Outgoing Australian Defence Force chief General David Hurley has presided over a military disengaging from its longest ever period of combat operations and from a culture sometimes at odds with Australians.
During his time in the top job, 13 Australian soldiers died in Afghanistan, the first of those, Commando Sergeant Todd Langley, on the day General Hurley became ADF chief on July 4, 2011.
On his watch was another change. From January 1, 2013 all combat positions, including special forces, infantry, artillery and armour were opened to women, providing they could meet the same physical standards as the men.
The ADF also weathered a series of scandals in that time.
Most notable was the Australian Defence Force Academy “Skype scandal” of March 2011 when a male cadet had consensual sex with a fellow female cadet, and streamed the video, without her knowledge, via webcam to fellow male cadets in a nearby room.
Community outrage prompted broad-ranging reviews of ADF culture and undertakings from Hurley and the defence force chiefs to make the military far more welcoming to women.
“We will not accept or excuse illegal, offensive or discriminatory behaviour in the ADF. Such behaviour contradicts our Defence values and will have swift and decisive consequences,” General Hurley said.
Neil James, executive director of the lobby group, Australia Defence Association, gave Hurley top marks for his performance in a difficult period.
“I served with him when we were both lieutenants in 1RAR and he was head and shoulders then the best junior officer in the battalion,” he said.
“This is something that shone out throughout his career. Not only was he a very professional officer, he is a really nice bloke and a very honest one and a very, very calm and measured one.”
Hurley’s career path took him inexorably towards the top and included a number of firsts.
He was the first of the current crop of defence force leaders with post-Vietnam operational experience.
In 1993, the then lieutenant colonel commanded the 1RAR battalion group in its three-month mission in Somalia, the first significant deployment of Australian combat forces after Vietnam.
Hurley was the first of the current senior leaders to hold all three senior joint positions – vice-chief of the defence force, chief of joint operations and chief of capability development.
He succeeded Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston as ADF chief on July 4, 2011.
That’s much less than Houston’s six years. It is understood he was invited to extend, but opted to give his successor a clear run in preparing and implementing the new Defence White Paper, set for release early next year.
Hurley plans to retire to a farm in country NSW.
Someone of his abilities could expect a variety of job offers like his predecessors. Sir Peter Cosgrove is now governor-general, and Angus Houston is heading the taskforce searching for the missing Malaysian airliner.
Announcing the new defence force leadership line-up on Friday, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said General Hurley had done an extraordinary job overseeing operations in Afghanistan, East Timor and the Pacific.
“You’ve served Queen and country with extraordinary distinction and certainly I’m very proud to have had six months to work with you as prime minister,” he said.
Much more of his time as chief of the defence force was under a Labor government, and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten says his contribution to successive governments was immense.
“Under his leadership, we saw a professionally executed military campaign in Afghanistan followed by an extremely difficult but tremendously successful transition,” he said in a statement.
Taking over on July 4 will be current defence force vice-chief Air Marshal Mark Binskin, a former navy pilot who flew Skyhawk jets off the carrier HMAS Melbourne.
When the navy disbanded its fixed wing air arm, he transferred to the RAAF, flying Mirages and Hornets and rising to be air force chief. His maritime roots have led some defence insiders to jokingly refer to him as the navy’s Manchurian candidate.
He acknowledged the tough challenges ahead.
“I know that I’ll take command of the ADF at a time of military significance as we go into the centenary of Anzac commemorations,” he told reporters.
“It’s a time of transformation for the ADF and it’s a time for continued reform for the ADF but I’m comfortable that I’ll be able to meet the challenges head on.”