The Defence Strategic Review 2023 (DSR23) contained six ‘immediate actions to reprioritise Defence’s capabilities in line with the Review’s recommendations’, one of which was ‘investing in the growth and retention of a highly-skilled Defence workforce’. Government agreed with all of DSR23’s workforce-related recommendations. In response, Defence promptly announced retention bonuses and a review of Defence housing arrangements. The more recent 2024 National Defence Strategy stated that the Defence workforce is currently around 4,400 personnel under strength. It acknowledged the need to streamline recruiting and for a range of ‘financial and non-financial incentives’ for both recruiting and retention; however, the only retention incentive it explicitly mentioned was the continuation of targeted retention bonuses.

Monetary incentives such as retention bonuses are likely to appeal to some serving members, yet they are only one part of what needs to be a much broader effort. A 2005 survey of Australian Defence Force (ADF) members found that ‘the top 10 [reasons for leaving the ADF] are dominated by arguably more intangible factors and do not include pay related issues. … This implies that the ADF could significantly improve personnel retention by widening its strategies to include intrinsic issues rather than confining them to extrinsic issues like remuneration’.

Although this survey is two decades old, recent publications by serving ADF members have also focused on the importance of non-monetary factors, indicating that these remain a significant factor in retention of ADF members. For example, a recent Cove article by Captain Jake Finnane proposed that better measures to identify and address leadership issues, as well as reduced administrative overheads and bureaucratic inertia, would help to retain junior personnel. While potential reforms in these areas are worth further examining – this author agrees that there is an urgent need to reduce administrative and bureaucratic overheads in particular – this article seeks to explore a different piece of the puzzle, potentially one that can be addressed much more quickly and without the need to conduct a comprehensive reform of existing processes.

This area is the extent of medallic recognition for service. Historically, the ADF’s approach to medallic recognition has been highly conservative. This is evidenced by a range of historical controversies relating to perceived lack of medallic recognition. Examples include the lack of Victoria Crosses awarded to Australians during the Korean War, even though contemporary and historical accounts indicate that a few personnel likely deserved the award for their actions in Korea; the downgrading of gallantry and distinguished service medals awarded during the Vietnam War and following the Battle of Long Tan in particular; the need for an inquiry into why Australian naval gallantry and valour had been under-acknowledged for several decades; and a lack of award of a campaign medal for warlike service in Somalia in 1992. While it is beyond this article’s scope to suggest the reasons behind this apparent cultural trend, it has been speculated elsewhere that it may be related to Australian society’s egalitarian cultural tendency to ‘cut down tall poppies’.

An alternative system that the ADF might move towards is the US Armed Forces’ system. In addition to awarding a wider range of medals for service, the US also awards commendation medals much more readily. For example, the lowest level commendation medal in the Australian system, the Commendation for Distinguished Service, is ‘awarded by the Governor-General on the recommendation of the Minister for Defence’. In contrast, the lowest level of commendation medal in the US Armed Forces is the Achievement Medal, which can be awarded to subordinates by an officer at the O5 (Lieutenant Colonel or equivalent) rank level. This means that unit commanding officers have the authority to award this medal. While the ADF has a non-medallic Commendation system to recognise performance that does not qualify for medallic recognition, the lowest rank level that can award commendations is a one-star (Brigadier or equivalent) officer, which is still much more senior than an O5. This results in a greater level of award-related bureaucracy, leading to a lower rate of recognition within the ADF’s non-medallic recognition system as well as within the medallic one. Although Australian commanding officers can bestow local recognition, such as certificates of recognition and annual awards for the best performing personnel in their units, these awards are not entered into PMKeyS service records and cannot be worn on the recipient’s uniform. They therefore tend to be perceived as less prestigious than both ADF Commendations and medallic recognition.

In addition to enhancing the perceived prestigiousness of locally-awarded performance recognition, the ADF should take steps to extend the scope of medallic recognition for operational and other significant activities. Recently, the ADF withdrew from Afghanistan and has downscaled operations in the Middle East; however, its tempo does not seem to have slowed down. Instead, the weight of effort has shifted towards activities in the Indo-Pacific, with building partner capacity and other activities to uphold the global rules-based order now taking precedence. While the tempo has remained, this new focus has not been accompanied by any kind of medallic recognition, even in the case of several named operations.

Given the extent to which these operations and some other recent ADF activities have helped to uphold Australia’s national interests, this article contends that these activities ought to receive medallic recognition. Australia’s current campaign medal, the Operational Service Medal (OSM), is quite versatile in that different ribbons can be awarded for different types of service. Below it is proposed that five additional ribbons be established for the OSM, which together will enable contemporary medallic recognition to better align with contemporary ADF operations and activities. Furthermore, corresponding additional bars to the OSM Civilian Service ribbon should be established where applicable.

Five specific ribbon designs are proposed below. These designs are suggested only as a means to visually capture the reader’s attention. The specific details of the ribbon designs themselves are much less important than the suggested award criteria. Further, award of the suggested ribbons should not be limited to only the operations suggested below. These suggestions are illustrative, not comprehensive. A review of all past and present ADF operations is required to fully identify all of the possible operations to which these categories of medallic recognition ought to apply, and awards should be backdated for applicable past operations conducted in the period since 22 May 2012, when the OSM was instituted, and possibly earlier. Detailed consideration also needs to be given the length of deployed service that is required for the award of each ribbon. In particular, where humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR)-type operations or Defence Assistance to the Civil Community (DACC) operations lasted for less than 30 days, service for the duration of the operation should qualify an ADF member for award of the applicable ribbon.


Example Maintenance of the Rules-based Global Order ribbon

Maintenance of the Rules-based Global Order ribbon. This should be awarded to ADF personnel who have served on operations that contribute to maintaining the rules-based global order, broadly defined. For example, such operations would include Operation Solania, Operation Argos, and Operation Gateway. The proposed ribbon design symbolises the land (ochre) and the sea (dark blue), and the airspace that encompasses them both (light blue).

Example Building Partner Capacity ribbon

Building Partner Capacity ribbon. This should be awarded to ADF personnel who have served on operations that focus primarily on training, advising, and assisting Australia’s partner nations and where award of an alternative medal or OSM ribbon has not been made. For example, such operations would include the current Operation Kudu and the previous Operation Augury—Philippines, which ran from 2017 to 2019. The proposed ribbon design is based on the patch colours of the ADF’s most decorated training unit, the Australian Army Training Team-Vietnam. These colours were yellow and green, with a small amount of red and black also included on the patch.

Example Defence Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief ribbon

Defence Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief ribbon. This should be awarded to ADF personnel who participate in named overseas HADR-type operations that do not meet the threshold for award of the Humanitarian Overseas Service Medal. For example, such operations would include those conducted in response to cyclones in Fiji in 2016 and 2021. Deployment on Operation Render Safe should also qualify for the award of this ribbon. The proposed ribbon design reflects that of the Humanitarian Overseas Service Medal, with each side of this design being eucalyptus green divided vertically by a gold stripe. The centre of the design contains dark blue, red, and light blue stripes to symbolise the operational role of the ADF and to denote that this is a Defence award.

Example Defence Assistance to the Civil Community ribbon

Defence Assistance to the Civil Community ribbon. This should be awarded to ADF personnel who participate in named DACC operations that do not meet the threshold for the award of the National Emergency Medal. For example, such operations would include Operation COVID-19 Assist and ADF operations conducted in response to flood events in NSW, Queensland and other states in 2021 and 2022. The proposed ribbon design reflects that of the National Emergency Medal, with each side of the design being eucalyptus green divided by three gold stripes, to form a total of seven stripes on each side, representative of the Australian states and territories. The centre of the design contains dark blue, red, and light blue stripes to symbolise the operational role of the ADF and to denote that this is a Defence award.

Example Miscellaneous Service ribbon

Miscellaneous Service ribbon. This should be awarded to ADF personnel who participate in any named operation that either: (1) after a period of three years from the date of cessation of the operation, has not qualified for the award of any other medal or ribbon; or (2) is ongoing for a period of greater than five years after the date of commencement of the operation, but has not yet at that time been subject to the granting of any other medal or ribbon. The Miscellaneous Service ribbon should also be awarded for major non-operational activities that significantly contribute to achieving the Defence mission. For example, it should be awarded to personnel who post overseas for periods greater than 180 days as part of the Defence Cooperation and Pacific Maritime Security Programs. The UK has recently announced a medal that is roughly equivalent to what this proposed ribbon intends to achieve, though the UK’s award criteria is narrower in scope; and the US has awarded a medal with approximately similar criteria for several years. This ribbon would therefore bring the ADF into alignment with its key AUKUS allies. The proposed ribbon features a rainbow design to represent the varied nature and full spectrum of ADF activities, with red as the central colour to emphasise that all operational service involves personal sacrifice and commitment to duty.

The intent of this ribbon is to ensure that all operational and significant non-operational service is recognised, regardless of the nature or duration of that service. Steps need to be taken, however, to ensure that its existence will not deter future decisions to create further additional OSM ribbons for operations that ought to receive their own unique form of medallic recognition. The award of the Miscellaneous Service ribbon should be made as a final measure, not as a first recourse.

Example Accumulated Service Device

Accumulated Service Device. A numerical Accumulated Service Device, similar to that used in conjunction with the OSM Greater Middle East Operations ribbon (pictured above), should be used for the second and subsequent award of each of the five ribbons proposed herein. Conditions for the award of this device for the proposed ribbons should mirror those for its award to accompany the OSM Greater Middle East Operations ribbon.


In conclusion, ADF retention initiatives should include a range of monetary and non-monetary rewards for service. The monetary incentives recently established through measures such as retention bonuses are a good start but more ought to be done, especially regarding the development and implementation of non-monetary rewards for service. One such measure, which could be achieved relatively easily, is the broadening of the number of OSM ribbons awarded, with the intent that new ribbons more closely and substantially recognise the nature, requirements, and achievements of contemporary ADF service. Though the exact ribbons proposed in this article need not be adopted, it is hoped that their inclusion herein has provided adequate ‘food for thought’ regarding what ought to be, and that serious consideration will be given in the near future to broadening this particular form of non-monetary incentive.