HE’S highly intelligent, a proven performer and a natural leader – qualities that make David Hurley, the soldier chosen to lead the Australian Defence Force, the obvious man for the job.
He is ideally suited for the task of overseeing an enormous – and ill-starred – equipment acquisition program and has the qualifications for co-ordinating complex military operations involving the army, navy and air force. In short, he is a safe pair of hands.
Hurley is a former long-time head of the defence capability group and has spent the past three years as vice-chief of the Australian Defence Force under Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston.
In an unusual coincidence, Hurley was appointed within 24 hours of the new chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey (see accompanying story).
In an apparent reference to a recent report on tensions between the defence establishment and Defence Minister Stephen Smith, Hurley says robust interaction is to be expected.
“We are asked to give frank and fearless advice, and we do,” he says, adding that his comment should not be taken as dissent or some sort of power struggle between his political master and senior officers. “We are doing our job and we will continue to do so.”
Those who know Hurley say he will make an outstanding defence chief. He is considered highly intelligent and his performance throughout his career has been head-and-shoulders above his peers, says one former officer.
“Part of his magic has always been that he’s a natural leader, but he doesn’t strike you at first meeting as looking like one.”
Hurley still plays rugby union at veterans level and is known for his strong sense of humour.
While he’s foremost noted as a skilled administrator, Hurley commanded the 1st Battalion of the Royal Australia Regiment during the peacekeeping operation in Somalia in 1993 and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his performance.
The ADF’s experiences in that operation provided a crucial blueprint for stabilisation operations in later hostile environments in East Timor and Solomon Islands.
Prominent defence expert Paul Dibb from the Australian National University says the new leadership line-up represents a careful and safe set of choices.
The big surprise is that despite Smith’s criticism of defence, the minister opted for the transitional team recommended by Houston.
“When you think about this minister’s lashing out [at defence], this is a real turn-up. It’s a steady state theory: there’s nothing revolutionary about it,” Dibb says.
“You would think if he was going to clean out the stables he [Smith] would have done something dramatic.”
Within defence circles there had been a widespread expectation Smith was planning to leapfrog a woman into a senior command position in the wake of defence sex scandals that raised concerns about the ADF culture.
“We haven’t seen that despite all the noise and banging of drums – it’s a steady march,” Dibb says. “I think Hurley is recognised as a very steady, safe pair of hands and whether he has the same sensitive touch as Houston, I don’t know.
“And with the others, I don’t detect anybody who would be resistant to change.”
Defence analyst Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe from Perth-based strategic think tank Future Directions International says Hurley and the ADF contingent performed very professionally in Somalia. “In the relative inactivity of the post-Vietnam era, the mission in Somalia was an important building block for the ADF, especially the army, which gained valuable experience in stabilisation operations that later proved useful in East Timor,” he says.
Defence Reserves Association head Jim Barry says Hurley’s appointment is a wise choice by the Gillard government. The retired major-general says although Hurley has a reputation for being thoughtful, he is also direct.
“He tells it to you nice and quietly to your face. I really like working with him,” Barry says. “From a reserve point of view, yes we’re very pleased. He is one of the few senior officers that has actually served in a reserve unit.”
That bodes well for the reserve force, Barry says. “We are obviously delighted and also the same with Mark Binskin as vice-chief .”
Australia Defence Association chief Neil James also welcomes Hurley’s promotion.
“He did a particularly good job as chief of joint capability and that won wide confidence in the navy and the air force,” James says. “He is very broadly qualified at the joint level and that’s one of his great strengths.”
Hurley was born in Wollongong in 1953 and graduated from the Royal Military College, Duntroon, in December 1975 as an infantry officer.
His postings include service with the Royal Australian Regiment and as exchange officer with the 1st Battalion Irish Guards in the British army. After various postings, he served in Malaysia as mechanised infantry adviser with the Australian army project team. He assumed command of 1RAR in 1991 and led it to Somalia in 1993.
In 1996 he went to the US Army War College and, on his return to Australia, became military secretary to the chief of army.
In December 1997 he became director of preparedness and mobilisation at Defence headquarters. In January 1999 he was promoted to brigadier and assumed command of the 1st Brigade in Darwin to oversee its preparation for operations in East Timor.
In 2002 he became the army’s land commander Australia and in December 2003 he took over the ADF’s Capability Development Group. He became chief of the Joint Operations Command in October 2007 and vice-chief of the ADF in July 2008. He is married with three children.
The Hurley appointment also signals a clear plan for generational change in the medium term, with air force chief Mark Binskin becoming vice-chief of the ADF.
That anoints Binskin as the obvious choice to become the next chief of defence in three years.
Three years ago Binskin leapfrogged several other more senior contenders to become air force chief. Binskin has extensive operational command experience as chief of staff at HQ Australian theatre in 2003 and then as director of the combined air and space operations centre responsible for coalition air operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He joined the navy to fly Skyhawk jets before transferring to the air force, where he flew F/A18 Hornet fighter bombers.
Binskin is also a graduate of the Harvard Business School advanced management program and the Australian Institute of Company Directors.
Meanwhile, Major General David Morrison, 55, has been promoted to lieutenant general and becomes chief of the army.
He joined the ADF in 1979 and has held a wide range of command positions including deputy army chief.
The new chief of navy is Rear Admiral Ray Griggs who will be promoted to vice-admiral. He’s now deputy chief of joint operations and he has commanded an Anzac frigate and an amphibious task group in the Middle East.
Air Vice-Marshal Geoff Brown will be promoted to Air Marshal to become chief of the RAAF. He joined the air force in 1980 and has flown helicopters, Hornets and F-111 aircraft.
Julia Gillard paid tribute to Houston for his service as ADF chief, declaring the next few days before his retirement as a “festival of Angus”. Houston stressed that despite recent scandals he was leaving “a wonderful defence force”.
“OK, we are not perfect, but the vast majority of people out there act with great generosity of spirit in everything they do,” he says. “It’s been a story of success, what we’ve done on operations.”
The low points had been the deaths of courageous personnel, including the three soldiers recently killed in Afghanistan.
Houston says the outgoing leadership team has worked incredibly hard to reform defence culture, especially in the navy.
“We’ve had a situation with HMAS Success which we all deeply regret, but I do not think that that is the norm for the navy,” he says. While that culture has been turned around, there will always be incidents.
“We are talking about a force of 58,000 permanent people. About half that force are under the age of 25,” Houston says.
“There will be occasions when people misbehave and I think you have just got to accept that reality. We send these young people out on those operations. They put their lives on the line and they do it wonderfully well.”