The 2000 Defence White
Paper devoted a whole chapter to personnel, emphasising that
"People are Capability". That chapter, apart from a commitment
to increase the size of the regular ADF by a miserable 250 personnel a
year for ten years, is a collection of platitudes and inaccuracies. Yet
people are the essence of military capability in the sense that the
weapons and systems which tend to dominate discussion about defence are
merely the tools that empower the people of the ADF. That has always been
the reality of Australia's military but, in the new strategic environment,
is even more important today.
Unlike many other countries, which tend to see the individual soldier
as a carrier of firepower, Australia has always valued personal initiative
and intense training to maximise the power both of the individual and the
Australian military history is replete with incidents where individuals
have taken control of and dominated a situation against heavy odds. These
have occurred not only in battle or at senior levels but in the
challenging circumstances of peace operations. This has led to the
phenomenon of what is called "the strategic corporal" where very
junior personnel, often in their early 20s, can have a widespread effect
on a campaign through the force of personality and training.
Australian military doctrine reinforces this capability by what it
calls the system of "directive control". Directive control
eschews the giving of very detailed orders. Instead, commanders, even at
junior levels, are given relatively broad directives and resources of
personnel and supplies, and told to get on with the job using their
discretion (which is bolstered by training) to achieve the commander's
This has led in the past to difficulties with allied officers who
perceived Australians as undisciplined. In fact, many of those allied
officers eventually agreed that the Australian training and national
culture produced a vigorous, self-reliant soldier whose battle discipline
and initiative was superior to most others. It made up somewhat for what
would always be a shortage of numbers driven by our relatively small
population and commitment to a voluntary system of recruitment.
On the other hand, we have not valued our personnel to the same degree.
Every serviceman and woman has some horror story about some insensitive
treatment by the Defence personnel administration. Some years ago I urged
the then Minister for Defence Personnel to administer the rules from the
heart rather than from the head. It was not to be.
Perhaps it is impossible to administer a force of some 70,000 regular
and reserve personnel with any degree of equity but the level of
indifference to individual circumstances is sometimes appalling.
Similarly, the ability of those very few individuals who seek to
exploit the system for their own benefit to gain a sympathetic hearing
from the administration is all too often achieved at the expense of their
mates. A classic recent example was the refusal of anthrax vaccinations by
a number of personnel deployed to the Middle East.
Perhaps as many as 40 personnel from ships deploying to or in the
Middle East refused to accept anthrax vaccination and were returned to
Australia. Defence chiefs said that no disciplinary or administrative
action would be taken against these personnel.
Possibly the reason for not taking such action is that Defence failed
to provide advice on the vaccinations, or the vaccinations themselves,
before the ships left Australia. Nevertheless, the action of these
personnel, a small minority of the 700 or so in the three ships, is
disappointing. Clearly they accepted the validity of some scaremongering
articles on the Internet rather than the considered judgement of the ADF's
What is certain is that the personnel concerned have walked away from
their duty and their obligation to their shipmates. They have left gaps
that must now be filled by other personnel who have not worked up with the
ships. This would have consequential problems in the posting cycle for a
considerable number of people throughout the ADF.
There is a strong argument for the proposition that these personnel
made themselves unfit for their assigned duty. In those circumstances,
there should be some sanctions unless or until within a reasonable time
they make themselves fit for that or any other duty. The notion that
individual service personnel should be allowed to assert the superiority
of their unqualified judgements and override professional experts is
risky. At the very least, there should be some disciplinary or
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