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Brawn drain: Why British troops are flocking to the Australian army

In Europe
June 10, 2024

Australia has always allured Brits seeking a better life and a fresh start. After all, the country boasts scorchingly hot weather, beautiful beaches and plenty of space for outdoor living.

In recent years, thousands of doctors have left behind the crippling hours of the NHS for a better work-life balance – and more pay.

Now it would seem that Britain is facing an exodus of brawn and brain after the Australian government announced that it is opening the door to foreign nationals to help fill a growing troop shortage.

Their desire to expand its military, in part to counter the growing threat posed by China, means that up to 4,000 places are up for aspiring recruits. And it appears that, not unlike the extent to which Australian hospitals are already drawing medics away from the NHS, the country’s military will provide stiff competition when it comes to aspiring British soldiers.

One former member of an elite British regiment who had spent 20 years in his home country’s army decided to make a change. He used the Overseas Lateral Transfer Scheme, which allows trained soldiers to transfer to the Australian Defence Force. He says his life was transformed by moving to North Queensland with his wife, nine-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter.

“I thought I was ready when I arrived in 2010 but the reality was like the shock of capture and it took me a long time to settle. It was the hardest challenge of my life,” the soldier admits.

“I was based in North Queensland – so I went from dull and rainy Britain to the suffocating heat of the tropics, where there are crocodiles in the rivers and spiders and snakes which want to kill you.

But everyone was very supportive and I found that the chain of command really wanted you to succeed and because I had been in the British Army I was promoted into some great jobs.”

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the soldier, who served in the ADF for 14 years, says life in Australia has simply been more comfortable. His friends in Britain “can’t believe” how much much better his pay and “fantastic” benefits are.

In the UK, the starting salary for a private entering the Army after training is a little over £23,000, compared to £34,000 in Australia. “A British soldier would have to serve for about six years and reach the rank of corporal before earning the equivalent of a private in the ADF,” the soldier says.

On top of that, the ADF offers a monthly mortgage subsidy, which the soldier, who is now 54, says is one of the recruitment incentives. He left the ADF in 2022 for a job in the private sector but will continue to receive his full £300 a month mortgage allowance until 2036, 14 years after his departure – as long as he completes 21 days of reserve duty a year.

The UK Army’s equivalent scheme enables service personnel to borrow up to 50 per cent of their salary, up to a maximum of £25,000 interest-free towards the purchase of a property. But the catch is they must pay it back.

“My mates back in the UK can’t believe it,” says the soldier. “The ADF even has its own home and contents insurance policy which offers much cheaper rates than what’s available for civilians so there is a real sense that you are being looked after as an asset. I think a lot of British soldiers will say that’s not necessarily the case in the UK.”

The soldier says he was also “shocked” by the accessibility of training such as language courses. “I was sent on a language course for four months to learn Tetum, the language spoken in East Timor – you just don’t get that in the UK,” he says.

Those wishing to take advantage of the new places will need to have lived in Australia for at least 12 months and not served in their own armed forces for at least two years. The places have been opened up to overseas recruits after a historically low unemployment rate of around 4 per cent.

The ADF, comprising the Australian army, navy and air force, has close links with the British armed forces, which still exist today.

Both countries run exchange programmes for officers and senior non-commissioned officers. The respective staff colleges, where officers are taught the complexities of higher command, also run exchange programmes.

The military rank structures are almost identical and Australian troops fought alongside British troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Members of the ADF swear an oath of allegiance to the British Crown and their training style is similar. For recruits wishing to join the Infantry, they will spend 12 weeks at the Kapooka Army Base Recruit Training Centre in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, followed by 13 weeks at the School of Infantry in Singleton.

Kapooka Army Base Reruit Training Centre

New soldiers spend 12 weeks at the Kapooka Army Base Reruit Training Centre

Another major perk identified by the soldier is a more generous rate of operational pay given to Australian personnel when they are deployed overseas. In the UK armed forces, soldiers are given a daily rate of £29.02 while deployed operationally – amounting to £5,281 over a six-month deployment. In the ADF, the daily rate is up to £97, depending on the location, which can mean more than £25,000 for a nine-month deployment.

The ADF is relatively small in size with around 53,000 personnel, compared to Britain’s 184,800, but is currently involved in around eight operational deployments in the Indo-Pacific region and the Middle East. Troops can also be stationed across continental Australia, in some very remote locations, such as the Northern Territories and as far South as Antarctica.

Ironically, the soldier suggests that the Australian army takes adventure training – which involves trips designed to improve resilience and key skills – less seriously than the UK military.

This soldier overcame that problem by exploring the outback himself.

“Adventure Training is not really taken seriously like it is in the British Army which is strange when you look at what Australia has to offer with the outback and the coastline – but I have all my outback toys – my 4×4 and off-road camping gear – waiting for me in my drive when I return home,” he says.

Overall, life in the ADF “is a bit more relaxed than in the UK”, the soldier explains. “But that doesn’t mean you say “‘G’day mate” to officers rather than salute them. The rules are there and if you break them you’ll be punished. For example, if a soldier misses a medical, your commanding officer is informed immediately and he or she will be punished. So it’s very much “big boys’ rules”.

He says that the Australian lifestyle had a very positive effect on his family. Both of his children, now in their twenties, grew up taking part in team sports and enjoying the outdoor life. Both went to university in Australia and now have successful careers.

Australian troops walking away

Life in the ADF is more relaxed, but the military still enforces heavy discipline – Alamy

He says: “There were grammar schools where I was based and both of my children went to university. My daughter is 25 and she’s building her own home – at that age, I was blowing all of my salary getting drunk every night. If I’m honest I don’t think they would have had the same opportunities if I had remained in the UK.”

So what would his advice be to an aspiring Army recruit feeling torn by the allure of Australia?

“I had spent my whole British Army career within an elite unit, which in my opinion is the best regiment in the British Army. The bond between the soldiers of all ranks is phenomenal so nothing is going to replicate that.

But life in the ADF was pretty good. If you want to be a Para or a Marine, join the British Army but if you want a career in the Army then the ADF has a lot to offer.”

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