“He which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.”

– Henry V, Act IV, Scene iii, 18-67, William Shakespeare.

We serve in uncertain times. Our experience is characterised by uncertainty, surprise, and twitchy strategic trigger fingers. It feels as though tomorrow we will either be sweeping the transport yard or boarding a C-17, packed for deployment. Times such as these have historically seen build up and the modernisation of militaries become the main effort for nations, and Australia may well be no exception.

But simultaneously we are also experiencing a retention crisis – the juxtaposition of which is becoming an ongoing source of cynicism within the ranks of the Australian Defence Force (ADF).

So, what is the solution? Is it a retention bonus? Is it a reduction in standards? The Basic Fitness Assessment is now no longer a barrier to completion of basic training, and the Physical Employment Standards Assessment (PESA) is likewise being pushed to individual training schools. Clearly lowering the standard isn’t assisting in the retention of personnel, and an argument may be made that we are compromising our ability to raise a ready, deployable force.

Deloitte Global’s 2022 Gen Z and Millennial survey provided extremely useful takeaways for the ADF workforce. The bottom-line up front, is that our junior ranks – both commissioned and other ranks – are highly mobile, prioritise job satisfaction and personal fulfilment, and are likely to start looking for another job within two years of entrance.

This isn’t ADF specific – it is a generational and workforce wide issue; so much so that it has been dubbed the 'Great Resignation'. Commanders will all be able to identify those in their units, sub-units, platoons and troops that are waiting for their Return of Service Obligation (ROSO) to end so they can make for the door. This group not only provide for an inaccurate assessment of deployable personnel, but are – at the peer-to-peer level – seen to be a drain on the morale of teams. Perhaps this is the crux of the issue. In our attempts to expand and swell our ranks, we have made promises during recruiting that are often difficult to fulfil around the high tempo of training and the trials and tribulations of COVID, floods and bushfires. The fix here is unpalatable but nonetheless critical for consideration. To paraphrase a determined Moses to Pharaoh – let those people go.

The adage of quantity having a quality all of its own is most certainly not applicable here. Our focus ought to be on building what we do have, letting in only those who will build our capability, and assisting those whose vision is different to achieve their goals in another sector.

History tells us that a small force of highly proficient, lethal, and disciplined soldiers will achieve a great deal more than a body of reluctant draftees, conscripts, or forcibly-retained personnel. Should the reader require evidence of this, I would cite the experiences of the United States Marine Corps at the Chosin Reservoir, or – closer to home – our very own soldiers at Kapyong and Long Tan, to mention only a few.

Having outlined the issues at hand, a solution must now be offered. Like any good concept of operations, this will be delivered by phase. 

Phase One will begin with the identification of personnel who seek to end their service, regardless of their ROSO. This phase should consist of assisting their transition and clearing out positions which are currently occupied by those whose goals, professional or otherwise, don’t align with those of the ADF.

This may be achieved through the provision of a 12-month ROSO amnesty, whereby those seeking to depart are given clearance to do so. This should include those on long term medical or administrative leave and their handover to the Department of Veterans Affairs to enable their ongoing support. This phase will end on the identification of key vacancies after the 12-month amnesty. This offers opportunities for targeted recruitment in Phase Two.

Phase Two will begin post the amnesty. It should consist of a Human Capability Enhancement (HCE) period for those who remain in service, to enhance the capability which remains. This might occur by brigade or formation level, over 6-month periods whereby collective training outcomes are frozen until the completion of the HCE period.

Not only would this remediate shortfalls in key skills such as driver qualifications and key combat behaviour training outcomes, but would enable the targeted insertion of newly trained junior soldiers and officers to those key positions identified at the end of the ROSO Amnesty. This phase would end on the completion of the final six-month HCE period, setting conditions for the resumption of normal training rhythms.

Phase Three begins in the return to business-as-usual training. This phase would consist of regular force generation but would be enhanced at the formation level by key skills instructors now being able to organically generate solutions to local capability issues. This phase should end with a brigade level after action review, outlining key remaining shortfalls and net surplus which can be cross levelled in support of other brigade shortages. 

Further enhancements to this structure, incorporating the Total Workforce System, will enable the continued employment of ROSO amnesty separations in SERCAT 3 and 5 roles to make the best use of their skill sets. By placing them in brigade training cells it will both reduce SERCAT 7 manning requirements and meet individual career goals, in alignment with Deloitte Global's findings.

Whilst not a perfect solution, the above proposal provides a 'best of both worlds’ outcome – those who don’t wish to stay can leave, and those who wish to continue part time have an excellent opportunity to offer continued service whilst pursuing a civilian career. Similarly, those who remain in service will see greater investment in their own skill sets and enable them to offer more to their units in Phase Three, providing them with a sense of value, validity, and progression.

This piece has provided an outline for a complex issue, with broad service implications and extant action plans. Whilst the perspectives of one subaltern may not be universally shared; it is without a doubt that the strategic interests of Australia need to be supported by an ADF with a shared vision and a unity of purpose.