Successive Australian governments have had a phobia about being seen, even remotely, to support schemes that smack of national conscription. But we also know that in a time of crisis or conflict, our regular Defence Force will need to expand rapidly and work with people without the years of intensive training required in the peacetime military.
To strengthen our national security, we should be looking at options short of conscription and which wouldn’t be as hard to sell to the Australian people. The time is right. There’s now a latent appetite for our political leaders to introduce measures to bolster national resilience. In the past, our strategic planners said there’d be ten years warning for the defence of Australia against direct attack. The recent Defence Strategic Review judged that 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 that it is struggling to maintain its existing staffing levels and estimates that it will only reach 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 bolster 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 filled with 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”, they should embrace the Review’s concept of “National Defence” and establish a national militia training program
We need to get the ball rolling. How about a doubling or tripling of school cadets and regionally based cadet “outdoor bound” type programs. Some of these could be tied to a scheme whereby the government says it will support community-based organisations if they take it on.
But if the government was serious about the Defence Strategic Review’s new concept of “National Defence” that draws on all Australia’s relevant resources, then we should establish a national militia training scheme. It would provide basic military training and knowledge to everyday Australians who, whilst having no appetite to join the military, would wholeheartedly wish to contribute to the defence of Australia if our home were threatened.
The intention would be to train the community and better prepare them in the event of conflict.It would be a self-defence measure, which threatens no-one, but adds to our national defence numbers in times of crisis. In the same way that many Australians learn first aid, hoping never to have to use it, most of us would hope never to have to use this training either.
Such a scheme needs to be convenient to access. If people were required to attend multiple screening sessions, they won’t bother. It needs to be quick. Each basic course should run for a maximum of five days with basic competence being enough to get started and build upon.
The Department of Veterans’ Affairs could run it, using ex-military personnel to deliver the training courses. Fitness or aptitude tests should be minimised to ensure that the primary qualification – motivation to be involved and serve our nation – is the main determinant for recruitment. In the event of Australia being under attack we’ll need numbers and motivation.
We already have legislation providing for reserve training and leave arrangements with employers. If that legislation isn’t sufficient to cover this new scheme, then it’s not likely to be difficult to amend. Public opinion would be broadly supportive, although there may be some competition for recruits with Defence. One problem needed to be overcome is that it’s hard enough getting governments to commit our current ADF Reserves to wars and war-like operations, so they may be no keener to commit militia forces. One solution is to see these national militia personnel as able to complement more highly trained personnel in times of domestic disaster and crisis. This is a practical path to the National Defence concept set out in the Defence Strategic Review.
What would a territorial defence service offer that would provide additional capability not currently met by naval, army, and air reserves? A force could start small and then expand but becoming essential in times of conflict or crisis as we’ve seen in Ukraine. The Chinese approach provides another example. The Chinese have established a maritime militia as a means of mobilising the country’s immense national presence to achieve the old Chinese dictum that the best victories are those won without fighting. The militia is operational: we’ve seen the massing of China’s fishing boats in the offshore zones of neighbouring states.
An Australian maritime militia could never be used for this coercive and illegitimate purpose. It would only become operational once there was sufficient threat to national security to justify the government disrupting the normal commercial activities of its members. Hence its main role would be preparing for operational use during a wider conflict so training for such an eventuality, along with other preparations such as modification to vessels and equipment and enhancements of port facilities.
An initial group of people who would be valuable are our commercial fisherman and offshore oil and gas crews. In a wartime situation these crews would immediately be useful in conducting coastal patrols, with perhaps only one or two naval or Border Force personnel attached to each vessel to authorise the use of firearms.
A maritime militia would recruit personnel with maritime training and experience and operating the vessels on which they have gained these attributes. Navy gains more vessels to meet expanded responsibilities should deteriorating strategic circumstances make this a necessity. This is a return to an older concept of expansion of the regular ADF in times of conflict.
These crews wouldn’t need training in marching or drill, just short, focused training learning how to operate and maintain a firearm safely with some live fire training included. It’s not about turning these people into naval personnel. It is about providing them with sufficient knowledge that should the time arrive to fight, they’ll be able to immediately contribute.
A similar approach could be taken with the establishment of an air militia to be part of the force expansion concept in the event of conflict. It would be particularly valuable to train flyers in remote Australia in the techniques of surveillance as they go about their normal operations and use the experience to upgrade the capability of relevant aircraft. An air militia could be the vehicle for upgrading activities with broader national security relevance, such as the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
This “expansion force” model might be applied to land warfare in areas such as transport drivers. Long haul and remote area drivers would have both skills and equipment to offer. We’d need to be more circumspect about the role of a land warfare militia to provide infantry capability.
Most of the population lives well outside possible areas of operation for Army’s ground force missions and our part time reservists recruits those with a desire to train for such deployments. One option might be for militia to perform static security roles to free personnel for more combat-oriented responsibilities once the risk of serious conflict became apparent.
An expansion force approach also makes sense for other high demand skill areas like cyber and space – where civilians with these skills can receive some basic training about how to turn their skills to defence purposes if required and so be available and useful at much shorter notice should these roles within Defence need to expand rapidly in a time of conflict.
Finding volunteers of any kind is difficult in Australia. That’s unlikely to change. So, the challenge would be to make the new opportunities for training and operating in a national militia interesting, real, and rewarding, while 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 skillset to our nation’s defence.
Anthony Bergin is a senior fellow at Strategic Analysis Australia and an expert associate at the National Security College. Andrew Baird is an independent consultant in the extractive and maritime industries. A version of this article appeared in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald.