ADF gap-year program

10 August 2007, ABC News Online, "The Drum"

Gap-year program aimed at the future

Gap-year program aimed at the future

The ADF gap-year program launched on Thursday 09 August 2007 is an imaginative step to help solve defence force recruiting shortfalls. But just as importantly the program also has important implications for the integrated relationship between the defence force's full-time and reservist components, and for the future relationship between the ADF and Australian society generally.

Moreover, the additional costs of the program are only marginal to normal recruiting and training expenditure and no additional facilities are needed. Even if the experiment fails it will have been well worth trying.

The program is likely to attract at least some of those who seek a contrasting lifestyle experience to secondary school. Others will be attracted by the generous pay and conditions and the opportunity to save considerable sums before starting tertiary studies.

Other likely motivating factors include opportunities for community service, adventure, outdoors-centred activities, travel within Australia and the simple physical, intellectual and personal development challenges of defence force service. The opportunity to leave home, at least for a while, but with families reassured that this will occur in a structured environment with an emphasis on self-discipline, may also play a part.

The best way to consider the gap year program is as a marketing exercise. The aim is to attract people who might not otherwise consider joining the regular defence force or even the ADF reserves.

In the first instance the one-year commitment, including earlier "escape clauses" at various stages, offers a try-before-you-buy opportunity for those who might be deterred by the standard three-year initial service period, or who are doubtful about committing themselves to a longer-term career in the defence force.

A second likely advantage of the program is a consequential flow-on, in numbers and quality, to the ADF reserves where participants are motivated to continue on as reservists when undertaking tertiary studies after their gap year.

After 12 months full-time service they will be trained to operational standards that would otherwise take around three to four years to attain part-time (with many existing reservists quitting before doing so). Furthermore, such gap-year participants will greatly assist with the rejuvenation and renewal of the ADF reserves generally. In particular they will provide the young, qualified and motivated junior leaders in the numbers and breadth of skills sorely needed.

A third likely benefit of the program, even among participants who undertake only their gap year with the ADF, is what it offers civil-military relationships in the long term. As Australia's population increases and defence force numbers continue to shrink as a proportion of the wider community, any measures that keep the ADF connected to the rest of Australian society are beneficial to both.

With a defence force composed of small numbers of professionals who volunteer their services, rather than a force sustained by mass participation or selective or universal conscription, the ADF and the wider Australian community need to understand and appreciate each other.

Previous successes

Two examples indicate the program's likely success.

The 1992-96 Ready-Reserve scheme involved ready-reservists undertaking one year's full-time service followed by 50 days of reserve service over each of the following four years. The scheme was very popular, especially with tertiary students, and attracted far more applicants than the positions available (which eventually totalled 3,200 in the Army and 450 each in the Navy and Air Force).

To the considerable regret of the ADF, the Ready-Reserve was unfortunately abolished by the Howard Government on first winning office (largely because of jealousy from old-guard but politically influential Army reservists). The Gap-Year Program, together with the previously announced introduction of the high-readiness reservist category, will go a long way to restoring the operational capabilities and flexibility lost with the ill-thought through abolition of the Ready-Reserve.

The other encouraging example for the gap-year program is the ADF Cadet Scheme. Despite being under one per cent of Australian secondary school students (and only three quarters of a per cent of their age cohort overall), ex-Cadets comprise around 10-12 per cent of regular ADF general enlistments and 30-40 per cent of officer cadets at the Defence Force Academy. The clear lesson is that formal exposure to the ADF greatly increases the interest in, and indeed commitment to, subsequently joining the defence force for either a short or longer-term career.

Finally, the program is clearly not a harbinger for the reintroduction of conscription. Neither our strategic situation nor the small numbers needed (and targeted by the gap-year program) justify such a fear.

Any concern about participants becoming somehow liable for overseas combat service during their gap year is also easily assuaged. Even ignoring the fact that this is specifically excluded, the timings clearly rule it out. The periods needed for recruit, and then more specialised training, mean there would be insufficient time left in the gap-year for pre-deployment training, followed by a six-month tour to Iraq, Afghanistan or East Timor and then post-operational recuperation.