6 years of indecision and drift

May Angus Campbell's successor David Johnston overturn the expectations so many of us have about Defence and its leadership and deliver the rapid change it so obviously needs. Image: Defence

Written by

Michael Shoebridge

Angus Campbell ends his 6 year tenure as the chief of Australia’s military having delivered drift and inaction, at a time when Australia has needed urgent and decisive action from our nation’s defence force commander. 

Whatever his personal character and ethics, he is a failed leader on simple objective tests. 

The Defence Force he leads has been meant to be growing by around 1,000 people a year since 2017. Instead it has been shrinking, despite a firehose of taxpayer money flowing into the Defence organisation every year since 2016.

Two governments have told General Campbell and his civilian colleague, Defence Secretary Greg Moriarty, that Australia no longer has the luxury of at least ten years to prepare for a conflict involving our military in our region – the Morrison government in 2020 with its Defence Strategic Update and the Albanese government with its Defence Strategic Review last April.  They both directed Defence to make urgent changes to increase Australia’s military power to cope with a more dangerous world.

But neither government’s direction to the Defence leadership has managed to shift it from its business as usual pursuit of a perfect future force sometime decades from now.

And while they have remained focused on this distant perfect vision, the senior Defence military and civilian leadership has neglected to do anything to make our military more effective or powerful anytime this decade. Other nations’ militaries – like the Japanese, the South Koreans, the Philippines and every NATO member – are urgently re-equipping and building their militaries. Their military leaders see this as a core responsibility. 

Unfortunately, Defence minister Richard Marles seems to have got to the point where he has given up expecting anything fast or new from the Defence organisation that Gen Campbell and Greg Moriarty lead, telling the Sydney Institute last week that ‘commentators (who) have been fixated on the precise level of Australia’s defence capability, in a worst case contingency’ ‘lack wit’.

Instead of his words from only a year ago about our region having ‘already entered a decisive period’ strategically, Marles now says ‘Australia’s challenge lies in the future beyond this’.

If only that were true. It’s still unfortunately true that if a young Australian wants to work with drones and autonomous systems, they’d be better off becoming a farmer than joining the Australian Navy, Army or Air Force. And it’s still true that 4 years on from prioritising efforts for Australia to produce at least some of the missiles our force uses and will need in numbers in the event of war, nothing has happened to make this a practical reality in the form of factories or production contracts.

The biggest personal leadership failure of General Campbell, though, relates to Afghanistan.  He was the senior officer in national command of Australian forces deployed to Afghanistan from 2011-2012 and received a Distinguished Service Cross for that command. 

In 2020, when credible evidence emerged from the Brereton Report into the allegations that Australian Special Forces personnel had committed war crimes and murder in the period from 2005 to 2016 – a period that included his command – Campbell faced his leadership moment.  And failed.  

At the time, he said ‘These findings allege the most serious breaches of military conduct and professional values. The unlawful killing of civilians and prisoners is never acceptable.

It’s my duty and that of my fellow Chiefs to set things right. Accountability rests with those who allegedly broke the law and with the chain-of-command responsible for the systemic failures, which enabled alleged breaches to occur and go undetected.’

And yet, while calling for honours given to the special forces to be revoked by stripping them of a meritorious unit citation, General Campbell failed to do what every leader must – to ask nothing of others that you are not willing to do yourself.  He kept his own award. No one in the miliary hierarchy from this time has been held to account – with likely prosecutions focused on junior personnel.

General Campbell’s move to strip the unit citation was apparently overruled by then Defence minister Peter Dutton.  However, if Angus Campbell had publicly returned his own Distinguished Service Cross first, his demonstration of moral integrity would have been hard to stand against.

It is almost impossible to recover from such a loss of personal leadership credibility, and so it is less than surprising that the remainder of his tenure has been one of drift.

Two weeks ago, testifying before the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran suicides, facing the fact that 20 times more Defence members have died from suicide than have on active duty, General Campbell apologised unreservedly. He said that deficiencies in Defence’s efforts had ‘tragically led to the deaths by suicide of some of our people’. He had few ideas, though, about anything he might have done but hadn’t over his 6 years in command – or even what should be done from here.  His apology will ring hollow to many as a result. 

And AUKUS?  The best that can be said about Angus Campbell and his Defence leadership colleagues on AUKUS is that they didn’t get in the way of a prime minister who wanted to get hold of nuclear submarines.  And they have been delighted to have the epitome of the complex, expensive and the slow as a thing to focus their time and attention on ever since. The big challenges are for others to deal with in future years.

So, farewell to Angus Campbell.  May his successor David Johnston overturn the expectations so many of us have about Defence and its leadership and deliver the rapid change it so obviously needs.

A version of this article was first published in The Australian.