Successive governments have had a phobia about being seen, even remotely, to support schemes that smell of national conscription. But should a time of crisis or conflict arise in the coming years, the Australian Defence Force will be forced to expand rapidly and use people who do not have the years of intensive training that is required of our military services.
To strengthen national security, we should no longer shy away from looking at options short of conscription models. This wouldn’t be hard to sell to the Australian people; the time is right.
In the past, strategic planners said there’d be 10 years’ warning against direct attack. The recent Defence Strategic Review judged that the warning time is now essentially zero.
While the federal government’s goal of recruiting 18,500 personnel by 2040 is an important ambition and one that should be prioritised, the ADF admitted during a recent parliamentary committee hearing that it is struggling to maintain its existing staffing levels and estimates that it will reach only 73 per cent of its target this year.
The time for complementary additional solutions is now. There’s an appetite for political leaders to introduce measures to strengthen national resilience. We’ve seen in Ukraine just how valuable and effective a trained population can be in defending their homeland where, for the most part, the ranks of its armed forces are bolstered by volunteers.
If the Australian government is serious about the dire warning to come from the review, which noted the ADF’s “significant workforce challenge” and called for the adoption of an “innovative and bold approach to recruitment”, it should embrace the review’s concept of “National Defence” and establish a national militia training program. The scheme would provide basic military training and knowledge to everyday civilians who wish to contribute to the defence of Australia if our home were threatened, without joining the military permanently or as part-time reservists.
In the same way that many Australians learn first aid, hoping never to have to use it, a trained force would add to our national defence numbers in times of crisis should it ever be needed.
Administered by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, and using ex-military personnel to deliver training courses, the primary qualification for being accepted should be a person’s motivation to be involved and to serve the nation if called upon, instead of the standard fitness or aptitude tests used when recruiting career servicemen and women. This is important because as we have seen in Ukraine, if Australia were to come under attack, numbers and motivation are key drivers in defending a country.
China’s approach provides another example, whereby the government has established a maritime militia as a means of mobilising the country’s national presence to achieve the old Chinese dictum that the best victories are those won without fighting.
In Australia, the main role of such a militia could not be used in this coercive and illegitimate manner. Rather, an Australian maritime militia would be preparing for operational use during a wider conflict while also working as a deterrent.
Personnel with maritime training and experience could be recruited, such as commercial fishermen and offshore oil and gas crews. In a wartime situation, those crews would be immediately useful; they wouldn’t need marching or drills – just short, focused training that provides sufficient knowledge to ensure that should the time to fight arrive, they’d be able to immediately contribute.
An air militia could also be established to expand the force by training flyers in remote areas in the techniques of surveillance as they go about their normal operations and use the experience to upgrade the capability of relevant aircraft.
Looking even further afield, this expansion force model might also draw out transport drivers like long-haul and remote-area truck drivers that could be of use in the instance of potential future conflicts.
In Australia, the majority of the population lives well outside possible areas of operation for the army’s ground force missions. Part-time reservists train for such potential deployments. One option might be for a militia to perform static security roles to free personnel for more combat-oriented responsibilities should the risk of serious conflict become apparent.
Finding volunteers of any kind is difficult in Australia; that’s unlikely to change. So, the challenge is to make new opportunities for training and operating in a national militia interesting, real and rewarding, while also minimising the obstacles that people with a sense of purpose and useful skills from their civilian lives would need to overcome before contributing that motivation and those skill sets to our nation’s defence.
Anthony Bergin is a senior fellow at Strategic Analysis Australia and an expert associate at the National Security College.
The Opinion newsletter is a weekly wrap of views that will challenge, champion and inform your own. Sign up here.