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Modern challenges require modern solutions: National Service to enhance Australia’s hard and soft power

An Australian Army CH-47F Chinook helicopter delivers Australian Aid stores to Futuna Island during Operation Vanuatu Assist 2023 (Source: Defence)

The concept of National Service being reintroduced has well and truly set a cat among the pigeons; however, tweaking a traditional approach to embrace modern sensitivities may just provide the nation with the best of both worlds and a critical edge when applying both “hard” and “soft” power in the Indo-Pacific.

The concept of National Service being reintroduced has well and truly set a cat among the pigeons; however, tweaking a traditional approach to embrace modern sensitivities may just provide the nation with the best of both worlds and a critical edge when applying both “hard” and “soft” power in the Indo-Pacific.

As a nation, Australia has a long and conflicted history with National Service, often conflated with conscription tarnishing the public perception and prompting a vortex of hostility in the public opinion.

Beginning with successive iterations of conscription during the First World War and subsequent phases during the Second World War and periodically throughout the Cold War, it is easy to understand the public backlash, particularly during the Vietnam War as a video of dead servicemen was beamed back to living rooms across the country.


Despite the local pessimism surrounding the concept, National Service serves as a powerful public policy tool around the world (with nations from Germany and Israel to Denmark, Sweden, and Singapore), providing these countries and school leavers with an introduction to the workforce, an opportunity to develop a range of skills and experience, while also serving the nation and its interests at home or abroad.

Recent announcements by UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak around the potential reintroduction of National Service for school leavers in the United Kingdom has poured fuel on the fire across the Western world as they struggle to meet recruitment targets in the face of mounting geopolitical tensions.

Uniquely, a number of “like-minded” nations operate both civilian and military-focused national service programs designed to support school leavers transition to higher education, trade training qualifications all while also supporting key skills shortages in areas of the economy difficult to fill.

Importantly for Australia, such models also provide avenues to draw on international precedent and tried-and-true examples, like the US GI Bill program to build a futureproofed, highly competitive, and engaged workforce.

Despite this, young Australians joined their counterparts across the Western world to push back against the idea of National Service being reintroduced for a host of reasons, ranging from an ideological reluctance to fight for “Western cultural imperialism”, to them holding no real stake in the future of the nation having been effectively muscled out of the housing and job markets over the last three decades.

This all comes at a time of rapid geopolitical and strategic deterioration and declining Defence recruitment numbers, with our annual shortfalls to grow to 5,000 by the end of this financial year despite repeated efforts by both sides of the political divide and other “solutions” only expected to grow the Defence workforce by 350 at the upper end.

So, what if we approached the idea of National Service in a novel way?

First, any national service would need to be split into two streams, a “civilian” stream and a “military” stream, designed to ensure – as firebrand independent senator Jacqui Lambie stated, “If you’re not earning or leaning, you’re serving” – to broaden the appeal, equally, there will need to be incentives to encourage young people to serve.

But first things first, let’s conceptualise the two streams.

Enhancing Australia’s soft power – Australia’s Peace Corps

The introduction of the Peace Corps by US President John F. Kennedy in 1961 provided a national service and international aid program aimed at developing both domestic and international relationships to the benefit of the United States at the height of the Cold War.

America’s initial focus on the Caribbean and Central America during the Cold War, in many ways, echoes the importance of the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, and elements of the Indian Ocean periphery as the primary area of Australia’s responsibility.

The primarily developing nation status of these nations, coupled with the need for basic infrastructure and services, has resulted in many of them often looking to Australia as a benevolent provider of practical infrastructure development, trade training and domestic skills development as part of our broader national humanitarian expertise, experience and responsibility.

Accordingly, as a regional and global leader, Australia plays an important role in the humanitarian response to crises throughout the Indo-Pacific, providing an opportunity for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and AusAID, via an expansion to the existing “New Colombo Plan” scholarship program, to enhance the nation’s soft power across the region and actively respond to the challenges presented by encroaching great powers.

Such a program would go a long way to addressing the growing levels of debt trap diplomacy and infrastructure mega-programs designed and implemented with minimal broader sociopolitical or economic impact beyond the extraction of primary resources by largely foreign workforces, eventually leaving the host nations crippled by foreign debt and otherwise isolated from broader economic opportunity.

Meanwhile on the domestic side, young Australians joining the Peace Corps would get the opportunity to develop critical skills, whether through trade training qualifications, language training and/or tertiary education, coupled with having the opportunity to travel across the Indo-Pacific in support of the national interest while providing invaluable service to some of the world’s poorest developing nations.

Addressing recruitment shortfalls – Traditional National Service

The late retired-Major General and senator for NSW, Jim Molan AO, DSC used to tell me, “Steve, we have no shortage of young Australians eager to put on a uniform, pick up a rifle and serve the nation, we have a hard time getting them into the uniform quickly and keeping them there”, and recently released Defence recruitment figures show that this is definitely the case.

Reforming the broader Defence recruitment system aside, the “try before you buy” nature of the ADF Gap Year program proves that Defence can scale up recruitment rates (at least to some degree) and provide a quick turnaround from the initial YouSession to enlistment than basic training, so the old arguments fall flat.

It is also logical to argue that a single year is not enough of an opportunity for young people to get a true taste of life in the Australian Defence Force or a true sense of the opportunities available through a longer career with the military, by providing enticing opportunities and incentives upfront, arguably, 12 months is just enough to get an individual familiar with the basics of life in the military.

Addressing these challenges come first and foremost, as well as expanding the rollout of the Gap Year program to provide two streams of service, one for full time service and one for entry into the reserves as an extra means of building the Australian Defence Force’s capabilities.

Establishing an incentive structure

Government has a number of mechanisms through which it can incentivise greater participation in a National Service scheme, beginning with subsidised or “free” professional or trade-training qualifications for individuals pursuing either the “civilian” or “military” stream.

In particular, for people joining the military without a specialisation beyond being a member of the infantry, providing them additional avenues for professional development in a similar manner to that which already exists for specialised trades within Defence or via the officer stream leverages tried-and-true examples established in the private sector of an employer that invests in their workforce.

Additionally, this would provide these individuals with critically needed skills that the broader economy can leverage either through direct secondments within defence industry or more broadly, when they leave the service, addressing critical skills shortages across the national economy.

Defence Connect has been repeatedly told about the way in which the Defence recruitment process often holds back professional development opportunities at the critical early stages of post-high school education or training programs, thus providing these individuals with an opportunity to keep up with their peers prior to beginning their formal military training serves to level that playing field across a cohort of peers.

On top of these professional development opportunities, service can and should provide avenues to access concessional loan mechanisms and structures to help Australians buy their own homes, something that young Australians increasingly find out of their reach.

Such an approach could be supported via greater investment in Defence Housing Australia, providing the personnel with an opportunity to “rent-to-buy” during their period of service with access to concessional loans, or through Defence partnership with developers to establish Defence communities in close proximity to bases.

Final thoughts

Declining economic opportunity, coupled with the rapidly deteriorating global and regional balance of power and the increased politicisation of every aspect of contemporary life, only serves to exacerbate the very reality of disconnection, apathy, and helplessness felt by many Australians.

This attitude is only serving to be compounded and creates a growing sentiment that we are speeding towards a predestined outcome, thus disempowering the Australian people and, to a lesser extent, policymakers as we futilely confront seemingly insurmountable challenges with little to no benefit and at a high-risk/reward calculation.

Taking into account the costs and implications, it is therefore easy to understand why so many Australians, both in the general public and within our decision-making circles, seem to have checked out and are quite happy to allow the nation to continue to limp along in mediocrity because, well, it is easier than having lofty ambitions.

Turning the ship around will require a whole-of-nation effort, but for young Australians, the people who will inherit the nation over the coming decade, we will need to meet them where they are, listen to their concerns and the challenges they face and provide policy solutions to help them solve these problems and overcome these challenges.

Traditional methods of national service fail to achieve this, however, establishing a symbiotic mechanism that invests in the future provides avenues for developing and expanding the capacity and competitiveness of the Australian economy and our national power by connecting young Australians to a meaningful concept of national service, either military or civilian-focused.

Importantly, no one has said that defending the nation in this era of renewed and increasingly capable great power competition will be cheap or easy and we have to accept that uncomfortable reality.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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