Disclaimer: In the interests of brevity, this article ignores the broader societal impacts of reducing full time military staffing and doesn’t account for services other than Army or the wider Australian Defence Organisation.
Army has shifted gears after a 20-year period of high tempo operations in the Middle East Area of Operations. It is now experiencing a period of relative peace generated by a deliberate and calculated shift of government focus towards the local region. There has also been a change in how the Australian Defence Force (ADF) is used by the government, largely due to COVID-19 and increased natural disasters. In this environment we may struggle to motivate, train and retain the next generation of soldiers, which presents a problem for our next war. This article introduces concepts that could be implemented as a solution to the problem, albeit with extreme levels of organisational, structural and policy change.
Motivation and Retention
The ADF is currently exercising strategic restraint by preserving its capabilities while building relationships in the local region. Operation COVID-19 Assist was an unanticipated use of those capabilities which tied up considerable resources for an extended period. Although it generated significant strain on the ADF, it also allowed the ADF to practice short-notice operational generation (OPGEN) of troops to conduct unfamiliar tasks in complex environments – albeit in a non-warlike setting. There are numerous similar examples over the past few years relating to national disaster responses. For people who are entrusted with warfighting on behalf of the state, conducting such tasks – or not deploying at all, can significantly affect motivation and retention.
Total Workforce System
Concurrently, Army has made a clear shift toward embracing the additional capacity provided by part time forces. They have been extensively used in support of domestic operations over the past few years, and to a lesser extent, in support of global operations. This shows the immense value in the part time ADF, but its potential has not yet been reached. The Total Workforce System (TWS) encourages members who are no longer able or willing to work full time for the military to transition to other employment while maintaining their links to the ADF, their military identity, and their ability to serve. This TWS Explainer article describes the system in greater detail.
This creates an unconventional organisation, but the organisation has the potential to be much larger and more potent. If we focus effort on retaining human capital within the TWS, rather than in the full-time service, we may experience greater success when Australia needs it most.
How to Grow Army
The only way to grow the Army is ‘from the inside out’. What I mean by this is that rather than focussing on recruiting more, we need to find ways to make people want to serve longer, whether it be in a full time or part time capacity.
Let’s hypothesise that a given soldier has a defined and finite period of service beyond which their motivation and engagement reduces to a point where they no longer wish to serve in any form. In this case, would there be value in having a soldier serve eight years without having seen operational service, if at the end of that period they discharge and no longer serve? Or would there be more value in preserving that soldier’s service for a longer period in a part time capacity where they are available for more operational service opportunities? That is to say, if the soldier could be employed in part time service for 16 years before losing motivation, and in that time serve on three operations, is that better value than the previous example? Note, this assumes that a soldier’s ongoing motivation is primarily linked to operational service.
Of course, a defence force is ultimately employed to deter conflict, but we can’t afford to not have forces available when they are needed. If we continue to exhaust our military before the first bullet is fired, the ADF will fail to serve its purpose when it is needed most.
Training and Skill Fade
Outside of specialised trades and support roles, it could be argued that much of the skill and knowledge required to generate an operationally capable Army is military literacy, fieldcraft and tactics. Understanding key military terms and jargon is a key part of communication within the military and having basic combat skills, fieldcraft and tactical prowess is key for survival. The vocabulary built within the minds of young soldiers and officers sticks with them forever. Significant individual foundation skills are developed at initial training and carried with them beyond discharge. Skill fade will diminish skills and knowledge over time, but it will never drop below this base level. Regular part time training also maintains many of these skills. During mobilisation it will be far easier to re-train or upskill part time military members than it will be to train inactive reservists or civilians. This is a key factor for this model.
This model is underpinned by the reduction in full time forces which allows for an accompanied increase in part time forces. Part time military training should be focused on the maintenance of individual skills and qualifications, as it already largely does. This aims to build and maintain the skills and attributes required to build competent soldiers and officers. Collective training and the building of teams is completed during pre-deployment training. After all, units who complete force generation (FORGEN) training in any given year rarely deploy under that same grouping. FORGEN training is reduced with much of the permanent workforce converted to part time. Only critical short notice contingency elements are actively maintained as full time capabilities. Our combat power is then preserved for when we need it.
OPGEN is then relied upon to provide short notice contingency training to any deploying elements. Members are able to transition up the SERCAT system and take up ‘full time’ postings when they desire and a vacancy is available. The overall size of the force is increased as more people undertake part time service and serve for longer. We become better at generating and regenerating capability which will be critical when we are inevitably required to mobilise for a large-scale operation.
Rather than having one part time division and one full time division, we have three divisions fully staffed on paper, but with only a select few contingency elements in each that parade and train full time. Rather than having retention issues, we now have a large group of highly motivated individuals training part time and hoping for the opportunity to be selected to be part of the full-time contingency forces, or to deploy.
The part time Army is used to generate force elements capable of being raised, trained, deployed and demobilised over a 12-month period. Army members are better at reintegrating into society. Careers become sustainable over longer periods and the average service period grows to 20 years. Burnout becomes a thing of the past. Veteran mental health issues are reduced. Sufficient contingency forces are maintained to meet short notice requirements and sufficient follow-on forces are available and can be rapidly mobilised on activation.
The Army swells to a force of 75,000 and the ADF becomes 120,000 strong marking an increase in overall strength by 40% – a formidable force within the region. The TWS output is amplified. This model, although seemingly counterintuitive, is a force multiplier. It delivers sufficient staff to support the peaks and troughs of operational requirements; it saves considerable fiscal resources that can be reinvested in equipment and logistics readiness; and it significantly increases Australia’s military power while retaining the same level of proficiency at the commencement of hostilities. This may not be the retention solution we want, but it may well be the only one that will work.