Australia has decided to increase the size of its military by 30 percent over the next eight years. Currently, the Australian military has 59,000 active-duty personnel and 29,000 in the reserves. A 30 percent increase would mean 77,000 personnel by 2030.
Australia has a population of 27 million. The proposed increase would give Australia a force that is similar, adjusting for population differences, to the U.S. armed forces. Australia’s defense spending is equally large and similar to the United States. The same can be said for the use of conscription which, as in the U.S., was never popular and only tolerated during wartime. Like the Americans, Australia has relied on volunteers since 1972.
The current military expansion is seen as possible because of the military and economic threat China has become in the last few years. China sought to coerce Australia to support policies, like ownership of the South China Sea, that Australians opposed. That led to a trade war with some Australian exports reduced. Australia is the nearest source of many raw materials, including food, that China required starting in the 1990s.
As the Chinese economy rapidly expanded, Australia experienced a record period of economic growth and low unemployment. This caused problems for the volunteer military, which could not compete in terms of pay levels and living conditions, with civilian jobs. The current trade war with, and military threat from, China has made it easier to recruit and then came two years of covid19 economic shutdowns. That was a major boost for recruiting, especially when it came to obtaining people who could handle certain military jobs that required skills that have been difficult to fill. The current situation is similar to what happened after the last worldwide recession when higher unemployment made it easier to recruit. There were still problems, particularly in the navy.
In 2009 The Royal Australian Navy’s recruiting woes continued despite the unemployment rate going from 4.4 to 5.8 percent over the previous two years. It was believed that the recession would bring in more recruits, but that didn’t happen. The number of civilians inquiring about joining rose by over a third, but very few of those additional prospects actually joined. Part of that was because the 2007 recession did not hit Australia as hard as it has the rest of the world. That meant the military, especially the navy, was still unable to get the skilled personnel it needed.
For the navy the basic problem was that being a sailor is a tough job, partly because of geography, with Australia so isolated, and partly because the Australian navy is a very professional force. You get that way through hard work and lots of training. Combine that with the physical isolation, and you have sailors spending lots of time at sea, working their butts off. For recruiters, that’s a tough sell.
The hardest hit branch of the navy is the submarine service. This is a small community, with less than eight percent of the active-duty strength of about 15,000 sailors. Of the 44 ships and boats in the navy, only six are submarines. These are seen as the most powerful vessels in the fleet, at least against enemy ships. Because of that, Australia was planning to expand its submarine fleet to twelve boats. But in 2009 it was discovered that only one of the six current subs was available for service. Four of the boats are undergoing maintenance, and another one is undergoing several months of repairs to fix a problem with its batteries. Even if all six boats were ready for service, there are only sufficient crews available to send three of them to sea.
The navy did everything possible to remedy the staffing problem. For example, the number of sailors required to stand watch when a sub was in port was cut. Crew sizes were increased 25 percent, to cut the workload. Internet access on the subs was improved and on-shore housing upgraded. Meanwhile, re-enlistment bonuses of up to $60,000 were offered to keep key sailors in. The navy also had a program of recruiting foreigners, who possess needed technical skills. Australia is a nation of immigrants, and the admirals point out that recruiting a foreigner is cheaper than training an Australian to do these tasks. Another problem was the submarine bases. They are on the west coast, which is hot, dry, thinly populated, and far away from most Australians, who live on the east and southeast coasts.
Despite all these problems, fourteen years ago Australia decided to make the submarine the key component of its fleet in the near future. The plan was to double the number of subs in service, from six to twelve by 2019. This would mean that more than half (12 out of 23) of their major warships would be subs. The purpose of this shift was to provide a naval force more capable of dealing with any Chinese moves into Australian waters. The Chinese fleet was undergoing rapid expansion which posed a potential threat to Australia. It did, but the navy was unable to expand its submarine force because the wrong supplier (France) was selected to provide the new subs. That deal has been canceled and Australia is depending on the United States and Britain for help in this area. That is complicated by the fact that these two nations have no diesel-electric subs and nukes are more expensive and take longer to build than non-nuclear subs.
To make this new expansion strategy work, Australia has to fix the problems with recruiting, and retaining, sufficient highly skilled personnel, especially sailors to man the submarine fleet. For the navy the problems are numerous. The principal one is the relative isolation of the submarine sailors within the Australian navy. Because of that, and the smaller crews of subs, few submarine officers achieved high rank in the navy. But the admirals have come to recognize, for all that, the submarine is the best warship for Australia’s needs; defense against a superior surface fleet, or enemy subs seeking to blockade the nation.
Currently, the Australian Navy has six Collins class subs, and the sailors who serve on these boats are not happy. This has been a problem for years. Less than a decade after the Collins class entered service (1996-2003), the navy surveyed the submarine sailors and were told that the submarine crewmen felt unappreciated and overworked. Half of them were getting out of the navy as soon as their current enlistments were up. Many found the work boring, and felt they spent too much time at sea. As a result, only enough qualified sailors are available to provide crews for three of the six Collins class subs. Each boat required a crew of 45 highly trained sailors, eight of them officers, but that was increased to 54 sailors by 2009. It was still a tough job, and you have to be highly skilled and disciplined to run a sub.
The Australian navy has been suffering from a serious specialist shortage for nearly two decades. With a total strength of 15,000, being short a few dozen people in some job categories can have serious repercussions, and that’s what happened to the submarine force. For example, at one point the navy was short about a third of the marine engineering officers it needed. There are less serious shortages in officers specializing in electrical systems and weapons systems. Australian warships were active in the war on terror, resulting in many crews being away from home for up to six months at a time. There are shortages of both officers and sailors with technical skills.
All Western navies had similar problems, and applied similar solutions, with some degree of success. U.S. subs have the advantage of being larger because of the nuclear propulsion and with crews nearly three times the size of the Collins class boats. This apparently helped. Other nations have small, modern, diesel-electric boats like the Collins class, but do not send them off on long voyages. Australia can’t avoid the long voyages, because Australia is surrounded by vast oceans that require a lot of time to traverse. It is boring to transit all of that, and that was exactly what the dispirited sailors reported when asked.
The navy leadership has, in deciding to double the size of its sub fleet, agreed to either fix the morale and recruiting problems, or risk seeing most of those boats rarely going to sea, and manned by inexperienced crews when they did. The solution appears to be a combination of more pay, and using larger crews, so that everyone does not have to spend so much time at sea, or carry more people on cruises and reduce the workload for each. Another option is having two crews for each boat, a practice long used for American SSBNs (ballistic missile subs) and some surface ships. Another solution is the larger size of the next class of subs, that will provide, literally, more living room. This played a role in Australia seriously considering acquiring nuclear subs.
But before you can make military life more attractive for sailors, you have to get enough civilians to volunteer to be sailors in the first place. Until recently, the Royal Australian Navy was still a recruiting problem in search of a solution. Now there are more people volunteering and the navy is seeing more submarine quality applications than ever.
The rest of the military is experiencing the same flood of applicants and most are turned away because the military does not need that many new people and is being very selective.