The heads of Australia’s defence force have agreed to have their terms extended by two years, as the Albanese government declares it wants “some continuity” in delivering key procurements such as the next generation of submarines.
Acting Prime Minister Richard Marles announced Chief of the Defence Force Angus Campbell, Vice Chief of the Defence Force David Johnston and Chief of Joint Operations Greg Bilton had accepted the government’s “unusual” request to serve beyond their four year terms, until 2024.
There will also be a team of new services chiefs, with Rear Admiral Mark Hammond being promoted to Chief of Navy, Major General Simon Stuart being appointed Chief of Army and Air Vice-Marshal Robert Chipman becoming Chief of Air Force. They will serve in their roles for four years.
“It is a balance. What we are seeking to do is to have new people involved, which is who we have been announcing today, while at the same time maintaining a continuity at the very top,” Mr Marles said.
“It is not normal. In fact, it is unusual, although not unprecedented, to have a chief of the defence force serving what will be for six years. The starting point being that those terms would not have been extended for two years but to then extend these three positions by two years really is being done in trying to maintain continuity.”
Mr Marles, who is the new Defence Minister, launched a scathing political attack against the Morrison government and said it was the former administration’s fault that procurements had fallen behind.
“It is the (former) government that allowed the nation to drift,” he said.
“The really big challenge is in respect of delivering the next generation of submarines. The way in which the submarine contract with France was handled is the responsibility of the former government. And what it has done is left our nation with the potential of a very significant capability gap in relation to the most important platform that we can have, which builds the nation ‘s strategic space.”
Former prime minister Scott Morrison announced in September that the United Kingdom and United States would help Australia switch to nuclear-powered submarines, under the trilateral AUKUS agreement.
A task force led by Defence was given an 18-month deadline for investigating how Australia could become a “reliable steward” of nuclear submarines.
Mr Marles on Tuesday said that was a “reasonable” time frame, meaning that by March next year he wanted to know the design of the submarines and where, when and how they would be built.
“There is a decision that needs to be made about what will be the next generation of nuclear-powered submarines that the Australian government procures and will be in our navy,” he said.
“That is a process that we’re working through under the framework of AUKUS with the United Kingdom and the United States. Within that, there are number of options that will be worked through and it is not an obvious choice.
“The next step is going to be, in terms of whatever solution we will be going with – when can we get it? Obviously, with a sense that we want to get it as soon as possible. But we are talking about a very big step that will be taken in relation to our capability to be driving nuclear-powered submarines. It won’t happen soon. But we want to work out how quickly we can get it and every year counts.
“The third step is when we have a sense of when we can get that, that actually does answer the question as to what capability gap has opened up. Then we need to look at a range of options as to how to close that gap. And really there are a lot of options on the table there.”
Mr Marles said the senior Australian Defence Force leadership appointments came at a time that was “as strategically complex as any since the end of the Second World War in terms of our national security and the needs of our defence procurement”.