COVID-19 and the Australian Army

By Special Operations Command September 4, 2020


COVID-19 has forced a number of unique restrictions upon the ADF in relation to managing isolation, engagement with work and continuing to provide required levels of readiness and capability. These restrictions have forced the ADF to re-evaluate how it maintains capability, achieves directed training and response options, and preserves the force. Although there have been previous examples of people living through similar restrictive times, COVID-19 has largely been a daunting and unexpected shock to the way that the ADF conducts itself. One previous example of Australian persons living through similar restrictions was the 1911 Antarctic Expedition led by Sir Douglas Mawson. Mawson displayed an amazing ability to not only triumph and survive through hardships, but also ensured he kept the other members of his expedition focussed and motivated during a period of significant isolation. This article seeks to contrast the ways in which Mawson and the ADF dealt with isolation and adversity, as well as make recommendations for the ADF as it transitions back to normalcy.

Australasian Antarctica Expedition

Douglas Mawson is perhaps one of the least famous Antarctic explorers from the early 1900s. He was a geologist and explorer who had gained acclaim as part of Ernest Shackelton’s successful 1907 expedition to the magnetic South Pole. After this expedition, he quickly began planning and fundraising for an adventure of his own. In December 1911, Mawson set sail from Hobart and into the history books with one of the most gripping exploits in Antarctic exploration history. The expedition arrived at Cape Denison and established a main base, which it intended to use as a launching pad for a number of scientific expeditions into the Antarctic interior. Due to the average wind speed of 80 km/h, the expedition remained within the main base longer than they had anticipated. Mawson personally led an expedition to explore a tract of Antarctic coast on the far side of the Southern Ocean.

After a challenging, sledging journey of around 500km – disaster struck. One of Mawson’s companions, who was driving a sled with the majority of their supplies, fell to his death down a crevasse. This forced the remaining two members of Mawson’s party to abandon their mission and attempt to return to base. Due to a combination of sickness, lack of food and exhaustion, Mawson’s second companion died on this return journey, leaving him to battle through adversity alone. After a period of around 60 days, he finally reached the main base, only to find that the ship that was to bring the expedition back to Australia had left the previous day and would not return until December. This left the expedition members effectively locked up within a hut for the 10 months of harsh winter – very different from the stay at home restrictions we face today.

Mawson quickly realised that in order to maintain morale, purpose and a sense of engagement, he would need to ensure short-term expedition tasks were achieved despite being in lock down. These tasks ensured the expedition remained focussed on long-term goals and maintained a sense of morale and comradery. Amongst other achievements, they were able to engineer the first long range High Frequency communications link to Australia. At first these tasks succeeded in ensuring the expedition members coped with the close quarters confined living; however, the monotonous work of maintaining uniforms and equipment, conducting scientific testing and routine hut duties with little variation began to take their toll. This combined with the lack of ability to pursue individual activities, led to the member’s morale and productiveness deteriorating significantly towards the end of their isolation.

Australian Army COVID-19 Approach

The impact of COVID-19 on society and the Army’s workplace occurred quickly, required large-scale changes and gave little indication as to when these restrictions may end. The Army has traditionally undertaken a fast paced, joint enabled and wide travelling training year, with exercises such as Hamel and Talisman Sabre seeing thousands of personnel come together for large periods. Additional travel has also been a necessity to facilitate career and trade courses, conducted in dispersed locations across Australia. Many of these exercises and courses are essential for maintaining individual and collective capability throughout the year.  Like Mawson, the Army has had to quickly re-orientate in the face of adversity and analyse how it undertakes business as usual throughout a long period of isolation. Army and Defence has been required to make radical amendments to current promotion and training continuums to ensure that capability is maintained and personnel can still be prepared for advancement, in spite of restrictions in travel.

A positive second order effect of COVID-19 for Army has been the acceptance of recognised prior learning for subject courses and the exportation of a number of courses usually held residentially. This has led to a greater level of flexibility in personnel management within units and enhanced instructor experience for NCOs, WOs and Officers who are not posted to training institutions. This has also allowed units to retain personnel whilst they undertake these courses and increased the amount of time that they spend with their families. The increased recognition of prior learning acceptance has shown that many members throughout the Army already possess the required skills for advancement and if they had undertaken the course outside of the COVID-19 umbrella, it would have little benefit to them outside of increasing their network of peers.

At the collective training level, COVID-19 has made the Army re-assess what is essential training in a calendar year and what is desirable. Training / exercise tempo is constant throughout a normal year and this tempo only starts to reduce around quarter four. Given restrictions were put in place around March 2020, exercise tempo has been greatly reduced and limited to smaller essential training, at the platoon level and below. This has allowed greater work life balance for soldiers and allowed them to focus on basic skills, which often tend to become overlooked in larger exercises, though this focus has come at the expense of collective and larger formation training. This reduction in tempo has allowed for the free air to pursue in unit modernisation of capability. Due to this ability to modernise capability, units can better incorporate modernisation that would take longer to develop and implement at the unit / sub-unit level in a regular tempo training year.

An unforeseen benefit of COVID-19 has been the maintaining of high levels of manning consistently throughout the year, this has provided maximum capability to response options and as mentioned, the opportunity to further develop on in-unit capability. Outside of the umbrella of COVID-19, these personnel would have been required to undertake external trade courses, support requests and exercise periods which would have taken them as a capability away from the unit.

The increased flexibility in exporting trade / career courses and the limiting of larger exercises has been a positive in the short term for units and members alike. The true cost to benefit will be realised over the long term through the indicators of trade and command competence and unit performance on operations. However, it is important for the senior leadership to consider developing a more decentralised model of training the ADF’s personnel, utilising more exported courses outside of some of the key career courses, which offer intangible benefits when run centrally. This blended approach is better aligned with modern society and could potentially provide better capability outcomes.


Mawson’s isolation during his Antarctic Expedition created opportunistic tasks given the circumstances faced by him and his team. Over time, the limitations imposed by the environment and the monotonous nature of the tasks detracted from those positives significantly. COVID-19 has enforced similar restrictions on the Army, which has allowed for the more targeted development of key soldier skills and capability, not just preparing for the next exercise. As restrictions lift, an increased focus will apply to larger level training and reinvigorating relationships with external agencies and international partners.

This paper has outlined similarities between an unplanned lock in at Cape Denison experienced by Sir Douglas Mawson over one hundred years ago and Army has needed adaptation to unprecedented COVID-19 restrictions. It identified both positive adaptations that Army has implemented and could maintain as Australia comes out of COVID-19 restrictions. Post COVID-19 the Army has an opportunity to capitalise on lessons learnt throughout this period and emerge as a more balanced and capable force.




Special Operations Command

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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