Towards a Joint Command Structure

The new Defence organisation that came into existence between 1974 and 1976 coincided with the development of a new Defence policy, formalised by the release of the Defence White Paper, Australian Defence, in November 1976. This policy, often described as ‘self reliance within an alliance framework’, gave greater attention to preparing forces for the defence of Australia and its near region. As the paper put it:

In our contemporary circumstances we no longer base our policy on the expectation that Australia’s Navy or Army or Air Force will be sent abroad to fight as part of some other nation’s force, supported by it. We do not rule out an Australian contribution to operations elsewhere if the requirement arose and we felt that our presence would be effective, and if our forces could be spared from their national tasks. But we believe that any operations are much more likely to be in our own neighbourhood than in some distant or forward theatre, and that our Armed Services would be conducting joint operations together as the Australian Defence Force.[18]

Clearly, the new Defence reorganisation and this new policy required new joint command arrangements, but the CDFS was slow to act. Instead, one initiative came from Robert O’Neill, who had succeeded Millar as Head of the SDSC. In January 1976 he suggested the establishment of three joint operational commands: Continental Defence, Coastal Defence, and perhaps Retaliatory Strike Commands.[19] Apparently, Defence did not even consider this suggestion.

In the Kangaroo series of military exercises in the 1970s, various commanders were appointed, but no formal structure was established. During the following decade, Australian forces had no major overseas deployments and the command structures evolved relatively slowly. Indeed, although the ADF had formally come into existence in 1976, it took several years before it was recognised as a new entity.

The Australian Labor Party came to power in March 1983 with a Defence platform stating that it would ‘develop an Australian Defence Force functional command structure with a decentralised organisation’. It seemed likely that the new government would be receptive to proposals to improve the joint command structure and, anticipating this, in his 1982 and 1983 exercises, CGS Lieutenant General Phillip Bennett, examined the higher command problems in the Army.[20]

Bennett was appointed CDFS in April 1984, and in September that year he redesignated his staff to form Headquarters Australian Defence Force (HQADF), in order to emphasise his command and administrative functions in relation to the ADF and to underscore his role as the principal military adviser to the government. In October 1984 the government changed the title of CDFS to CDF to reflect more accurately the fact that the CDF commanded the ADF. In 1985 Maritime Headquarters (formerly the Navy’s Fleet headquarters) was made responsible to the CDF for joint exercises and operations, but to the Chief of Naval Staff for command of the Fleet. The following year, the Army’s Field Force Headquarters and the RAAF’s Operational Command Headquarters became joint headquarters with the titles of Land Force and Air Headquarters respectively. Initially these were joint headquarters in name only, but they formally became joint headquarters in 1987. These were fairly conservative changes, reflecting the military’s belief that each step needed to be tested before the next one was proposed.

There was considerable opposition to the new command structure. Several retired and serving senior officers feared that the Service chiefs would be eliminated from the chain of command and that the CDF would be able to command operations through his joint commanders without reference to them.[21] Bennett thought that this was a simplistic view of how the chiefs operated. He wrote later that it was ‘inconceivable that a CDF would ignore the collective wisdom of his Service Chiefs—or his senior logistics advisers. Every effort would be made by the CDF to present agreed advice to Government, or at the very least, well supported advice, from the Chiefs most involved, and only reached after full consideration of the professional views of all the Service Chiefs.’[22]

General Peter Gration, who succeeded Bennett in 1987, took the changes further when he commissioned Brigadier John Baker to review and recommend changes to the ADF command arrangements. Baker argued that there were three levels of command—strategic, operational and tactical—and these needed to be reflected in the ADF.[23] Following the submission of Baker’s report, in March 1988 the government approved the establishment of another joint command, Northern Command, in Darwin. Gration directed the establishment of the position of Commander Joint Forces Australia (CJFA). It was explicitly assigned to the operational level of war. Gration, assisted by HQADF was to concentrate on command at the strategic level. The arrangements were to ‘provide, in higher level operations, for an operational level commander, the Commander Joint Forces Australia, to be responsible directly to me, located away from Canberra, and commanding the three Joint Force Commanders’.[24] In September 1988, Gration issued a directive confirming the arrangements with the joint force commanders. The joint commands were now known as Maritime, Land and Air Commands, but in the first instance no-one was appointed CJFA. The Chiefs of Staff were thus removed from the chain of command for operations, much as they had been during the Second World War, although they remained as advisers to the CDF.