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Anton Nilsson

Who is Vice Admiral David Johnston, the new ADF chief?

Vice Admiral David Johnston has been selected as the next chief of the defence force, taking over from retiring General Angus Campbell. 

While Campbell served for six years, Johnston has been appointed to a two-year term, which will begin in July assuming the governor-general approves the appointment. 

Defence Minister Richard Marles said Johnston was the most experienced officer in the ADF.

“As the vice chief of the defence force, David has been at the very heart of reshaping the Australian Defence Force, both in terms of culture, but also importantly … in terms of the platforms and capabilities that we are seeking to acquire,” Marles told reporters on Tuesday. “He has been in the engine room of all the work that we have done over the last two years, and this is a moment where we need a safe pair of hands and deep experience to take our defence force forward.”

Navy veteran since 16 

Johnston was born in 1962 and entered the Royal Australian Naval College aged 16, graduating in 1982 as a seaman officer. 

As commanding officer of the warships HMAS Adelaide and HMAS Newcastle, Johnston helped conduct border security patrols and deployed to Fiji on Operation Quickstep in 2006, responding to the unfolding coup d’etat in the Pacific country. The following year, he was promoted to the rank of commodore, becoming responsible for planning maritime operations and the training of submarine, ship and diving crews in the Navy. In 2008, he was promoted again to director general operations at Headquarters Joint Operations Command.

In 2010, Johnston deployed to Operation Slipper, the Australian war operation in Afghanistan, where he helped oversee maritime, land and air operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and other Middle Eastern maritime areas. 

In June 2011, he became deputy chief joint operations command, and in December that year he became the commander of the border protection command, assuming responsibility for the “civil maritime security of Australia’s maritime domain” using resources from the ADF and the predecessor of the Australian Border Force.

In 2014, he was promoted to vice admiral and appointed chief of joint operations. Four years later, he assumed the role of vice chief of the defence force. 

He was educated at the USN Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, and Deakin University.

He is married, and has two children. 

Johnston an ‘easy decision’

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said Johnston was an “easy decision” for the top job given his experience. The government believes his background in the Navy will be helpful as Australia tackles the challenge of the trilateral AUKUS deal with the US and the UK. 

“It is worth noting that David Johnston’s appointment will see the first Navy chief of the defence force in 22 years … in the context of all that we are doing in respect of acquiring a nuclear powered submarine capability and all that we are doing in terms of modernising our surface fleet, this will be a time where having somebody from the navy in the top job will be very worthwhile,” Marles added. 

Tightlipped on plans 

From the public comments Johnston made at Tuesday’s press conference announcing his appointment, it’s difficult to say what specific goals he will seek to accomplish. 

Johnston ducked several questions on his priorities, saying he will be better placed to comment when his tenure begins. 

Asked about what challenges Australia faces when it comes to managing its relationship with China, and about whether soldiers involved in war crimes investigations should keep their medals, Johnston demurred. 

“I think the government’s view on our international security will become clear when the national defence strategy announcements are made. I will leave that for that opportunity. And I’ll also leave the second question,” Johnston said. 

Former Defence Department deputy secretary Peter Jennings told the Australian Financial Review he didn’t believe Johnston would be a great reformer. 

“He is very much the continuity pick, and the biggest challenge he faces is the defence strategic outlook, which is calling for changes [in] how Defence does its business,” Jennings said.

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