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Do we need to better utilise our most precious resource?

There is no escaping the fact that the Australian Defence Force is slated to undergo some truly transformative capability developments. However, are we utilising our most precious resource: the men and women of the ADF, to the maximum capacity?

There is no escaping the fact that the Australian Defence Force is slated to undergo some truly transformative capability developments. However, are we utilising our most precious resource: the men and women of the ADF, to the maximum capacity?

Historically, Australia has had a long and insecure relationship with its small population when compared to the world’s major powers. This has only been exacerbated by our proximity to some of the world’s most populated nations and their rising economic and political power and ambitions for the Indo-Pacific and the broader global, post-Second World War order.

With this in mind, it is also critical to understand that Australia, like many allied nations, has, at least since the end of the Cold War, shifted much of its military emphasis from warfighting, taking advantage of the “peace dividend” towards highly bureaucratic structures, where a great deal of operational capability is locked behind in the “tail” of the organisation.


In response, the Albanese government’s Defence Strategic Review is responding to the centre of gravity shifts from an Atlantic focus to the Indo-Pacific, with a distinct and history-defining recognition that the impact of this new reality will play out far closer to home than much of the major geostrategic, economic, and political competition of the 20th century.

Delivering this, both Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles have sought to repeatedly remind the Australian public, Australia’s defence industry and national security ecosystem and policymakers: “As we face the most challenging geopolitical circumstances since the Second World War, the Albanese government is committed to properly managing every dollar of defence spending, and ensuring Defence can deliver the capabilities ADF personnel need, when they need them.”

This reality was reinforced by the previous government, which recognised the growing personnel requirements that the ADF would face in coming decades, announcing in March 2022 an intent to expand the Defence workforce, with then defence minister Peter Dutton stating: “Defence operates with a highly integrated workforce spanning the Australian Defence Force, civilians, and industry providers, with each bringing specialised skills and expertise.

“This growth in workforce and expertise will enable us to deliver our nuclear-powered submarines, ships, aircraft, and advanced weapons. It will mean we can build warfighting capabilities in the domains of space, and information, and cyber,” Mr Dutton announced at the time.

However, despite the “transformational” branding given to the DSR, it seemingly overlooks a critical component of Australia’s deliverable tactical and strategic military power – manpower: indeed, the terms of reference seem to highlight this oversight: “The review must outline the future strategic challenges facing Australia, which may require an Australian Defence Force operational response. The review must identify and prioritise the estate, infrastructure, disposition, logistics, and security investments required to provide Australia with the Defence force posture required by 2032–33.

“The review must consider all elements of the Integrated Investment Program and provide recommendations for the program’s reprioritisation, particularly in light of recently announced large-scale projects, to provide Australia with the force structure required by 2032–33. The review must outline the investments required to support Defence preparedness and mobilisation needs to 2032–33.”

In the first part of this short series, we took a closer look at the growing need for Australia to begin fielding a larger naval fleet in anticipation of the findings of the Navy’s surface fleet review, which emphasises the need for “Australia’s Navy must be optimised for operating Australia’s immediate region and for the security of our sea lines of communication and maritime trade”.

Defence hasn’t historically struggled to meet personnel requirements

Historically, despite our comparatively small population, when called upon, Australians have never shied away from answering the call of duty – in some cases raising and deploying significant portions of our general population to defend the nation and its interests. For example, during the First World War, over 420,000 Australians served in the military, with nearly 332,000 serving overseas, against a national population of approximately 5.03 million.

Meanwhile, by the end of the Second World War, the Australian military boasted a strength of nearly 600,000, with some 224,000 alone serving in the Pacific, against a national population of just under 7.4 million – in both instances, these figures represented approximately 8.1 to 8.3 per cent of the national population in the armed forces.

Today’s ADF, by contrast, in an era that has been repeatedly described as the most serious decline in our strategic circumstances since the Second World War, the Australian Defence Force has an active figure of just over 60,000, with just under 30,000 standing by in reserves – against our current population with an approximation of 25.7 million representing just 0.23 per cent of the population.

This is further compounded by polling conducted last year by the Institute of Public Affairs, which revealed some startling details about the public’s sentiments toward defending the nation, with Daniel Wild, director of research at the Institute of Public Affairs, revealing that of the 1,000 Australians from 25 to 27 March 2022 asked “If Australia was in the same position as Ukraine is now, would you stay and fight, or leave the country?” The results were:

  • Stay and fight: 46 per cent
  • Leave the country: 28 per cent
  • Unsure: 26 per cent

Looking at this data, coupled with the recognition that the Australian Defence Force will need to grow in order to meet the operational requirements of new platforms being fielded over the coming years, presents a rather stark and confronting reality.

Equally, it raises questions about the way in which our existing uniformed workforce is utilised within the Australian Defence Force, particularly when compared to regional and global partners who seem to better utilise their uniformed workforce.

Comparing ourselves to the Singaporean and Canadian examples

As an island nation, comparing naval capabilities is an interesting and informative exercise, particularly as it relates to the make-up of their respective fleets and the capabilities fielded when measured against their full-time, active naval personnel.

Currently, the Royal Australian Navy, according to its website, consists of “nearly 50 commissioned vessels” but actually operates a fleet of 41 “major warships” against “over 16,000 personnel” bringing together a fleet of advanced combatants in the Hobart Class air warfare destroyers, the venerable Anzac Class guided missile frigates, the Canberra Class landing helicopter docks, Supply Class auxiliary oilers, and the Collins Class submarines.

By contrast, the Royal Canadian Navy operates a fleet of 68 commissioned vessels against a full-time, active personnel workforce of approximately 8,400 personnel, albeit with a far more, consolidated and “rationalised” fleet of Halifax Class guided missile frigates, Kingston Class maritime coastal defence vessels, Harry DeWolf Class arctic offshore patrol vessels, and Victoria Class submarines.

Finally, the Republic of Singapore Navy operates a fleet of 38 commissioned vessels, against a full-time, active personnel workforce of 4,000, with broadly a diverse fleet structure comparable to Australia’s own fleet, including the Formidable Class guided missile frigates, the Victory Class corvettes, the Independence Class littoral mission vessels, Endurance Class amphibious warfare ships, and a diverse fleet of submarines, including the Archer and Challenger classes, respectively.

Many pundits will rightfully say you can’t draw a one-to-one comparison of workforce numbers for different navies, and equally, we have to understand that “more” doesn’t equate to better, rather looking at the broadly comparable units to extrapolate a level of comparison.

Looking at Australia’s major surface combatants, the eight Anzac and three Hobart Class, which have individual crews of 179 and 202, respectively, based on publicly available information, compared provides Australia with a combined 2,038 personnel, assuming a single crew for each vessel, bringing Australia’s major surface combatant complement to 13 per cent of the Royal Australian Navy’s total active personnel.

Comparatively, Canada’s fleet of 12 Halifax Class, broadly comparable to Australia’s Anzac Class frigates, have a complement of 225 based on publicly available information, providing a combined total personnel count of 2,700 assuming a single crew for each vessel, effectively a third of the Royal Canadian Navy’s total active personnel.

Finally, looking at Singapore’s fleet of six Formidable Class frigates, again broadly comparable to Australia’s Anzac Class frigates and Canada’s Halifax Class (albeit significantly more modern), have an individual crew complement of 90, with a total fleet size of 540 personnel in total, again assuming a single crew for each vessel, for Singapore this represents approximately 13.5 per cent of the Republic of Singapore Navy’s total full-time uniformed personnel.

Looking at the respective nation’s submarine fleets, Australia’s six Collins Class have an individual crew complement of approximately 58, giving the operational arm of Australia’s long-struggling submarine fleet a total personnel headcount of at least 350 personnel. Canada’s four Victoria Class submarines have an individual crew complement of approximately 53, giving the Canadian submarine arm an operational workforce of at least 212. Finally, Singapore’s fleet of two Archer Class submarines with an individual crew of 28 and two Challenger Class submarines with an individual crew of 23, bringing Singapore’s operational submarine workforce to 102 personnel.

Australia does have some niche capabilities not fielded by these two nations, namely the two Canberra Class LHDs with an individual crew complement of 293 Navy personnel (the remainder made up of 62 Army and three Air Force specialists), giving a combined total of 586 navy personnel, HMAS Choules with a full operational crew complement of 158 and the two Supply Class having individual complements of 122, for a total complement of 244 personnel.

Based on these numbers, Australia’s major fleet units deliver an “operational workforce” of approximately 3,376 personnel, with the remainder of the nation’s approximately 16,000 naval personnel split between the commissioned ships of the six remaining, Armidale Class (29 crew per ship), six Huon Class mine hunters (40 crew per ship) and two Leeuwin Class hydrographic survey ships (56 crew per ship), the Clearance Diving Branch and Fleet Air Arm, so now we have to ask, why exactly are we struggling to field a truly capable Navy that can deliver the capability we need to protect our interests in the Indo-Pacific?

Going beyond this, is this reality equally reflected in the Army and Air Force, and how is that directly impacting the nation’s capacity to truly implement “impactful projection” and respond to the tactical and strategic challenges of the new global and regional paradigm?

Please understand I am quite happy to admit that this is back-of-the-envelope math, I am very happy to be proven wrong and be better informed on the nuances of this sensitive yet important matter, and I would highly encourage anyone who has direct operational knowledge who can illuminate the circumstances in a better, more informed way to contact me directly.

Final thoughts

There is no doubt that Australia’s position and responsibilities in the Indo-Pacific region will depend on the nation’s ability to sustain itself economically, strategically and politically in the face of rising regional and global competition. Despite the nation’s virtually unrivalled wealth of natural resources, agricultural and industrial potential, there is a lack of a cohesive national security strategy integrating the development of individual yet complementary public policy strategies to support a more robust Australian role in the region.

Equally, both the Australian government and the Australian public have to accept and understand that we will need to dramatically increase spending on our national defence and do so over the long term rather than short-term sugar hits or slights of hand that push money out over the forward estimates and allow inflation to account for “increases” in spending, despite there being little-to-no new money in real terms.

Ultimately, this comes back to the government’s shift away from a “balanced force” towards a “focused force”, as championed in the Defence Strategic Review. It equally fails to account for the planned increase in ADF personnel by 2040 and places ultimate hope in a series of as-yet-to-be-developed “wunderwaffen” or wonder weapons, like autonomous systems, cyber or tactical weapons like HIMARs and others to provide both “impactful projection” and deterrence against “any potential adversary”.

This requires a greater degree of transparency and a culture of collaboration between the nation’s strategic policymakers and elected officials and the constituents they represent and serve – equally, this approach will need to entice the Australian public to once again invest in and believe in the future direction of the nation.

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 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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