The federal opposition and leading military experts are calling on the Albanese government to consider radical policy changes, including allowing foreigners to fight under the Australian flag, to help address the recruitment crisis plaguing the nation’s defence force.
Former senior defence officials said Pacific Islanders should be allowed to enlist in the Australian Defence Force and offered an accelerated pathway to Australian citizenship, while others said the offer should be extended to citizens from friendly nations such as New Zealand, Japan, the United States and the United Kingdom.
The federal government has set an ambitious goal of adding an extra 18,500 uniformed personnel by 2040, a 30 per cent increase on current levels, but the Defence Force is struggling to maintain its current staffing numbers.
Longstanding defence policy states that only Australian citizens can serve, with exemptions granted only in “very rare and exceptional circumstances”.
Several other nations allow non-citizens to serve in their militaries, most famously the French Foreign Legion and the British army’s brigade of Nepalese Gurkhas.
The government’s defence strategic review, released last week, found the Defence Force is “facing significant workforce challenges” and called for the development of an “innovative and bold approach to recruitment and retention” to increase the pool of potential applicants.
Opposition defence spokesman Andrew Hastie said “with immigration about to increase, we should consider opening service in the ADF as an accelerated pathway to citizenship”.
“If someone is willing to fight and die for our country we should take them over a $5 million golden visa any day of the week,” he said.
Hastie, a former Special Air Service troop commander, said the proposal would need to be carefully considered given the risk of espionage and foreign interference, but insisted all options need to be on the table.
“New Australians, prepared to serve and sacrifice in uniform, are the right sort of people to whom we can offer a home,” he said.
The government should also consider creating an accelerated citizenship pathway for highly skilled foreigners who want to work on the AUKUS nuclear-submarine program, he said.
Hastie said the Defence Force could also stop service members from leaving the military by accepting that many want to specialise in particular fields.
“Not everyone wants to be a generalist,” he said. “Let pilots fly, let submariners dive.”
Retired major general Fergus McLachlan, who served as head of the army’s largest command, said the Defence Force was losing a “war for talent” and it should look to recruit “tough, fit and capable” service members from Fiji and other Pacific nations.
“We can’t keep doing the same thing and expecting different results,” he said.
Anthony Bergin, a senior fellow with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said allowing Pacific Islanders to serve would be a “win-win” policy for Australia and the Pacific.
“They would be queuing up to join,” he said, adding that the policy would enhance the government’s efforts to maximise Australian influence in the Pacific.
“This is something China can’t offer them,” he said.
Allowing non-citizens to serve in the defence force would not require any change to legislation, only Defence Force policy, he added.
Former army colonel John Blaxland, a professor of international security and intelligence studies at the Australian National University, said recruiting Pacific Islanders with a pathway to citizenship was a “great idea” but it should not be used as an excuse to avoid addressing structural problems with recruitment and retention. He called on the Defence Force to dramatically speed up its recruitment process and not to expect all service members to be “perfect specimens of humanity”.
Australia would have to closely consult with Pacific nations to ensure it does not deplete their militaries, Blaxland said.
Retired major general Mick Ryan said the government should consider creating a Pacific Islands regiment and allowing non-citizens from friendly nations to serve in the Defence Force.
As well as citizens from the other member nations of the Five Eyes intelligence-gathering partnership – New Zealand, the United States, UK and Canada – he said: “Why shouldn’t a Japanese citizen be able to join the Australian military if they want to make a contribution to the nation?”
Peter Jennings, a former deputy secretary for strategy in the Defence Department, said the ADF faced a “massive problem” with recruitment and bold solutions were needed.
“Just doing another advertising campaign during the cricket is not going to cut it,” he said.
The idea does not have universal support, however, and is considered sensitive within the defence bureaucracy.
Defence Minister Richard Marles last week said the defence sector’s unique security requirements meant it was only appropriate for Australian citizens to fill many roles both in and out of uniform.
Admiral Chris Barrie, who headed the Defence Force from 1998 to 2002, said he opposed allowing non-citizens to enlist because military service should remain linked to serving one’s country.
In 2018, the UK government announced it would allow citizens from all Commonwealth countries to join its armed forces, even if they had never lived in Britain, to help tackle a military recruitment crisis.
Fijians have served in the British army stretching back to World War II and around 1500 Fijians currently serve in the British armed forces.
The US and Canada allow permanent residents to serve in their defence forces while Ireland allows citizens from any European Union member state to enlist in its military.
The French foreign legion allows men aged between 17 and 39 from anywhere in the world to enlist, with a selection process that takes around three weeks.
Australian Defence Force policy states that permanent residents who can prove they have applied for citizenship are allowed to serve in exceptional circumstances, as well as permanent residents who are unable to apply for citizenship and overseas applicants with military experience.
Marles on Sunday defended the government’s decision not to increase total defence expenditure following the strategic review, saying almost $8 billion in reallocated spending over four years was “not tweaking or fiddling on the edges”.
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