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Dominic Giannini

Defence understaffed and sliding further backwards

The ADF is thousands of people below strength, its chief Angus Campbell says. (Dave Hunt/AAP PHOTOS)

The Australian Defence Force is thousands of people below strength as it struggles to employ and retain staff.

There was a shortage of more than 4300 people - almost seven per cent - as of January 1, Chief of the ADF Angus Campbell told a parliamentary hearing.

Hiring rates are below the level required to maintain the force, the general said on Wednesday.

Chief of the Australian Defence Force Angus Campbell.
ADF chief Angus Campbell says a tight labour market is making recruitment more difficult. (Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS)

"Defence is addressing retention and recruitment as a priority," he said.

A tight labour market made the task more difficult, he added.

On the plus side, the number of people leaving the force dropped from a high of almost 12 per cent to 10 per cent in February.

There were also struggles with skill sets within the staff shortage number, General Campbell said.

The army, air force and navy were all under "varying degrees of stress".

The army is almost 2900 personnel short (nine per cent), the navy more than 880 (6.5 per cent) and the air force more than 530 (three per cent).

The need to accelerate recruitment was providing further challenges for the force, General Campbell said.

The department also defended the fact that workforce costs had jumped more than $900 million a year, pointing to the retention bonus, housing and health and moving costs.

There has been an 85 per cent take-up of the $50,000 retention bonus trial put in place to help keep staff.

Department officials also came under fire after admitting it took 300 days for a recruit to join the army after signing up.

Lieutenant General Natasha Fox.
Lieutenant General Natasha Fox says Defence is working to speed up the induction of army recruits. (Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS)

Defence was working to bring that down to 100 days, chief of personnel Lieutenant General Natasha Fox said.

"I have an additional task to accelerate recruiting and make that faster than 100 days," she said.

"That includes all the medical, psychological and security checks."

While there were challenges around recruitment and retention, the separation rate had begun to fall and more people were starting to come in, Defence Minister Richard Marles said.

"This government has been particularly focused on improving the defence offering," he told parliament, pointing to the bonus and wage increases for members.

Defence Secretary Greg Moriarty.
Defence Secretary Greg Moriarty says it's appropriate ministers make expectations clear to staff. (Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS)

Liberal frontbencher Simon Birmingham pursued questions about the Department of Defence's culture following reports of tensions between Mr Marles and top brass.

The issue traced back to a tense meeting between the minister, department secretary and defence chief.

"There won't be any Valentine's Day cards flowing between the minister for defence and his department, though, will there?" Senator Birmingham said.

Defence Secretary Greg Moriarty said it wasn't unusual for a minister to make clear their expectations of senior staff.

"I've had many interactions with a number of ministers in this portfolio and it's routine and, in fact, appropriate for them to have these engagements with the department," he said.

"The minister also set out areas where he was very pleased with the performance of the department."

Officials were also pressed on why the defence minister hasn't released a review into the navy's surface fleet, which was announced in April 2023 and received by the government four months later.

Senator Birmingham questioned why there was a delay in the release despite the minister saying it would be short and sharp.

Previous reviews took years to work through, department Deputy Secretary Tom Hamilton said.

"It is entirely appropriate that the government take the time it needs to work through such issues of fundamental importance to the Australian Defence Force and to Australia's defence policy settings."

The review is expected to be released next week.

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