Who is the incoming Defence chief David Johnston?

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Sarah Blake
The Nightly
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Vice Admiral David Johnston will be Australia’s new Defence Chief.
Vice Admiral David Johnston will be Australia’s new Defence Chief. Credit: Jay Cronan/Australian Department of Defence

Incoming Defence chief Vice Admiral David Johnston has been heralded as a “strong leader” and “safe pair of hands” as he prepares to assume the role at a defining time for Australia’s military.

The first naval man to become Defence chief in 22 years and our longest-serving three-star-ranked officer with broad experience in the Middle East, Indo-Pacific and on Australia’s border, Vice Admiral Johnston has held the deputy role since 2018.

On Tuesday, he was announced as successor to Chief of the Defence Force General Angus Campbell and on his appointment in July will walk into a series of challenges ranging from an increasingly aggressive China, flailing Defence recruitment and the generational changes unveiled in last year’s Defence Strategic Review.

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Vice Admiral Johnston will also be tasked with steering the creation of our fledgling nuclear submarine fleet as the AUKUS alliance between Australia, the UK and US looks to potentially expand to include Japan.

A married father of two who joined the navy aged just 16, Vice Admiral Johnston was described by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese as a natural successor to Gen. Campbell.

“Vice Admiral Johnston is a proven leader, with the experience, intellect and resolve to lead the Australian Defence Force in a complex and rapidly changing global strategic environment,” Mr Albanese said in Canberra on Tuesday.

“His service career has spanned a period of profound change in our Defence force, in our region, in the very nature of the challenges confronting our national security.

“In the Indo-Pacific, Iraq and Afghanistan, Vice Admiral Johnston has consistently distinguished himself with his capacity to ensure that different elements of Defence work together.

“His understanding of integrated defence will be critical to delivering on the priorities and recommendations of the Defence Strategic Review.”

David Johnston
Vice Admiral David Johnston joined the navy at the age of 16. Credit: AAP

Vice Admiral Johnston’s appointment was announced with a raft of senior Defence leadership changes, with Air Marshal Robert Chipman, who has led the Royal Australian Air Force for two years, replacing him as vice chief.

Air Vice‑Marshal Stephen Chappell steps up as Chief of Air Force and Rear Admiral Justin Jones replaces Lieutenant General Greg Bilton as the Chief of Joint Operations while Major General Susan Coyle will replace Lieutenant General John Frewen as the Chief of Joint Capabilities.

Announcing the appointments, Defence Minister Richard Marles said Vice Admiral Johnston was a “safe pair of hands”.

“He has spent his life in the navy and there is no more experienced officer in the Australian Defence Force today than David Johnston,” Mr Marles said.

“As the Vice Chief of the Defence Force, David has been at the very heart of reshaping the Australian Defence Force.

“He has been in the engine room of all the work that we have done over the last two years, and this is a moment where we need a safe pair of hands and deep experience to take our Defence Force forward, and there is no person who meets those qualities better.”

Mr Marles said installing a navy chief in the top job would help in delivery of the new submarine fleet.

“In the context of all that we are doing in respect of acquiring a nuclear-powered submarine capability and all that we are doing in terms of modernising our surface fleet, this will be a time where having somebody from the navy in the top job will be very worthwhile,” he said.

Vice Admiral Johnston said he was honoured to accept the appointment, which he requested to hold for a shortened two-year term.

“I’m very conscious of the responsibility that comes with the role, the strategic environment we face ourselves, and most particularly, the responsibility I have for the extraordinary men and women in the Australian Defence Force, and their families,” he said, adding recruitment would be a focus.

“The security of our nation is something that is at the forefront of what we need young Australians to be involved in, that they join a group of people who are extraordinarily committed to that purpose, that we continue to build the nature of team — respect, professionalism — and people who are considering a career in Defence have a very bright future and a very capable future ahead of them.”

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton said the Coalition welcomed the appointment.

“We join the Government in thanking all outgoing leadership for their service to the ADF and the nation,” he said.

“As Australia faces increasing challenging strategic circumstances, we need strong leaders who will ensure our ADF is well-equipped with the capabilities and personnel needed to defend our nation.”

Born in 1962, Vice Admiral Johnston joined the Royal Australian Naval College in 1978 and graduated in 1982 as a seaman officer. He went on to hold a series of senior maritime operational roles, including being deployed during the 2006 military coup in Fiji, in the Middle East from 2010 and serving as Commander of the Border Protection Command in 2011.

He was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2012, appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2018 and appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia in 2022.

Promoted to vice admiral in 2014, he was appointed Chief of Joint Operations in May of that year, with a brief to “plan, control and command ADF military campaigns, operations, joint exercises and other activities in order to meet Australia’s national objectives”, according to a bio on the Defence website.

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