A Risk-Based Approach to Transitioning the Air Force People Element of Capability


The Australian Defence Force (ADF), along with the broader Australian workforce, is facing a skills shortage across at least the next decade. The Department of Defence has responded by developing the ADF Total Workforce Model (TWM). In overview, this model provides more employment flexibility to Permanent serving members (now titled Service Categories 6-7) and increases the opportunities for Reservists (now titled Service Categories 2-5) to contribute. A key challenge for Air Force (AF) is to determine how best to actualise these opportunities.

Air Force response

In response, AF is now designing a risk-based, integrated solution that best exploits the SERCAT 2-7 framework to optimise delivery of a 5th Generation Air Force. Importantly, the design solution will acknowledge the capability needs of the AF and the changing nature of work, while best accommodating individuals’ expectations – all within pragmatic forecasts of people attraction, retention, development, and budget constraints. This paper focuses on the AF SERCAT 2-5 contribution to this outcome.

In the absence of perfect knowledge of the future, AF has recognised the need to promptly develop a sufficient ‘whole of force’, adaptive agility and flexibility to reposition itself, year by year, in accordance with the AF Strategy 2017-27 and informed by Plan Jericho. The starting point for this work is to understand the change in capability needs across the next ten years to:

  • understand the complexity of today’s SERCAT 2-5 composition and potential ‘supply’,
  • navigate transition/transformation of the potential SERCAT 2-5 composition and ‘supply’ across the ‘mid-zone’ of this ten year period,
  • make sense of uncertainty of the outer years, and
  • anticipate and adapt to the changing nature of work and individuals’ work expectations across this same time period.

Design and Planning

For design and planning purposes: the time of almost certain ‘certainty’ extends from today to about 3 years out (or about a posting duration); the time of almost certain ‘uncertainty’ is from about 8 years out (where uncertainty may overwhelm certainty); and the ‘mid-zone’ is where AF needs to simultaneously use and adapt SERCAT 2-5 capability to best navigate the transition between these first and third time periods.

SERCAT 2-5 comprises two distinct grouping: SERCAT 2 members are a latent capability that can be called out as required and they may request to transfer to another SERCAT to provide voluntary service (subject to AF requirements); SERCAT 3-5 members agree to a mutual, non-binding commitment in terms of the amount and general pattern of Reserve Service Days (RSDs) to be served across a specified period. This agreement is intended to convey a measure of certainty for both the commander, who must deliver against capability requirements, and the member seeking surety in terms of ongoing service.

Under the TWM/TWS, SERCAT 3-5 are the forms of non-permanent engagement. ‘Casual’, project-type work within a financial year (FY) is described as SERCAT 3. In contrast, multi-FY permanent part-time work is described as SERCAT 4-5 positions (with the distinction between the two based largely based on the individual readiness requirement

The complexity of today

In understanding the complexity of today the starting point is to separate the facts from the folklore of the current AF SERCAT 2-5 supply capability, composition, motivations, expectations and aspirations. The current SERCAT 2-5 supply is an artefact of many minor organisational and individuals’ decisions over many years. At present, the annual SERCAT 3-5 contribution equates to about 900 staff years (equivalent to an extra 6% of AF ‘capability’). However, although AF knows the functions supported, the precise nature of the current SERCAT 3-5 contribution to specific capabilities is not well understood. Moreover, the motivations and aspirations of these same SERCAT 3-5 members are also not fully understood. In summary, the true characteristics of the current SERCAT 2-5 people ‘capability’ are not well understood and this is problematic for designing the future SERCAT 2-5 contribution to capability.

Reducing complexity

To reduce the complexity of today AF is:

  • clarifying the SERCAT 3-5 conditions of service (and addressing erroneous information),
  • creating budget surety across financial years for engagement of SERCAT 3-5,
  • rationalising the number of SERCAT 4-5 positions to better align with budget, and
  • reviewing the capability-based justification for the remaining SERCAT 4-5 positions and optimising the number of Reserve Staff Days (RSD) allocated to each position.

In preparing for the ‘mid-zone’ - where certainty about the required skills, competency and work requirements becomes less certain - AF needs to assess how the SERCAT 2-5 supply could best:

  • support continuing and retiring capabilities,
  • prepare for the longer-term future by identifying/developing/supplying medium-longer term SERCAT 3-5 capabilities, and
  • develop a ‘loose-tight’ plan to adapt the SERCAT 2-5 people supply and capability (demographics, composition, skills, and Service conditions) across the ‘mid-zone’ for the longer-term.

The ‘uncertain’ complexity of the future will likely dominate from about 8 years out, when AF will operate in an increasingly complex and dynamic environment. In this time period historic planning and current workforce models are unlikely to keep pace with the likely scale, breadth and pace of change required organisational and people agility and flexibility will be paramount.

The 5th Generation Air Force

In pursuit of the 5th Generation Air Force SERCAT 2-5 people capability, AF will follow a three ‘track’ process, noting there will be no single solution to the suite of risks, issues and challenges that will inevitably arise:

  • continue legacy approaches to sustain capabilities that will evolve from the near-term across the ‘mid-zone’;
  • investigate how the SERCAT 2-5 supply can best support development of the integrated Air Force TWS solution for ‘known/planned’ capability/systems/doctrine transitions across the mid-zone; and
  • develop an adaptive AF capacity from the ‘near term’ to best meet increasing complexity in ‘mid-zone’ and progressively make sense of and address the uncertainty over the longer-term.

More specifically, in the short-term, the ‘legacy’ AF SERCAT 2-5 people capability can be targeted to support ‘legacy’ AF capabilities, with the synchronised phase-out of ‘linked capability-SERCAT 2-5 people capabilities’ from the near-term across the ‘mid-zone’. In parallel, AF can:

  • investigate how best to reshape the SERCAT 2-5 supply (through changes to demographics, composition, skills, policies and conditions of service), as part of the integrated AF TWS solution, for capability transitions that will start in the ‘mid-zone’;
  • develop SERCAT 2-5 adaptive capacity from the ‘mid-zone’ to the longer-term to understand and affect the likely changes and impacts on AF and individual SERCAT 2-5 members;
  • support the TWS people capability transition over the next ten years through synchronised, ongoing, deliberate, ‘loose-tight’ planning as certainty about the future emerges and can be understood; and
  • progressively reshape SERCAT 2-5 by developing and implementing a sufficiently detailed, time-phased transition/transformation plan and then regularly reassess/reorientate it against the emergent context.


In conclusion, AF is now actively exploring how the TWM framework can be used to not only reduce the risk in delivering and sustaining a 5th Generation Air Force but also redesign and adapt the AF SERCAT 2-5 people element of capability to form a crucial element of an integrated TWS. The nature of the SERCAT 2-5 contribution will emerge and evolve over time; however, the intrinsic adaptability, agility and flexibility of the AF TWS will enhance AF capability outcomes and deliver more expansive opportunities for SERCAT 2-5 members.


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