Chaplaincy is at its best in support of sailors, soldiers, and aviators when embedded with a local ship, unit, or airbase. It has also functioned well when supporting a joint force. The Defence Strategic Review (2023, p.54) is pointing Defence from a joint to a more integrated force structure. Navy, Army, Air Force, and the Australian Public Service need to synchronise and optimise for National Defence across maritime, land, air, space, and cyber domains. This has huge implications for enhancing critical capabilities and force structure redesign. But what does this mean for chaplaincy in support of combined arms operations and a more integrated force?   

Embedded within ships, units, and airbases

Chaplains embedded with sailors, soldiers, and aviators provide accessible support to members and advice to command. Medical, psychologist, and education officers have been extracted from units and operate centrally or when invited in as specialists. But chaplains are still an asset of command and available directly to members.

Army chaplains are posted to a unit. Chaplains march in with other staff, march around with diggers, wear the same colour patch, do physical training, visit barracks, messes and homes, set up hootchies out field, and drop what they are doing to support members when needed. Navy chaplains and Maritime Spiritual Wellbeing Officers (MSWO) are posted to a ship and deploy whenever they leave port – living, working, sleeping, and eating together for months.

Air Force chaplaincy is team-based across airbases. In an emergency, such as when a plane crashed during Operation Bushfire Assist, it was an Air Force chaplain who could best serve members affected because they knew airfield emergency processes and had relationships with crew colleagues and plane company staff. This is embedded chaplaincy for units, ships, or airbases.

Chaplains across services function in many of the same ways – a listening ear and non-judgmental counsel is most of what sailors, soldiers, and aviators need. This person-centred support varies for context and mission-specific reasons. The services deliver capability from different platforms with different cultures, processes, and expectations. Sometimes members need Chaplains who understand land, maritime, or aviation. But chaplains mostly offer trusted and non-judgmental wellbeing support to Defence members no matter what colour uniform.

By having one’s finger on the pulse, chaplains are an asset for Command. Chaplains are not like psychologists available only through health centres. Chaplains are part of the team of Principal Staff Officers (PSOs) for the Commanding Officer (CO). When the relationship is at its best, chaplains can tell COs not just what staff think the CO wants, but truths about the unit’s morale and friction points.

Chaplaincy is not an optional extra bolt-on capability but embedded wherever chaplains serve. That will hopefully not change by 2025 or 2045. What will change is chaplains will expand their capacity for integrating – not just embedded within their ship, unit or airbase – but across services and domains.

Integrated across services and domains

Chaplains have traditionally served within their service and specialised in that domain. Yet like other members, we join a service but deploy with an integrated ADF. What does it mean for chaplains to be in the right place with the right tools supporting combined arms operations spanning five domains? How do we help command raise, train, and sustain integrated forces that are resilient as well as agile and effective?

Chief of the Defence Force directed that ADF be the “same by default, separate by necessity and similar by exception” and that ADF’s People System must reflect this to optimise resources (CDF Directive 16/2022). By extension, what does it mean for Navy, Army, and Air Force chaplains and MSWOs to be “same by default, separate by necessity and similar by exception”?

Army chaplains are subject-matter experts for supporting forces in the land battle. Air Force chaplains specialise in aviation support. Navy chaplains and MSWOs expertly cover maritime support. Yet all need to understand one another’s domains, and indeed Cyber and Space.

What will character training look like for members who are navigating ethical dilemmas in Cyber and Space? Chaplaincy support for the Defence Intelligence workforce and Health is increasingly integrated and has unique challenges. How does Army best support soldiers in Navy, and soon Army ships? How will resilience be stretched for those whose isolation will be extended in nuclear powered platforms? Chaplaincy will evolve to support members in new domains and in a more integrated Force.

From ADFA to operations

Training and postings are already sometimes tri-service. Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) hosts a tri-service chaplaincy team supporting tri-service staff and officer cadets, whatever the uniform.

In brigades, integrated chaplaincy happens as Navy, Army, and Air Force chaplaincy support each other’s units. When Army units and chaplains sail in Navy ships, Army and Navy chaplains and MSWOs can mutually support. An amphibious battalion had lost its chaplaincy position, but the CO told the Coordinating Chaplain they needed another chaplain. With Army chaplains unavailable, an available Air Force chaplain served that Army unit on HMAS Adelaide.

When an Air Force chaplain handed over to a Navy chaplain for OP ACCORDION, the Navy chaplain did airside awareness training and visited the squadrons. His (limited) knowledge of aircraft was less important than his listening and pastoral skills, and the aviators helped educate him about their aviation world.

The chaplaincy team on HMAS Adelaide during OP TONGA ASSIST comprised an Army chaplain focused on embarked (predominantly Army) personnel and HQ, a Navy chaplain focused on the ship’s company from three services, and a Navy chaplain from Tonga focused on Key Religious Leader and Religious Community Engagement K(Rel)L. They synergised efforts to provide member support. Moreover, the K(Rel)L assigned chaplain value-added to the mission’s humanitarian aims by fostering networks with local religious leaders and faith communities. This will still be critically important by 2045 for Indo-Pacific relations where religion is such a dominant and important part of society.

Learning in integrated settings

It is important for chaplains to train to be ready to lean forward to support members in different uniforms and new platforms. This begins at Defence Force Chaplaincy College which has been tri-service for two decades. It has senior instructors from three services and trains chaplains across services and Australian Federal Police and Border Force. Military chaplains often work with police and Emergency Service on operations, so it is helpful if we have trained and been exposed to their chaplaincy.

How do chaplains learn to work in and across different domains and services? They key is intentional and authentic relationships – chaplaincy’s currency in any context. It means being authentic and honest about what we do not know. It necessitates learning ranks and idiosyncrasies of sister services. It involves seeking experience of different domains – through courses, site visits, coffee conversations, or joint postings. It means not joking about each other’s services, unless occasional banter in the context of a close relationship. Foundationally, a basic tenet of respect for team colleagues means we’ll value and generously affirm each other’s contributions.  

DFSS tri-service, multiple domain training

Training establishments are increasingly becoming integrated, such as the tri-service Defence Force School of Signals (DFSS). DFSS’s mandate is to train members across services as communicators, for Land, Air, Maritime, and Cyber domains. These are important roles to ensure Defence has a decisive information advantage in peace, crisis, or conflict. Staff lean on and learn from each other’s specialisations and teach and administer across services and bases.

Chaplaincy support at DFSS is embedded in the unit and integrated across services. I support Navy, Army, and Air Force members. I have been privileged to work alongside exceptional chaplains in Army but also Navy and Air Force. Another full-time Army chaplain supports our wing at Borneo Barracks. Our Regional Training Wing has access to chaplains at Gallipoli Barracks. Three Air Force chaplains have helped support Air Force member welfare. Most Navy learners are at Maritime Communication Information Systems Wing (MC-ISW) at HMAS Cerberus, supported by Navy chaplaincy. One of those Navy chaplains lives close to Simpson Barracks and also supports us on Reserve days. Another Navy (Imam) chaplain visited to teach on Islam for instructors and deployments. Chaplaincy support is tri-service reflecting our integrated cohort and mandate.

Character training is an important aspect of DFSS chaplaincy. This helps prepare communicators with character, resilience, and ethical decision-making for dilemmas in traditional and Cyber domains. In previous Army units, character training began with Good Soldiering. At DFSS we address the need for character and teaming that the Chief of Army’s Good Soldiering initiative highlighted but expand the concept to incorporate Good Sailoring and Good Aviating. Inter-service conversations about military ethics across the domains are critical for an integrated force.

This is a microcosm of how chaplaincy is evolving. Chaplaincy at its best is embedded with ships, units, or airbases. As the force becomes more integrated, Chaplains need postings, training, learning, and ethical resources that support them providing integrated chaplaincy – across services and spanning domains. Chaplaincy will evolve to be increasingly purple as a capability in support of combined arms for an integrated force.

In preparing this article the author appreciated interviews with Navy, Army and Air Force Chaplains Andrew Downes, Karen Haynes, Kate Lord, James Sutherland and Charles Vesley.