Change, not continuity, is what’s needed to meet the ever-growing threat from China

General Campbell, Defence Department Secretary Greg Moriarty and Defence Minister Richard Marles. Image: Defence.

Written by

Peter Jennings

Promotion in the Australian Defence Force is designed to be this way. The Chief of Defence Force is a
“four-star” general (in Johnston’s case, admiral) promoted from a very limited pool of three-star
officers. Johnston is the longest-serving of the current three stars and from the moment he became
the Vice Chief of Defence Force in 2018 was seen as the internally preferred candidate for CDF.

Vice Admiral David Johnston’s promotion to be Chief of Defence Force reminds me of the campaign
slogan from the comedy series Veep, where “Vice-President” Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) runs
for the top job under the banner “Continuity with Change”.

Military promotions don’t become political choices until the three-star level and then the CDF leads
in bringing candidates forward that he (so far it has always been a he) wants to see promoted.
That means the CDF is really the only solely political choice and by the time the Prime Minister
makes the call, the prospective candidates have been narrowed to no more than three or four

It is striking over the past few decades how the ADF has shaped the characteristics of modern
generalship. Contrary to film images of aggressive, shouting George S. Patton-like figures, Australia’s
military leaders are invariably thoughtful, smart but not scholarly, congenial team-builders with a big
appetite for work.

Almost without exception, military leaders of an angrier disposition are weeded out before getting
to star rank.

One needs to look to the public service to find old school “leadership” of the swearing, bulging neck
veins and incoherent shouting variety, which is somehow seen to be “decisive” and “outcome
delivering” by external observers.

Admiral Johnston – as he will be on becoming CDF in June – is smart, precise, calmly affable,
hardworking and cautious. He knows how to broker outcomes acceptable to the many tribes and
sub-tribes of the ADF.

In his personal office and in the wider military positions Johnston will shape, he will surround himself
with smart, precise, hardworking and affable officers.

All of this makes the ADF a capable organisation, but driven more by continuity than change. More
than the public service, the ADF is an organisation governments look to for talented “can-do”
individuals able to handle complex policy problems from disaster relief to Covid vaccine rollouts to
stopping the boats and co-ordinating cyber security.

Canberra’s “inside the belt-way” talk had for at least a year discounted Johnston’s chances for the
CDF job on the basis that he had run a long and demanding race as the Vice Chief and was looking
for a pathway “out” not “up”.

It’s a different matter when the Prime Minister asks you to serve longer. The Australian’s Ben
Packham reported Johnston had asked for a two-year term as CDF rather than four years.
If true that’s a worry because the CDF’s position requires nothing less than a full-on turbocharged
commitment and we are moving into troubled strategic times. If it is correct that a two-year term ofoffice has been agreed, how could this be seen as anything other than a sign of an organisational pause?

It is noteworthy that Johnston is the first Navy CDF since Admiral Chris Barrie held the position
between 1998 and 2002 during John Howard’s government. I was chief of staff to defence minister
Ian MacLachlan in 1998.

Barrie got the CDF role on the basis he was the three-star general (as Vice Chief of the ADF) most
likely to pick up the phone when MacLachlan called. I encourage you to read that sentence again.

That was a generation ago. If it is possible to believe it, the ADF was even more insular and self-
­regarding than it is now. This was well before the start of a decade and a half of continuous military
operations in our near neighbourhood and in the Middle East.

The ADF’s operational experience at that time created a sharper, more combat-focused
organisation, more ready to get into the fight. The ADF of 2024 reminds me more of the organisation
in the early 1990s, mired in deep peace, rapt with internal debates and “managing complexity” with
glutinous processes.

Defence Minister Richard Marles shares at least some of Johnston’s qualities in being affable and
cautious. It may well be that is why the admiral has been selected and allowed the personal
preference of a two-year term.

It is important that the new CDF makes it clear to Defence that he is here for a busy time, if not a
long time.

If the slogan is “continuity with change” please, God, let the emphasis be on change.

The most important thing Johnston should do is to push Defence into a greater sense of urgency
about responding to the near-term risk to regional peace posed by an aggressive China.

No government and no CDF gets to pick their strategic times, but it so happens that Albanese,
Marles and Johnston are the leaders we have in place to deal with the worst strategic outlook
Australia has seen since Pearl Harbour and the bombing of Darwin.

Responding to that strategic outlook should be the overwhelming priority for the new Chief of
Defence Force.

This article appeared in the Australian newspaper on 10 April 2024.