Canberra, we have a problem…

The Australian Defence Force (ADF) is currently participating in some 13 military missions around the world and has conducted four major military exercises in 2012 alone.

It can be said with some pride, that the ADF is a high intensity outfit and that the ADF stands ready to answer the call of the Australian government whenever new security problems arise. Putting this into context, this effort is no mean feat for a country of 22 million people with a total regular defence force of 59,000, 21,000 active reserves and 22,000 standby reserves. The problem is that the Gillard government cuts to the defence budget are threatening to rollback Australia’s military capability and with it, its intensity of effort, with no guarantee that an incoming Abbott government in 2013 will do anything to arrest this situation.

One of the things not well known in the general public of Australia, is the growing importance of the Reserves to ensure that the ADF can function at such a high tempo. We have purposefully integrated the Reserve component into the functioning of the regular ADF by employing Continuous Full Time Service (CFTS) contracts. What this means is that once signed by a Reservist, the CFTS designates the Reservist status (usually for the period of between 6-12 months) to the equivalent of a regular member of the ADF. Because of the CFTS, today some 15 percent of deployed ADF personnel are drawn from the Reserves. This is critical to ensuring that the burden of deployment is spread across the entire ADF establishment so that the regular arm is not exhausted by its overseas commitments. There would, of course, be no problem with this arrangement so long as the government continued its commitment to fund this personnel framework. Unfortunately for the ADF, economic exigencies caused by the ongoing Global Financial Crisis, is beginning to bite Australia hard. The minority Gillard government is unable and/or unwilling to shield the ADF from cutbacks suffered by other public service sectors. So what does this mean for the ADF, and for the Reserves in particular? It means that the Reserve component is being wound down. Training times have been cut back from four nights a month (3 hour period on a Tuesday night), one weekend a month and a designated two-week training period a year, to two nights a month (2 hour period on a Tuesday night), no weekend training and no two-week training period. Some Reserve units have had to suffer a six-month cancellation of all training activities – setting in motion a perverse and dangerous negative feedback loop. Perverse in that since the Regular forces depend so heavily on the Reserves as supplements to their activities, a drop in Reserve training means a drop in its proficiency at arms. Should the government of the day require to apply greater force to an existing area of concern, or having to respond to entirely new emergencies, those sent from the Reserve pool might not have the required skills necessary to perform their duties. This means putting unprepared people into harms way and dealing with all the political fallout from any loss of life or grievous bodily injury sustained in the line of service.

But even in peacetime contingencies, this rollback of Reserve training is likely to have a deleterious effect on Reservists and their ability to fulfil an adequate role in critical multinational training exercises such as the biennial Talisman Saber conducted with US forces. Considering that the total Reserve force, Active and Standby, accounts for some 43,000 personnel, any erosion of training will mean that its utility as a supplement to the Regulars will diminish over time and this diminished capacity will have its impact felt throughout the ADF well into the future. It will also mean that any future Australian government will have its military options curtailed and this loss of capability will take years and even more dollars to reverse.

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