Opposition Position on opportunities for the Reserve Forces to improve ADF capability

Dr Mike Kelly AM MP
Shadow Assistant Minister for Defence Industry and Support


I first acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which we are meeting and pay my respects to their Elders, past and present. Thank you for the warm welcome and let me thank and recognise all the people who have already been identified here, and the many friendly faces here who I worked with in my first stint in Parliament.

I had ADF Reserves as part of my Defence portfolio responsibilities in my first term and it is great to see so many people here who have kept their involvement up over the years - it’s an outstanding example of the general citizen’s support for our men and women in uniform.

I acknowledge the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Defence Personnel, Dan Tehan and the effort he has put into the portfolio. However, I do have to note that I think he’s been given too much to do by the Turnbull Government. There should be a dedicated Minister for Veterans and Personnel. It is a widely-held view that this Government have too few people in the Defence portfolio at the present time and the Ministers workloads are too high, which is bad for Defence.
I have been asked to talk today about the Opposition position on opportunities for the Reserve Forces to improve capability. My family goes back through the history of the various different forms of Reserve service in a tradition of the citizens’ soldier, which is what we are really talking about here. It has been a feature of our national history, and in fact some of the most revered moments of our military service have been the story of our citizen soldiers.
Arguably our finest general, Sir John Monash, was an engineer and lawyer and the most successful commander in the First World War – and that translation of civilian skills and broader perspectives into operational outcomes is what I want to focus on today.

Increasing complexity

If we step back and look at the world we are living in at the present time, it is increasingly complex. Defence is dealing invariably with multidimensional operational environments and rapidly changing technology – it is within these two sphere’s that our Reserve Forces can be used to improve capability.

We talk a lot about the conventional threat that we face, and the material that we need to meet these threats, but we live in a world with people, and that population is growing, it will reach nine billion by 2050, and one of our jobs in the defence force is to deal with people.

Somalia 1993

Sometimes that mission can be personnel-intensive in its own right and a lot of the operational environments that the ADF deploys to involve jobs that are often considered as not being core business, but as Dag Hammarskjold famously said about peacekeeping, many of these tasks in the context of the environment are jobs only the military can do. The first example of this that I personally experienced was in Somalia in 1993, when we were moving into a situation that had deteriorated beyond a normal lineal civil war construct.

It was a situation that effectively had heavily-armed criminal gangs roaming around the countryside with M48 tanks, APCs and heavy calibre crew-served weapons, not the sort of threats that a policeman is going to be able to manage. It was only the military that was capable of completing the mission to secure the environment for the distribution of humanitarian relief.

This kind of context is typical of the counter insurgency environment that the ADF has been operating in since the end of the Second World War. Quite successfully we have broached a lot of those environments at the tactical level through Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq, East Timor and Afghanistan.

Working within complex environments

Quite often Australia has been given responsibility of a discreet province as a tactical area of responsibility and we have done exceptionally well to establish order in these areas. However, in many cases the overall strategic picture has not been great and sometimes our efforts are not as successful as they could have been because of the faults in that strategic management.

These challenges really force us to ask questions about how Defence is trained, structured and equipped to work within complex environments. How we work with organisations like the international organisations and NGOs, local actors and military coalition partners. We need whole-of-government campaign planning, effective multi-agency input, specifying what is the holistic end state that we needed to achieve, determining how each agency can bring the effects they can generate to the table to deliver an outcome by working cohesively and coherently.

Reservist bring a range of civil skills

Reserve Forces have a big part to play in these kinds of operations. We now have the triangular framework with our multi-role Brigade concept. The 1st, 7th and 3rd Brigades backed up by six Reserve brigades and one of the things that’s a real benefit of the Reserve input into these complex environments, is that they bring a range of civil skills, broad perspectives, life experience and maturity.

It has been a common experience in like countries and Australia that older Reservists have a greater ability in coping with the civilian interface. The skillsets they can bring to complex environments where governance and civil administration has disintegrated or is badly degraded is extremely valuable. We have evolved through Vietnam to Afghanistan with our civil affairs capabilities where this is now a serious element of the concept of operations and in planning for and dealing with operational transitions. We have also relied heavily on Reserves for large-scale disaster response or low-level security at major endeavours like the 2000 Olympics. As a perfect illustration of this our Reserves have effectively and successfully owned the RAMSI mission from an ADF perspective in close cooperation with our civil police colleagues.

One of the problems I identified both while serving and having responsibility for the Reserves in Government, was the lack of a data base mapping and recording the civilian skills amongst our Reserves. It had been said to me that Reserves don’t sign up to do their day job but I am acutely aware that if you offer a Reservist the opportunity to deploy to at least in part employ those skills they will jump at the chance.

Australian Civil-Military Centre

To acknowledge and enhance this reality the last Labor government established the Australian Civil-Military Centre ACMC – which was tasked to coordinate and build the capacity of government agencies to contribute to our national security interests in conflict and off-shore disaster relief. This includes through better civil military planning, interoperability activities (including with international partners), facilitating the harnessing of Reserve skills and contributing to the enhancement of key relationships in the region and beyond. This last feature meshes with the recent addition of the concept in military doctrine of “Phase Zero”. This phase is about shaping the environment to either avoid conflict altogether or to better place us to succeed where an operational commitment of the ADF may be necessary.
This is something I have been passionate about ever since my first deployment to Somalia. The ACMC is administered by the Department of Defence and staffed and supported with and by officials from government departments and agencies including Defence, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Australian Federal Police, and Emergency Management Australia.

It is these integrated planning processes that the ADF engage in during peace and stabilisation operations but they have been a common feature of the conventional operational environment as well. For example the combat manoeuvre phases in the Iraq War and Afghanistan very quickly evolved into a counter-insurgency and stabilisation situation. The process of dealing with combat and stabilisation as summarised in the US Marine Corps concept of the “The Block War”, places a premium on what the Reserves can bring to the table in achieving a holistic end state and will only increase in importance going forward.

Need for flexible structures

It is also critical that the ADF come to grips with the increasingly high level of technical sophistication in the contemporary threat environment. It has been an ongoing challenge to enable Reservists to come to grips with our own systems. We will need to find ways to find flexible structures to reflect varying levels of commitment that may be demanded of Reserves to achieve readiness standards. In defending the nation against cyber threats, the massive amount of data mining now required and dealing with the increasing use of end to end encrypted social media platforms by transnational and domestic terrorist threats, all of our agencies are feeling the human resource pressure to keep up.

Cyber Skills

The encryption capabilities that used to reside only at the State level, are now ubiquitous; people can sit in their bedroom with manuals, or go on YouTube and design algorithms themselves, creating an increasing plethora of encrypted communication apps and platforms that are now sitting on people’s smart phones.

It is these very skills that are going to be increasingly in demand in the general economy and our agencies will not be able to compete on the wages that will be on offer as industry places more of a premium on the skill sets of those who are able to rapidly develop the algorithms we will need to constantly develop and evolve to process data and counter cyber-attacks. What we do have going for us is the motivation and job satisfaction that comes from national service.

In this context, we need to think creatively about the national capability in this highly technical space, and the human resources that we are going to need to bring to bear. It might be that we are going to have to think about a “Civilian Defence Corps” that could support not only the ADF but the AFP, ASIO, ONA and other national and state civilian agencies, where we don’t expend money on unnecessarily putting these people in a uniform or trying to squeeze them within a very expensive military framework that might require peripheral training and fitness standards that would be a waste of time and resources. We could reach out to cooperative employers to support the “loaning” of this talent in exchange for recognition as a company contributing to national security and having acknowledgement awards and perhaps training support for the individuals who make these commitments.

Evolving technology

We are also increasingly moving into the automated space on our conventional weapons platforms. The JSF may well be our last crewed airframe of its type; our future submarines to be developed by Naval Group may well be the last crewed vessel of its type. Increasingly we will have people sitting in shipping containers, or “mother ships” delivering operational outcomes. These jobs equate quite well to the skills of the digital native generation. This technological leap will also require rethinking Reserve support and structures but it may also make our human resource issues easier in a nation that has always had to focus on quality over quantity.


Labor is committed to doing everything we can to ensure that we are identifying the opportunities where our Reserve Forces can improve the capability of the ADF. Handling complex conflict situations, the civilian interface and drawing technical skills into the ADF are clear areas where our Defence Forces will need critical and creative thinking going forward.

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