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Extensive review long overdue for Australian Defence Force recruitment

Australian Army soldiers from the School of Infantry conduct a battle run during Exercise Hardcorps at the Singleton Military Area, NSW. Photo: CPL Johnny Huang

Australian Defence Force recruitment is a complex issue, but if we look at previous years and Defence targets, was that always the case or are we long overdue for an extensive review?

Australian Defence Force recruitment is a complex issue, but if we look at previous years and Defence targets, was that always the case or are we long overdue for an extensive review?

In early 2023, the Defence Strategic Review, unveiled by the Australian federal government, revealed that Defence recruitment was considered a reoccurring issue across the ADF, APS, and defence industry.

In addition, the document outlined that recruitment was likely to continue to deteriorate without creative and flexible responses and recommended an increase in recruitment speed from application to enlistment to recruitment and the process of recruitment should be achieved in days, not months.


“Recruiting and retention, Defence is addressing retention and recruitment as a priority. As at 1 January 2024, the ADF is 6.9 per cent, or 4,308 people, below its authorised strength (of total 62,735),” Chief of the Defence Force General Angus Campbell said, speaking at the Senate estimates in February.

Earlier this year, the Australian Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Minister for Defence Personnel, Matt Keogh MP, confirmed the federal government is undertaking a number of employment measures to improve the rate of recruitment for the Australian Defence Force.

“We are growing our Defence Force as we need, making sure that we’re improving the flow through in our recruitment,” Minister Keogh said during an interview with 2GB on 13 February.

“We inherited a situation where, for somebody who said, ‘Hey, I want to put their hand up to join the Defence Force’, it was taking 300 days for us to actually get them enlisted.

“That was ridiculous. People find other jobs, they move, they find a partner and don’t want to join the Defence Force anymore or something else.

“We’re now targeting bringing that down to 100 days or even shorter if we can; we have a new recruitment partner to do that, Adecco (Swiss-French recruitment company), they’ve only just come on board.”

We now know that ADF recruitment is a bit of nightmare for new recruits to navigate. But was that always the eventual reality for Australians eager to undertake training and join the ADF?

Was there always a yearlong and, in some cases, two-year wait time to even get a foot in the door?

In SAS soldier and Victoria Cross recipient Mark Donaldson’s recent memoir, The Crossroad, (provided to Defence Connect by Pan MacMillan), a much more straightforward introduction to ADF recruitment is illustrated.

“Secretly, I started putting in my application forms to the army,” Donaldson wrote about his initial enlistment into the Australian Army on 18 June 2002.

“An appointment was made for me to front up to the army office in Sydney, and I went down to stay with Ross and Val for a week. The army letter had said to show up with your gear in anticipation of not going home.

“When the day came, I had a bag packed ... If I got through the tests, I’d be on my way to Kapooka, the basic training camp near Wagga Wagga, by nightfall.

“They sent me down to HMAS Kuttabul at Garden Island, and put me through the basic physical: push-ups, or 7.5 on the beep test – they stopped you. From there, I was sworn in on the Queen’s oath and put on the bus. We sat and waited for a few more recruits, and when they’d filled two buses we were off. I was in the army.

“The bus drove through the night, about seven hours from Sydney to Wagga. When we pulled into the barracks at Kapooka ... they assigned us numbers: I was in Bravo Company, 11 Platoon, 1 Section.

“Usually the basic training at Kapooka took 12 to 13 weeks, but the army was trialling a new method of recruit training, which saw us in and out in half the time.”

Obviously this statement makes it sound like there was a more straightforward process at the time. The passage isn’t in itself confirmation of faster and effective recruitment during the period of time surrounding 2001.

It’s possible that the tedium of the recruitment process was glossed over for the sake of a concise book, it’s unlikely but also possible that a then-unknown Donaldson’s application was fast-tracked more than normal and it’s also possible some artistic license was taken to shorten the passage of time.

So Defence Connect checked the facts with currently serving and retired ADF personnel to confirm.

An Australian Defence Force soldier told us that recruitment around that time was somewhat fast-tracked more than it is today.

“I reckon it took less than three months from going to the recruitment office to departing for Kapooka – everything was done by mail, too, or via landline phone,” the soldier said.

“Once the aptitude testing, medical, dental, psychology is done, then they get you in for the final testing; just a once over medical and then off to be sworn in and off to the bus for final farewells.”

Another Australian Defence Force soldier told us that recruitment at that time involved physical testing, basic leadership challenges and interviews but it was not a single-day affair at that time.

Recruitment may have been skimmed over because it’s a very short, tedious and relatively uninteresting part of the whole ADF story, he said.

Speaking to a Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee in August 2001, senior Defence personnel confirmed that 8,000 people were recruited for full-time regular Army, Navy and Air Force in the time period between 1995–96.

“In 1995–96 Defence Force recruiting was working very successfully; indeed, so successfully that in the latter year, we handed back over $2 million of our marketing budget and hit almost every target, with a total regular recruiting of 8,000," a former director-general of recruiting said.

“Sadly, due to decisions made out of the control of the recruiting organisation, the ADF has found itself in a bit of a quandary, and I suspect that the decisions were made rather poorly.”

In 2002–03, the ADF recruited 4,322 members to its permanent force, against a target of 5,164. In the same period, 3065 members were recruited to the Reserve force, against a target of 3,605.

Final thoughts

It’s obvious that there is a recruitment problem. The wait times are long, the numbers are failing to meet annual targets, incentives being offered aren’t considered appealing to new generations and there are also rumors of a significant culture impediment.

It’s time to get serious about a complex issue that has plagued the ADF for decades; now is the time to do what we can to cut the wait time, streamline and normalise the process.

Joining the Australia Defence Force needs to be carefully changed from the public perception of a “last alternative” for employment into a natural profession or even part of the journey each citizen takes (think Singapore or Norway national service). Failing that, Australia is bound to continue a few more decades of recruitment misery until there is a significant enough event to spur some much-needed change.

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