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Expanding the Gap Year program to support Australia’s growing regional responsibilities

The ADF Gap Year program has served as a powerful recruitment tool, providing school leavers with the opportunity to experience life in the Armed Forces. However, is it time to expand the Gap Year to incorporate a traditional national service role to support Australia’s growing regional responsibilities?

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 during the Cold War, it is easy to understand the public backlash. 

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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. 

Uniquely, a number of these nations operate both civilian and military-focused national service programs designed to support school leavers transition to higher education, trade training qualifications, while also supporting key skills shortages in areas of the economy difficult to fill – such a system also provides avenues to drawing on international precedent, like the US GI Bill program to build a future-proofed workforce and highly competitive economy. 

As it stands, the personnel budget for the Australian Defence Force for 2018-19 is $11,776 million, supporting 14,689 for the Royal Australian Navy, 14,295 for the Royal Australian Air Force and 30,810 Australian Army – for a total ADF strength of 59,794 personnel. Additionally, the budget supports 16,393 within the Australian Public Service and 19,850 reservists. By comparison, Indonesia, our nearest regional power neighbour, has an active military of 395,500 – broken up into approximately 300,000 in the Indonesian Army, 74,000 for the Indonesian Air Force and 37,850 for the Indonesian Navy.

Looking towards an economic and political comparison, the Republic of Korea has a similarly sized economy and political position to that of Australia. However, as a result of its ongoing struggle against North Korea, it has a significantly larger, more muscular military of approximately 599,000 personnel in active service. This is broken up into 464,000 for the Republic of Korea Army, approximately 70,000 for the Republic of Korea Navy (including Marines) and 65,000 for the Republic of Korea Air Force.

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In light of the relatively small numbers fielded by the ADF, the question about personnel numbers becomes an increasingly important one – with the key question becoming: as the Indo-Pacific becomes increasingly contested and Australia’s interests are challenged, is the ADF large enough to reliably execute the mission in a radically evolving geopolitical and strategic order?

Expanding the gap year 

Modern warfare has rapidly evolved over the last three decades, from high-tempo, manoeuvre-based operations that leveraged the combined capabilities of air, sea, land and space forces to direct troops, equipment and firepower around the battlefield during the first Gulf War, to low-intensity humanitarian and peacekeeping operations in southern Europe and the south Pacific, and the eventual rise of asymmetrical, guerilla conflicts in the mountains of Afghanistan and streets of Iraq.

However, the growing conventional and hybrid capabilities of peer and near-peer competitors – namely Russia and China – combined with the growing modernisation, capability enhancements and reorganisation of force structures in the armies of nations including India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand all contribute to the changing nature of contemporary warfare.

Over the past few months, Defence Connect has received a range of feedback in response to articles regarding the recapitalisation, modernisation and expansion of the Australian Army, Royal Australian Navy and Royal Australian Air Force to better support and defend national interests in an increasingly challenging and complex Indo-Pacific environment. 

The 2016-17 annual report outlined in Dr Hellyer’s report identified that the ADF hit 97 per cent of its recruitment targets, which “is the best result for the past two decades”. Dr Hellyer also identified that retention rates within the ADF remain good, with a 2016-17 separation rate of 9 per cent, below the 10.2 per cent average over the past two decades. Of particular concern is revelations that the recently upgraded HMAS Perth has remained out of operation since October 2017 due to the Navy’s inability to find a crew for the vessel.

“HMAS Perth, one of Navy’s frigates, had gone through a very extensive refit and upgrade, got new radar capabilities, so a lot of investment went into that, but at the end of that process, Navy couldn’t find a crew for it,” Dr Hellyer told the ABC.

Further compounding these issues is Dr Hellyer’s observation: “Defence is finding it really hard to recruit: it takes a long time to train a submarine captain or to train a fighter pilot – you can’t just do that overnight.”

As an overarching factor, Australia’s region is rapidly changing, and the strategic challenges facing the nation and its interests present serious challenges to the Australian Defence Force and its ability to meet the tactical and strategic responsibilities government currently, and will, expect as the balance of power in the region continues to shift – manpower is a critical component to addressing these issues and ensuring that the ADF is capable of serving the nation. 

An Australian Peace Corps – enhancing Australia’s soft power 

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. Like the Caribbean and Central America for the United States, Australia’s immediate region is primarily made up of developing nations, in need of basic infrastructure and services and often look to Australia as a benevolent provider of humanitarian expertise.

As a regional and global leader, Australia plays an important role in the humanitarian response to crises throughout Indo-Pacific Asia and, accordingly, in conjunction with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and AusAid, the development of an Australian Peace Corps targeted at high-school leavers as an alternate national-service option to the existing gap year program with the Armed Forces provides an opportunity for the nation to increase its soft power and wider regional and international influence.

Further incentivising this program is the introduction of higher and vocational training education loan concessions in recognition of the service to the nation and her soft-power interests, in line with the GI Bill-style program for financing returned servicemen and veterans’ higher educational and vocational training aspirations.

As with the abovementioned program, the scale of Commonwealth contribution will be measured in line with length of service and complexity of the role in which the participant was employed. Further supporting this program is government-supported accommodation and travel for those participating as part of the Australian Peace Corps as a means of ensuring that every participating Australian citizen is safe, secure and responsible when representing the nation and her humanitarian interests throughout the world.

Australian GI Bill – recognising service, supporting national development 

The unexpected end of World War Two in mid-1945 caught the allied nations by considerable surprise as the almost six years of heavily industrialized, manpower-intensive nature of modern warfare transformed the global economic, strategic and political environment forever.

The prospect of millions of returning servicemen seeking employment and integration back into society would serve to strain national economies and return the world to the dark days of recession as experienced during the Great Depression. In response, by 1944 the Roosevelt administration responded to increasing numbers of returning servicemen from the conflict in Europe with the formalization of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act 1944, known informally as the GI Bill, which aimed to address the growing concerns of economic and social stability following the formal end of conflict and the resulting increase in returned servicemen.

The Roosevelt administration’s policy focused on several key areas, most critically the large-scale reintegration, education and training of returning servicemen as a means of seamlessly transitioning them back into civilian society and the wider workforce.

Roosevelt’s GI Bill, which is still in operation today, could serve as the basis for Australia’s own policy for reintegrating, providing for and educating the nation’s returned servicemen and women. At the core of this policy is the introduction of a government and non-government organisation collaboration linking returned service personnel support groups with employers, education services and, most critically, concessional financing arrangements for vocational and tertiary training and education services.

The introduction of this concessional loan and financing program shall be based upon a modified version of the existing HECS-HELP financing program, with a focus on transitioning the nation’s returned service personnel into engaging, well-paying, lifelong careers across the nation’s economy.

Further supporting the reintegration and education of the nation’s returned service personnel is the introduction of targeted program of holistic health and psychological health programs funded directly via the Department of Veterans Affairs as part of the wider reforms to the nation’s social security and welfare policies.

Recognising the individual circumstances of each service member are unique and require different standards of reintegration, education and healthcare. Accordingly, the introduction of an Australian GI Bill requires significant yet easy to discern requirements and standards to be met by each service member for inclusion within the program.

Your thoughts

Australia’s pursuit of expensive, high-end military capabilities like the $17 billion fleet of Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, $35 billion Hunter Class frigates, $50 billion Attack Class submarines, $5.2 billion fleet of Boxer combat reconnaissance vehicles and $10 billion-$15 billion acquisition of a yet to be determined armoured fighting vehicle fleet as part of LAND 400 Phase 3 are all important capability developments. However, such capabilities are useless without adequate manpower.

The ADF serves an important role within Australia’s policymaking apparatus and is critical to long-term national security, and while the continued defence budget growth is expected to be widely welcomed by industry, the growing challenges to the Indo-Pacific region are raising questions about whether Australia’s commitment to 2 per cent of GDP is suitable to support the growing role and responsibilities that Australia will be required to undertake as regional security load sharing between the US and allies becomes a reality.

Furthermore, national service provides avenues for developing and expanding the capacity and competitiveness of the Australian economy by linking national service, either military or civilian-focused, to tertiary and vocational training qualifications – addressing youth employment, training and education issues while supporting the implementation of Australia’s soft and hard power agenda in the Indo-Pacific. 

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia's future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of increasing both the budget and manpower available to the ADF in the comments section below, or get in touch with 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.

Expanding the Gap Year program to support Australia’s growing regional responsibilities
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