As a people-based force, and as the defence force of a liberal democracy, the ADF optimally needs to represent the diversity of the society it comes from and protects. Australian society also needs to understand the ADF and be willing to support it - including by serving in the force. When citizens of any democracy are unwilling to understand the defence needs of their country, or are reluctant to help defend their society by military service or other support, the country (not just its defence force) has a serious problem. Some of the more intractable of these problems cannot be solved by the ADF no matter how much goodwill, innovation and additional resourcing is applied. Australian society as a whole must solve them.
Operational effectiveness in a defence force ultimately boils down to three factors: people, equipment and how you meld them together to do the wide range of difficult jobs required.
As a relatively high-wage economy, particularly in our region, national defence investment follows this formula.
Personnel costs normally take up about 40 per cent of the annual defence budget, with capital investment and operating costs splitting the rest fairly evenly.
For constitutional, professional and practical reasons, the defence force of any democracy should optimally reflect the community it comes from and protects.
But staffing our defence force faces a complex mix of socio-demographic, economic and cultural constraints.
The Department of Defence is the third biggest employer in the country and the ADF workforce component is necessarily young compared to most industry sectors.
Around 50 per cent are under 25 and some 75 per cent under 35-40.
Demographically, however, these age cohorts are static or reducing as a percentage of Australia’s population, and the percentage of young people undertaking tertiary education has also increased substantially over recent decades and is approaching 50 per cent.
Moreover, a key contextual challenge is that over the last two decades we have fought Australia’s wars with an all-volunteer force, rather than one relying on mass enlistment or conscription with the wide community involvement and common understanding of defence issues this used to bring.
Of the 6.8 million families in Australia fewer than 10,000 now have someone in the ADF deployed overseas each year – even from an extended-family perspective. Even at the height of the Afghanistan war the number wasn’t above 15,000.
As a result, many Australians no longer notice, or believe, that Australia is at war.
Instead they believe that Australia’s military deployments, and national defence issues generally, are just a professional matter for members of the ADF.
Few Australians, for example, can now tell you how big the ADF is (around 59,200 full-time and 19,100 reservists supported by 18,500 public servants and contractors) and why this matters.
When the citizenry don’t understand defence issues or feel uninvolved they are less likely to join the ADF or encourage family members to do so.
Socio-economic trends are exacerbating this. Many inner-city, double-income, professional families now appear to discourage joining the ADF – even as reservists.
Some inner suburbanites now mistakenly assume that its somehow natural for our defence force to be disproportionally comprised of outer-suburban or rural youth.
In other words, its supposedly OK for “bogans” to serve in the ADF but not their own kids.
Such trends were highlighted during debate over broadening the involvement of females in combat roles by a telling irony.
Many of those fiercely insisting this was a gender-equity issue alone, rather than mainly a defence capability one with equity implications, would never serve themselves or allow their daughters or granddaughters to do so.
Another example of a disengaged national community more broadly, has been uninformed opposition to the ADF increasing the proportion of females in its ranks (15 percent overall but nearly 19 per cent in the Navy and Air Force) and, just as importantly, to new career structures and work practices to maximise their retention.
While in pre-1960s folklore, if not widespread reality, some magistrates used to offer young minor offenders the choice between a military career or imprisonment, few jobs in the modern ADF are unskilled.
Also long gone are the days when the ADF appeared a ready economic or social remedy for entrenched unemployment, although its capacity to spur and enable social mobility remains high.
When unemployment grows, applications for enlistment tend to rise.
But the numbers meeting ADF educational, medical, psychological or work-history stability standards remain much less affected. Particularly among the long-term unemployed.
At the other end of the employment spectrum, however, the mining boom showed how far ADF retention rates drop when such trained and motivated workers are sought by civil industry.
Achieving an optimum ethnic-origin or religious balance across the ADF always faces practical obstacles that no amount of goodwill and funding can easily overcome.
Indigenous recruitment and retention requires patient effort, particularly in outback communities where health and education standards, English literacy and a cultural reluctance to travel and live outside traditional lands pose significant obstacles to full-time military service.
The ADF’s ethnic balance also faces enduring cultural distrust in some ethnic communities, particularly where first-generation migrants from authoritarian or institutionally corrupt societies resist defence force careers for their children.
Among some recent migrant groups polling also reveals a dearth of affinity to Australia with some individuals indicating they would not help defend Australia even in time of war. They would just emigrate somewhere else.
Politico-religious radicalisation in parts of Australia’s Muslim community also poses challenging problems for ADF recruitment, particularly at a time when we deploy the force overseas in UN-endorsed operations against Islamist terrorism.
Finally, while the ADF is generally innovative and energetic in tackling all the above constraints and challenges, we need to remember that it’s operational effectiveness always remains the paramount national priority.
Neil James is executive director of the Australia Defence Association.