Military Conscription: Issues for Australia

Current Issues Brief 7 1999-2000

Gary Brown
Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Group
12 October 1999


Major Issues


The Size of the Defence Force and Army

How Can Conscription be Introduced?

Conscription Mechanisms

Some Indicative Costings

Regular Army Capacity: the Training Load



Appendix: Personnel Costs

Major Issues

The need to deploy a substantial force to East Timor has placed unanticipated stresses on the Australian Regular Army. It has become clear that rotating the troops sent to Timor is going to be difficult for an Army of less than 24 000 Regulars, as Australia's is today.

This difficulty has led some to call for the introduction of compulsory military service. Conscription is certainly a quick means of raising large numbers of troops. However, the need for training means that it would not deliver personnel fast enough to solve the Timor rotation problem.

Historically Australia has been able to maintain an Army significantly larger than the present force by means of voluntary enlistment. In the eighties the Regular Army was almost 8000 stronger than it is now and conscription was not required.

Universal conscription of, e.g., all 18 year old males is both prohibitively expensive (salary costs alone in that case are about $2.8 billion per annum) and delivers too many personnel-if two years service is required, then such a scheme would increase the Regular Army by almost 100 000 personnel. This would seriously unbalance the Australian Defence Force (ADF).

Selective conscription avoids this problem, but unless it is necessary to increase the Regular Army above about 35 000 (which is 11 000 more than at present) voluntary enlistment should be able to deliver the required numbers.

The Chief of the Defence Force, Admiral Barrie, has already indicated that the ADF will not be advising the Government to reintroduce conscription.


The deployment-now substantially under way-of over 4000 Australian troops to East Timor as part of an international peacemaking and peacekeeping force is the largest single Australian Defence Force (ADF) operation since the Vietnam War. It is clear that maintenance of the Australian contingent will pose substantial stresses on the ADF, and particularly on the Army.

This is so because it is necessary after some time (in this case, the Government is indicating nine months; in Vietnam it was a year) to rotate units home for necessary rest and recreation. Assuming that the mission is not complete by then, and that the force required has not diminished in the meantime, this means by about the middle of 2000 Australia will need approximately as many troops as are presently allocated to Timor ready to replace the contingent now arriving there.

Doubts have been expressed as to the Army's ability to sustain such a level of effort. There have been calls for the introduction of conscription, either to provide necessary personnel or simply as a reliable means of increasing Army strength. The Prime Minister, while indicating that he has no major philosophical objection to conscription, has said that he would be guided by professional military advice. For his part, the Chief of Defence Force (Admiral Barrie) has said that he does not believe conscription is a useful option for today's modern, high-technology, Defence Force.(1)

This paper provides some background on decisions taken about the size of the ADF over the last two decades, and addresses issues relevant to the use of compulsory military service.

The Size of the Defence Force and Army

In late 1964 the Menzies Government introduced balloted compulsory military service for 20-year-old males. Service was for two years (later cut to 18 months), and the scheme was intended to provide enough additional personnel to support the escalating commitment to the Vietnam War. When the Whitlam Government came to office in December 1972 the Regular ADF numbered some 81 144 personnel. The Regular Army numbered 41 290 of which 11 947 were conscripts.(2) (Conscripts were not allocated to the Navy or Air Force).

Honouring a central election pledge, the Whitlam Government abolished conscription by immediate administrative action followed up in 1973 by the National Service Termination Act. By 1976, when the Fraser Government was in office, the ADF was effectively an all-volunteer force. At that time it numbered 68 774 of which 31 430 were in the Regular Army.

From 1976 to 1982 the all-volunteer Regular force grew to a peak of 73 185 (32 876 Army). The strength of the Regular ADF has been falling ever since.(3) Until the Timor issue arose, the present Government had planned that the Regular ADF would be reduced to only 50 000 by the year 2000. At 30 June 1999 it was 52 997.(4)

The Regular Army did not precisely follow the decline in total ADF numbers because reductions were more severe in the Navy and Air Force. Thus the Regular Army still numbered 32 342 in 1988. However, from the time of the Force Structure Review in 1991, Army strength has fallen sharply.(5) It was 23 830 in May 1999, and the Government's year 2000 target was 23 000 of a total ADF of 50 000.(6)

The following table sets out data for all the Regular forces from 1976 to the present.(7)



30 June



Air Force


























































































































How Can Conscription be Introduced?


As noted, conscription was abolished by law in 1973. But the Defence Act 1903 as amended retained a provision that it could be reintroduced by proclamation of the Governor-General. Potentially all Australian residents between the ages of 18 and 60 could be called up in this way. However, the Defence Legislation Amendment Act 1992 further provided that any such proclamation is of no effect until it is approved by both Houses of Parliament. Though actual legislation is not required, the effect of this provision is to make the introduction of conscription impossible without the approval of both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Thus, it would be subject to the same political requirements as would a specific Act of Parliament. In present circumstances the Government would require the support of either the Labor Opposition or the Australian Democrats to obtain the necessary Senate resolution.

Requirement for War

It should also be noted that Governor-General may only issue such a proclamation in 'time of war'. The Defence Act defines 'war' and 'time of war' as:

"War" -Means any invasion or apprehended invasion of, or attack or apprehended attack on, Australia by an enemy or armed force.

"Time of War" -Means any time during which a state of war actually exists, and includes the time between the issue of a proclamation of the existence of war or of danger thereof and the issue of a proclamation declaring that the war or danger thereof, declared in the prior proclamation, no longer exists.

There would, therefore, appear to be significant doubt as to whether it is legally possible to reintroduce conscription at the present time in order to support the deployment to Timor, which arguably does not satisfy the definitions specified. Further amendments to the Defence Act might be needed before it would even be possible to issue a proclamation. However, the remainder of this paper will assume for the purposes of argument that these objections can be met.

Conscription Mechanisms

Conscription for military service can be either universal within a specific age group or selective by some criterion and/or by gender. The selective scheme used for the Vietnam war rendered all 20-year-old males potentially liable, but actually selected only those whose birth dates were drawn in ballots held each six months.

Certain classes of individual (e.g., theological students) were automatically exempt, while others (e.g., students undertaking tertiary courses) could obtain deferments of their liability. It was also possible to gain exemption by joining the then Citizen Military Forces (CMF), now known as the Army Reserve. In practice this latter exemption had the unfortunate effect of filling up the Reserve with thousands of reluctant members primarily interested in evading fulltime military service and the possibility of being sent to Vietnam. This resulted in considerable dilution of the Army Reserve's quality.

Conscientious Objection

Exemption could also be gained by registering as a Conscientious Objector (CO). The objection, which had to be to all wars-not just a particular war-had to be proved to a magistrate before exemption would be granted.

The 1992 Defence Legislation Amendment Act, however, changed the conscientious objection provisions so that objection to a particular war became an acceptable ground for exemption. It also reshaped the machinery for dealing with applications for CO status. Conscientious Objection Tribunals would be established, each consisting of three members. Presiding members must be legal practitioners of at least seven years standing (they do not have to be magistrates), the other two members need not be legally qualified. The onus of proof rests with the applicant for CO status. The likely effect of the more liberal CO provisions is noted below.

Some Indicative Costings

To obtain indicative minimal costings, it is necessary only to make one assumption and know three numbers. The assumption is that conscripts will be paid as Army trainees and, after completion of training, as new Army privates. The first number required is the number of individuals it is proposed to conscript, the second is the total annual remuneration of an Army private and the third is the rate of pay of an Army trainee.

Multiplying the number of conscripts by the appropriate remuneration figure will give the initial additional annual cost of the proposal.

However, there are numerous additional costs, harder to quantify, which must also be considered and which will add significantly to the base personnel cost. These include rations, health care, accommodation, weapons and other equipment needed for the extra personnel. Moreover one must allow for the lower rate paid to an Army trainee as distinct from a private who has completed training. Further, there is the cost to the existing Regular Army of diverting personnel to large-scale training: this is discussed further below.

Below two schemes will be indicatively costed. First, a scheme whereby all 18-year-old males are liable; second, one in which ten thousand 18-year-old males are required to join the ADF each year. In both cases service is proposed to be for two years (including training time). As essential training takes about six months, 24 months service is needed to obtain a reasonable return on the investment. Based on experience in the 1965-72 scheme, approximately half of the persons called up will not meet the Army's health and fitness standards. It is also assumed that conscripts will be paid at the minimum rate for a new Regular soldier (currently $25 465 per annum, plus Service Allowance of $6407 per annum for members who have completed training-a payment for the unusual demands and requirements of Service life). This totals $31 872 per annum The rate of pay for basic trainees (in approximately the first six months) is $19 517 with no Service Allowance.

It should be noted that in modern Australian society there may be a view that conscription, if introduced, should be extended to women on the grounds of avoiding gender discrimination. Over recent years the Defence Force has been actively phasing out gender discrimination, which used to be quite extensive. However, even today ADF policy still excludes women from positions categorised as Direct Combat. This includes Army armoured, artillery, combat engineer and infantry units. As these are the core of the Army, and as conscription is usually confined to the Army, the inclusion of women does not appear to be a practical proposition unless, of course, the Direct Combat exclusion is removed.

It might be argued that conscripts could be paid less than ordinary soldiers. This is certainly possible, but unlikely to be practical in either political or military terms. Politically, it could easily be represented as government forcing young people into the Army at an artificially low pay rate. Militarily, it would be seriously subversive of Army morale and esprit de corps, because it would create an 'underclass' of lowly-paid soldiers who would obviously be looked down upon by Regulars and who would in turn resent being forced to serve in such conditions for less money. In Vietnam, conscripts were effective because-though called 'nashos' by Regulars in a friendly sense-they were on the same scales of pay and benefits. These considerations work powerfully against any argument for lower pay.

All 18-year-old Males

The Australian Bureau of Statistics gives the June 1998 18-year-old Australian population as 133 468 (say 133 000) men and 126 386 (say 126 000) women.(8)

Using proportions taken from the previous scheme, of the 133 000 eligible men, some 1.4 per cent (1862) would be exempted because they are ministers of religion, theological students or court-approved conscientious objectors. With the more liberal CO laws now in place that proportion would probably be greater today than in the sixties. A further 16 per cent (21 280) would gain exemption because they are married or have joined the Army Reserve as an alternative to conscription into the Regulars. Ten per cent (13 300) would gain deferments of liability to serve because they are pursuing studies which cannot be interrupted, because of hardship considerations, because they are 'draft dodgers' under police investigation (who would-if apprehended-go through the courts eventually), etc. This means that of the original 133 000 men, about 36 000 would not even be examined by a doctor as part of the scheme.

Of the remaining 97 000 about half will fail the medical unless standards are reduced from the 1965-72 scheme (or unless the youth population is healthier now than then). Thus, about 48 500 18-year-old men would be conscripted into the Forces each year of the scheme, probably in two intakes of 24 250 each.

Because the scheme is for two years service, this means that on maturity (after the first two years are complete) there will be 97 000 conscripts in the Army-48 500 in their first year of service and 48 500 in their final year. Of these 97 000, of course, there will always be 24 250 in training.

Based on the figures given above, and allowing for the lower salary cost of trainees (who do not receive Service Allowance), the scheme would have personnel-only costs of about $860 million in Year 1, $2.41 billion in year 2 and $2.79 billion in each subsequent year. (The Appendix gives the basis of these figures).

It should be noted that this estimate is an unrealistic minimum figure. This is so because it takes no account of:

  • additional equipment required to train 24 250 men at once. Just how much equipment would be needed is unknown, but the Army has never had to deal with so many recruits at once since the end of World War II. It will not have the necessary modern equipment to train so many people without taking it away from the Regulars or buying more;
  • requirement for additional accommodation. The Army is not presently capable of accommodating the extra recruits and significant capital outlays would be needed to provide the necessary barracks, recreation facilities, etc. This problem has been exacerbated by the selloff of many ADF properties and facilities in recent years;
  • the cost of administering the scheme. As with the 1965-72 scheme, a considerable bureaucracy, plus computers, would be needed to run the scheme. There would be costs associated with determining exemptions, paying doctors to examine people (the Commonwealth Medical Officer system would need to be used, as before, because the Army has insufficient doctors for the task) and enforcing the law (police investigators, courts, etc);
  • restructuring the Army to manage a larger force. This would be a significant issue for a scheme which conscripted all available 18-year-old males, but less so for a more modest Army expansion of (say) ten thousand.

Selective Service Option: Ten Thousand 18-year-old Males

The personnel cost figure arrived at-nearly three billion dollars per year-can be reduced by making the scheme selective (a birthday ballot) as was the 1965-1972 scheme. The arithmetic is quite simple: if we select only one in two the personnel cost will be halved. If it is one in four, the cost will be cut to a quarter, and so on.

If it were decided to conscript not all eligible males but, say, enough to increase the Army by ten thousand, costs would be reduced. On the same basis as used above, a scheme which brought an additional ten thousand personnel into the Army (in two intakes per annum of 2500 each) would, on maturity, have a minimum annual personnel cost of $144 million. As before, additional costs would accrue (at a lower rate due to the lower numbers) for equipment, accommodation, administration, etc.

However, on past experience it would be possible to increase the Regular Army by ten thousand by simply using voluntary enlistment.

Regular Army Capacity: the Training Load

The Regular Army at the time conscription was introduced in 1964 numbered some 22 681 volunteers. By 1970 this had grown to 28 325 volunteers but in addition there were some 16 208 conscripts.(9) In other words, of a total Regular Army in 1970 of 44 533 some 36 per cent (say, a third) were conscripts. It is generally agreed that the Army-which was of course fighting in Vietnam-was fully stretched, if not overstretched, in training and handling this number of conscripts without serious loss of efficiency.

The problem is that only experienced Regular personnel, especially NCOs and junior officers, can train and lead conscript recruits properly. Thus an influx of recruits places great stress on these ranks to the detriment of activity outside the training sphere.

The Regular Army (excluding 1886 members in training) numbered 21 944 in May 1999.(10) If the proportions of conscripts to Regulars which existed in the Vietnam conscription period are useful as a guide, then an Army of this size could handle the burden of training up to about 7300 conscripts. Beyond this number increases in Regular Army strength (which must also be paid for) would be needed to cope with the recruits.


Calls for conscription to assist in rotation of the East Timor Force are clearly misplaced. It would be upwards of a year before a scheme of any type, even if introduced today, could provide significant numbers of trained personnel for deployment to a sensitive environment such as East Timor. Rotation will be necessary well before then.

At the same time, the pressure placed on the Army by the Timor operation shows that the Regular Army is at present arguably too small. Reductions in strength put in place by the previous government and accelerated by its successor would have the Regular Army at only 23 000 by next year. This will need to be reversed and, of course, the reversal will need to be paid for as part of the increases in defence spending now being mooted.

A universal-type conscription scheme (e.g., all 18-year-old males) would be massively expensive. Salary costs alone are estimated at about $2.8 billion per annum. Moreover it would unbalance the ADF by raising Regular Army strength by some 97 000. Selective conscription of course can be designed to induct only as many as needed. However there would appear to be ample scope for voluntary recruitment as the primary means of raising Regular Army strength. In the eighties the Regular Army was maintained at well over 30 000 members with no requirement for conscription.


  1. 'Defence Chief Reiterates Conscript Remarks', Media Release 296/99, 28 September 1999.

  2. Defence Report 1972, p. 38.

  3. These figures are from Allan Shephard, Trends in Australian Defence: A Resources Survey, ADSC 1999, Table 7.

  4. Department of Defence, Portfolio Budget Statements 1999-2000 (BRP 1.4A), p. 23.

  5. Shephard, Trends, Table 7.
  6. Figures from the Army submission to the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade inquiry into the suitability of the Army for peacetime, peacekeeping and war. See:

  7. Shephard, Trends, Table 7 (to 1998). Figures for 1999 are from Department of Defence, Portfolio Budget Statements 1999-2000, 'Defence Portfolio', Canberra, May 1999. Figures are for the Estimated 'personnel' numbers for the end of June 1999 as predicted at the time of presenting the Budget in May 1999. At the time of writing the 1998-99 Defence Report, which contains the actual figures, was not yet available.

  8. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Population by Age and Sex, issued 18 December 1998.

  9. Defence Report 1970, p. 34.

  10. Source in note 5.

Appendix: Personnel Costs

Estimating personnel costs

There are 133 000 18-year-old males (June 1998). Of these, as discussed in the paper, only 97 000 are likely to be examined by a doctor for fitness. Of these about half will fail the medical. This leaves 48 500 males for induction, in two intakes of 24 250 each per year.

The salary of an Army trainee is $19 517 per annum with no Service Allowance. Six months training at this rate thus costs $9759.

A trained Private base grade receives a salary of $25 465 plus $6407 Service Allowance-a total $31 872 per annum ($15 936 per six months).

6 month period

Intake numbers

Salary for period

Members continuing

Salary for period

Total ($m)











































It is apparent that by maturity (in the fourth six month period) the personnel cost is $236.6 million for the latest batch of 24 250 inductees, plus $1159.3 million for the continuing group of 72 750-that is, $1 395.5 million. The full year cost, then is twice that-$2791.8 million (say $2.8 billion).

The fifth and subsequent periods will return similar results because intakes will be matched by departures.