A New Commander for the ADF: Advancing Transformation or Marking Time?

A New Commander for the ADF: Advancing Transformation or Marking Time?

Originally published on CSIS


This week, the Australian government announced a series of changes in the higher command and control of the Australian Defence Force (ADF). The changes were expected, with the term of the current chief of the defence force, General Angus Campbell, due to expire this coming July.

Most significant was news of the appointment of Vice Admiral David Johnson as the incoming chief of the defence force, the highest-ranking military officer in the ADF. Johnson is a long-time Canberra insider, who has been the vice chief of the defence force for several years. Prior to that, he served as the Canberra-based chief of joint operations. He is a known quantity to politicians, journalists, and the senior leadership group of the ADF as well as the Department of Defence.

Interestingly, Johnson has only been appointed for a two-year term. Normally, chiefs of the defence force and service chiefs are appointed to four-year terms. This shortened tenure may be a problematic decision for the government as Johnson may well be considered, from the outset, as a short-timer; those beneath him and in other government departments might decide to “wait out” instead of initiating the transformation that the ADF needs as the Indo-Pacific region changes rapidly.

Despite the institutional and leadership challenges of a short term, the new chief of the defence force will have an array of significant strategic challenges that he must make progress with during his term.

The most compelling issue is budgetary, and this has two key elements. The new chief must somehow disentangle the AUKUS budget from the remainder of the ADF budget. Funding has already been drawn from normal ADF budgets to pay for AUKUS. Given the current government’s propensity to keep a flat-lined defense budget, the AUKUS initiative has the potential to increasingly hollow out the ADF. Already, army and navy units are having to either lay up ships that cannot be crewed or close down scarce combat units. This trend, without an injection of additional funding, will only get worse.

As such, the second element of Johnson’s job is to make the case for increased defense spending. In the Australian context, this is very difficult. Defense chiefs in other democracies frequently speak publicly about strategic challenges and the future of warfare. This is an indirect way of lobbying the government for funding while also keeping citizens informed about the military forces their taxes pay for. In Australia, however, senior military officers are largely absent from public debate on defense issues and rarely speak publicly on even the most benign issues. Moving the current defense budget beyond its current size, about 2.04 percent of GDP, is a necessary part of Australia’s contribution to deterrence and stability in the Indo-Pacific. This is a more difficult task if those most informed on defense issues are not able or willing to speak publicly. The government, supported by the expertise of the most senior military professionals, must build a bipartisan consensus for more resources for defense.

A second major challenge for the new chief of the defence force is people. Over the past several years, the ADF (like those in the United States and the United Kingdom) has experienced difficulty in filling its recruiting quotas. There is no single reason for this. It is a combination of the competition for labor in the national economy, the perception of defense as a less desirable vocation in the wake of alleged special force atrocities in Afghanistan and the veteran suicide royal commission as well as insufficient attention by senior defense leaders on realistic retention initiatives.

This is a situation where a negative trend must be turned around rapidly. It will demand good leadership, revised thinking about how the ADF recruits people (which is undertaken by a civilian contractor) and a re-examination of the all-volunteer military service model, which is showing signs of age in Australia and elsewhere.

At the same time, the new chief will need to address the continued bloat in senior officer numbers. According to the department's Portfolio Budget Statements, the number of enlisted personnel over the past five years has declined by 3.5 percent, while the number of military star-ranked officers has increased by over 20 percent. Similarly, the ranks of the public service senior executive service have also increased by over 20 percent. If there is a recruiting crisis, it is not with Canberra-based senior officers. This must be addressed urgently if the ADF is to have sufficient people of the right quality to crew the number of new systems arriving in the next decade. At present, the army is cutting combat battalions due to personnel shortfalls at the same time as there is now the equivalent of five battalions of senior officers serving in defense.

A final priority must be learning from modern war and using those lessons to inform the construction of a twenty-first-century ADF that is capable of comprising a strategic deterrence and able to fight effectively over a long period of time anywhere in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. For instance, while the 2023 Japanese defense white paper had a long analysis of the lessons from Ukraine, the 2023 Australian Defence Strategic Review did not mention Ukraine in a single instance.

While there are some who believe that the Ukraine experience is irrelevant to Australia, it does offer many lessons about modern, digital command and control integrated air, missile, and drone defenses, and the integration of humans and affordable uncrewed systems across the land, air, and maritime domains. As the recent navy’s surface fleet review demonstrates, the ADF is on a pathway that is not diverging from its historical approach of procuring small numbers of exquisite platforms. This is not the modern trend in effective contemporary military organizations, which embraces a mix of high-end systems as well as large numbers of low-end autonomous platforms. The new chief will somehow need to change the mindset, warfighting concepts and organizational design to reflect twenty-first needs rather than twentieth-century desires.

The new chief of the defence force faces daunting series of challenges in transforming the ADF into an organization that is adaptive, capable of integrated, high-intensity military operations with its allies, and logistically sustainable across all domains. The external challenges, particularly those posed by an increasingly aggressive Chinese military, are moving more quickly than the current force development efforts of the ADF. Good leadership and more risk-taking from the new chief will be part of the solution to redress this and accelerate the transformation of the ADF.


Areas of expertise: Russia-Ukraine war; military history and strategy; advanced technologies