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Despite a steep budget, the Australian armed forces are struggling to find recruits

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Mark Wood

Mark served in the Marine Corps as a Lance corporal before retiring to spend time with his wife and young son. Today, he works part-time in construction and has numerous hobbies that keep him active. He founded Cole of Duty to write about military news around the world. He loves to discuss politics and the US budget, often debating with his wife and coworkers about who ought to be elected in 2020.

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Mark Wood

Canberra’s White Paper on Defense provided for a significant increase in military spending to fund a large program to modernize the capabilities of Australian forces and a modest increase in the strength of the Australian forces.

This effort, it was explained at the time, was justified by an increasingly uncertain strategic context for Australia, marked notably by the assertion of the Chinese power and the questioning, by Beijing, of the international rules, especially in the South China Sea. And believing that it would be increasingly difficult to rely solely on US military power, the paper argued for more autonomous Australian armed forces in some areas.

Thus, this White Paper on Defense advocated increasing the Australian military budget from 21 to more than 58 billion Australian Dollars in 2025-26, with a level of 42.3 billion [or 2% of GDP] in 2020-21.

According to a study by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute [ASPI], the Australian government’s fiscal policy since 2016 is broadly in line with this financial trajectory, even though the share of the defense budget [increased to 38.7 billions of Australian dollars] is expected to grow from 1.94% to 1.93% of GDP in 2019-20 given the faster growth of GDP relative to military spending.

However, even though the study in question is concerned that the planned objectives are not being met due to the financial efforts they assume after 2021-22, the Australian Defense Force [ADF] has an urgent problem to address: of their workforce.

Thus, the White Paper planned to increase the number of ADF from 58,000 to 62,400, which “represented only an increase of 8% to cover the needs created by the ever-increasing complexity of the organization of Defense and its components,” says the study. However, of the 1,730 additional recruits expected between 2016 and 2018, only 600 were at the rendezvous.

This human resource problem seems to particularly affect the Royal Australian Navy. Indeed, the ASPI report cites the example of the HMAS Perth frigate, which “will remain docked for two years after its last upgrade, for lack of crew.”

This staffing deficit is not new. In 2011, the Australian Navy hoped to recruit British specialists, victims of cuts in the budget of the Royal Navy to find specialists who were then lacking. And, a priori, the causes of the problem are almost the same today as 8 years ago.

One is related to the aging of the Australian population, which means that the “pool” for recruitment is shrinking ineluctably. Another is the economic situation, where Australian forces are still struggling to match the salaries offered by the private sector. However, Australia is not alone in facing this type of equation.

The solution, according to the ASPI report, would go through more automation and resources dedicated to autonomous systems [unmanned submarines, drones, etc.].

“One of the benefits of standalone systems is to reduce the number of people needed because they can do a lot of the work themselves,” the report says.

“Even the US Navy, the largest in the world, seems to have realized that this is the only viable way to reach a larger mass. And it invests considerably in unmanned platforms that will complement crewed vessels. ADFs must do the same to compensate for their lack of mass, to acquire new capabilities more quickly and perhaps especially to move humans away from an increasingly deadly combat space,” explains the document.

As a reminder, in the draft budget sent by the Pentagon to Congress, the US Navy is requesting a $400 million envelope to finance two “large surface ships without crew,” posting a displacement of 2,000 tons. And it is considering a $2.7 billion program to build another 10 ships of this type over the next five years.

“Technologies in areas such as artificial intelligence can be integrated with existing platforms to improve their efficiency. Australian industry and academia are well placed to contribute – perhaps even better than to export large, finished platforms,” says the ASPI report.

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