeper into the history of conscription in Australia. In April of 2023, I submitted a monograph titled “A Heretical Notion: Proposing a Universal Service Scheme for Australia”. It will be available here, under the 2023 collection, from Q4 2023. This short paper is a summary of that research and is intended to spark conversation.


Let’s jump straight to it. Conscription in Australia is not popular. It typically sparks memories of National Service members fighting in Vietnam and young Australians being compelled to action that is contrary to their moral convictions. Despite these issues, conscription has been introduced on four separate occasions during our nation’s history.

The increasing threats posed by great power competition, extreme weather events, the spread of pandemics, the threat of political instability, and the difficulty with accessing human resources would appear to be placing ever mounting pressure across the whole-of-government enterprise.

Balancing these increasing threat scenarios, with limited resources, warrants an examination of a universal service system that could safeguard Australia’s interests and provide security into the future.[1] Whilst this may be a heretical approach, the dangers posed by a combination of political, militaristic, environmental, and health risks warrants this discourse and is the primary purpose of this short paper.

Furthermore, the strategic shift from the ‘Defence of Australia’ to ‘National Defence – A Whole-of-Government Approach’, as outlined in the 2023 Defence Strategic Review, opens the door for an examination of a holistic universal service system.[2]

Storm Clouds on the Horizon

There are several dark clouds looming on our horizon and quite often military professionals only see threats that exist through the lens of their own paradigms. This paper argues that it is necessary to break from just considering military threats, and that the idea of a citizen’s duty towards the state’s security warrants broader consideration.

The most threatening clouds on our horizon are extreme weather events, health crises, food security, great power competition, and labour shortfalls. A universal service system might enable Australia to weather these storms by providing improved capability across the whole-of-government enterprise.

In late 2019 and early 2020 the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and state-based emergency services were hard pressed to deal with wide ranging bushfires, floods, and the start of the COVID 19 pandemic. COVID 19 alone saw over 14,000 ADF personnel deployed to support the people of Australia – equivalent to 25% of the permanent force.[3]

Things do not look like they will get better or lessen in intensity. In a 2022 Climate Study, the Bureau of Meteorology highlighted that there have been increases in extreme heat events, extreme fire weather, more intense heavy rainfall events, and that flooding is now one of the major natural hazards facing Australia.[4]

Climate change does not just affect citizens through disasters. It also has the ability to affect our food chain which is already short at least 172,000 workers from paddock to plate.[5] Australia produces close to 89% of its food requirements and exports nearly 72% of total agricultural production into the global food supply.[6] The emerging threat in this sector is one of securing labour to ensure our own food supply and that to global markets is maintained. However, access to labour is not only threatening the agricultural sector.

Great power competition is increasing and its impacts felt in the Indo-Pacific region. In response, the Australian Prime Minister announced in March 2022 that the number of ADF personnel would increase by approximately 30 percent, or 18,500 personnel, by 2040.[7] However, growing the ADF by nearly 30 percent over the next 18 years is no small feat and as Figure 1 displays, the ADF has not been able to achieve its recruiting targets since 2013.[8]

It is clear that access to labour represents a significant threat to the ADF’s ability to recruit and retain a viable workforce out to 2040 and beyond.

Table of ADF Recruiting Targets 2013 – 2021

Figure 1: ADF Recruiting Targets 2013 – 2021. Created by the author using data from the Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defence, Annual Reports, 2013 – 2021.

A universal service system could help not only the ADF, but also the agricultural sector, the emergency services, and civil sector of Australia cope with labour shortages and boost access to personnel during times of crisis. Before jumping straight into how a universal service might work in Australia, it is valuable to briefly review how other countries use it.

What Options Exist?

Universal service is not something new. It has been, and is, used by many countries to mitigate security risks in their home nations. Very briefly, the systems of Israel, Singapore, and Sweden will be explained as it is useful to compare how other nations use universal service to mitigate against whole-of-government threats in their own nations.

Israel – the adoption of compulsory military service occurred nearly simultaneously with the declaration of Israel as an independent state. Since 26 May 1948, it has remained as an integral part of their defence strategy. Interestingly though, the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) wasn’t just to be used as a tool to shield Israel. Their first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, also foresaw the IDF as a tool for modern Jewish nation building.

In this way, the IDF have been used as an additional labour for Jewish agricultural settlements, the supplementation of teachers in underprivileged communities, and the use of engineers to construct facilities for the influx of immigrants.[9]

As a result, the IDF’s compulsory service model has exhibited the characteristics of a people’s army – one used for the defence of the people and for the nation's development. It is important to note, however, that the IDF compulsory service model is a military model, meaning that the primary purpose of the system is to defend against external military threats.

Table 1: Israeli Conscription Model at a Glance








30 Months

Based upon calling-up officer:

Monthly Service or Annual Service (up to 31 days)

Available to those who do not meet military requirements or have exemptions.



24 Months

Source: Created by the author with information from the Basic Laws of Israel: Defense Service Law 1986.

Singapore – national service is one of Singapore’s most fundamental and longest running public policies which pre-dates its independence from Britain and subsequently, Malaysia. Its structure incorporates the Army, Navy, Air Force, the Singapore Civil Defence Force, and the Singapore Police Force.

Other options exist within the firefighting, rescue and emergency services, medical services, hazardous materials, and safety compliance for those citizens unwilling or unsuited to military service to contribute positively towards their society and support the concept of nation building.

The unifying nature of the Singapore national service system can also be seen in their adoption of the ‘Total Defence’ strategy in 1984. The strategy is aimed at responding to challenges that threaten Singapore’s independence, its economy, and its wellbeing – think physical and mental health. The core message of this strategy is that “every Singaporean has a part to play to help strengthen our defences against these threats and challenges.”71F[10]It must be noted though that whilst the Singaporean model expands beyond the military it only incorporates service for male citizens.

Table 2: Singaporean National Service System at a Glance







18-40 (Enlisted)


18-50 (Officers)

Not greater than 24 months

Not greater than 40 days annually

Available in:

Singapore Civil Defence Force and the

Singapore Police Force.






Source: Created by the author with information from The Statutes of the Republic of Singapore: Enlistment Act 1970.

Sweden – various forms of conscription have been used in Sweden since 1611.[11] Their current system was introduced as the Total Defence Obligation Act in 1809.[12] It is important to note that the name of the act avoids the words national service or conscription; rather Total Defence demonstrates the Swedish commitment to combat threats across their entire society.

Interestingly, The Act was suspended from 2010-2017. However, by 2017 the deteriorating security environment in Europe and the inability to recruit sufficient personnel into the military saw the Swedish Government reintroduce it.

Some of the issues faced by Sweden were the large forest fires (2015, 2018) that required significant emergency response operations, the migration crisis of 2015, the 2017 Stockholm terrorist attack, and cyber security breaches at the National Transport Authority in the same year.[13]

Notably, compulsory service is now gender neutral and covers the military, civilian service (think schools), and general national service (think food production).[14] The Swedish model is truly a whole-of-government approach to security.

Table 3: Swedish Total Defence System at a Glance







Military Service





Max. 20 mnth

Ends after 5 years

Civilian Service

Max. 10.5 mnth


General Compulsory National Service



Source: Created by the author with information from the Swedish Riksdag Act (1994:1809) on Total Defence Obligation.

What Could we Build?

Before we get building, it is important to emphasise that the primary purpose of this short paper is to spark a dialogue and thought around the utility of a universal service system in Australia. It is not, in any way, designed to propose the way or to suggest that universal service must be adopted in Australia.

When proposing a model, it is important to consider the name of a system and its meaning. This paper suggests that the system could be called the Universal Civil Service Scheme. The below list highlights the meaning behind each word:

  • Universal – indicates the inclusion of all Australian citizens serving across whole-of-government.
  • Civil – highlights the fact that this system delivers outcomes beyond the military, supports the government in executing its plans during times of crisis, and supports all citizens.
  • Service – demonstrates the interrelationship between the citizen and the state and the duality of duty that exists between them.
  • Scheme – demonstrates that this is a large-scale, systematic approach to attaining strategic advantage and security for Australia.

Graphic representing the proposed Universal Civil Service Scheme for Australia.

Figure 2: Proposed Universal Civil Service Scheme for Australia. Created by the author.

Figure 2 visually depicts the Scheme. It is built upon the foundational concepts of service to the community and the deep reciprocal sense of duty between the state and its citizens. The scheme’s four pillars of service – built upon the foundations – are the military, emergency services, rural service, and public service.

Fundamental to this concept is that citizens be given the opportunity to preference service (1-4) across the four pillars. The purpose of this is to limit forcing citizens into areas of service that might conflict with their conscience or capacity. The foundations and pillars of the Scheme build up to provide Australia with a method to shield itself and provide security to the nation and her people.

Under the first pillar of military service, citizens are conscripted to conduct basic training within any service of the ADF. Training and service would not exceed 24 months. As with the systems explored in the case studies, the primary purpose of military service is to protect Australia from foreign nations and their militaries. Unlike the previous four national service systems in Australia, military service personnel must be eligible for service outside of Australia for peacekeeping or warlike operations.

Under the second pillar, citizens would be conscripted to service within emergency services. Much like the Singaporean Civil Defence Force, citizens are conscripted to then train with fire, police, ambulance, and state emergency services across Australia. Training and service would not exceed 24 months, and personnel would form the basis of the first response to domestic crises.

Emergency service personnel would provide the backbone for Australia to deal with extreme weather events, domestic crises, and reinforce the ability of these institutions to provide services across the country.

Under the third pillar of rural service, citizens are conscripted to train at agricultural schools which provide basic skills in vehicle and machinery operation, animal husbandry, and cultivation practices. Once training is complete, citizens would be billeted across agricultural regions to support food production and reduce labour shortages in a similar way to how Israel uses its conscripts to support agricultural programs.

Under the final pillar of public service, citizens would undergo training to perform roles within areas such as childcare, primary healthcare, aged health, and social welfare. This training and service will support Australia’s universal healthcare model and provide improved access to care nationwide. This pillar has significant opportunities to specifically reduce pressures within the childcare and aged care sectors. It also provides those citizens who may eschew military or emergency service with a viable means to contribute to their communities and society.

Table 4 summarises citizen eligibility for the Scheme and provides an overview of time periods and reserve service. The model demonstrates no bias or discrimination towards gender, physical capability, or mental capacity. The variation in pillars of service are designed to enable meaningful roles for all Australians.

Table 4: Proposed Universal Civil Service Scheme at a Glance







Military Service




24 months


14 days per year until age 35, stand-by from age 36-55.

Emergency Service

Rural Service

Public Service

Source: Created by the author.

It is necessary to highlight the value of the reserve component within the Scheme. While the conscripts between the age of eighteen to twenty would provide the Australian Government flexibility to deal with rapid change whilst in service, the reserve component truly holds the latent power. As the Scheme matures, it provides the Government with ever-increasing flexibility and scale for it to tackle identified threats.

A large reserve component of trained citizens enables the Government to tailor their response options, scale it according to requirements, and ensure its responsiveness.


It is undeniable that there are diverse and difficult challenges in Australia’s future. As we progress through the 2020s and into the 2030s, conscripted citizens could hold the key to minimising the impacts of great power competition, extreme weather events, and other domestic crises. The review of Israeli, Singaporean, and Swedish national service models helped to identify three key themes. These were the use of national service as a tool for nation building, the concept of Total Defence (from a societal perspective), and the tension in systems and governments that choose either all-inclusive or selective models of service.

These themes should fuel the emerging discourse regarding the utility of universal service in Australia. Global uncertainty and the dangers posed by a combination of political, militaristic, environmental, and health risks led this paper to consider what a Universal Civil Service Scheme for Australia might look like.

The proposed model incorporated the four pillars of military service, emergency service, rural service, and public service. These pillars were designed to deal with Australia's diverse range of threats. Whilst the exploration of a Universal Civil Service Scheme for Australia may be seen by some as a heretical approach, the purpose of this paper has not been to dictate the exact way forward. Nor has this paper tried to argue that compulsory service must exist. Rather, this paper has articulated and described what a model of universal service might look like based on Australia’s history and current threats.

Its overarching purpose has been to explore options and deepen the discourse on methods that might combat the future problems faced by Australia, her government, and her citizens. Without a willingness to explore all options available, we may miss the opportunity to best steal ourselves for the future.