In his book The Masks of War, Carl Builder [1] argues that institutions have distinct and enduring personalities that govern much of their behaviour. Such organisational ‘personalities’ are generally only well understood by those who serve in them, which can make it difficult for outsiders to connect to the ‘in group’. This is certainly true of the three Services of the Australian Defence Force (ADF). The Australian Navy, Army and Air Force have very different organisational identities, born out of the requirement to achieve success in their primary operating environments: maritime, land and air. These identities shape every aspect of life for those who join, and make sense while these people work in that environment. However, away from these unique operating environments, Service differences can be confusing at a personal level (although sometimes quite amusing) and even distracting at a professional level, particularly with respect to leadership, communication and discipline.

The purpose of this article is to summarise some of the differences and similarities between the three Services in terms of culture, leadership and institutional discipline so as to help build understanding.  The paper offers information and advice for those working in joint environments, including Australian Public Service (APS) staff and contractors, that might improve relationships and build understanding between personnel navigating these unique Service cultures.  The differences discussed reflect institutional cultural differences, as opposed to an overview of all the different customs, traditions, language and idiosyncrasies of each Service. While some customs and traditions are common throughout the Services, others are only relevant to particular jobs, environments or platforms. Either way, it would be beyond the remit of this paper to go too far down this path.

Generalisations are inevitable in a paper of this kind, and I apologise upfront for all the exceptions to the rule that readers might notice. Discussing something as broad as Service culture will always court critique, and feedback is welcomed.  The intention here is to inform those who are trying to understand why differences between the Services exist; it is not to stereotype individuals from each Service.  It is important to keep in mind that differences between individuals will always be greater than differences based on any cultural or demographic factor.  It is also accepted that culture is a dynamic phenomenon which slowly evolves over time.

Finally, as it is rare to serve in more than one Service, information relating to Navy and Army cultures reflects observations over an extensive career rather than direct experience.  To minimise any potential inter-Service bias, feedback from members of all three Services has been incorporated into every draft of this paper.

Navy Leadership and Discipline

The maritime environment is characterised by its harshness and remoteness. Operations from the Polar Regions to the tropics place stress on equipment and personnel alike.  As the Navy frequently operates with individual ships as opposed to a fleet, self-sufficiency in the Navy is essential.  Furthermore, the ship is only as effective as the sum of its parts. The Navy is singularly reliant on every member of the crew doing their job as part of the team, whether it be at action stations or on cruising watches.  If one member is not willing to undertake their assigned tasks, it compromises the safety of the ship and its company. This unique environment has created an equally unique culture often reflected in customs and traditions that only exist in a maritime environment. As noted by Builder,[2] the ‘altar of worship’ for the Navy is tradition, stemming originally from the traditions of the Royal Navy.  Navy personnel will look to customs and traditions for guidance in times of uncertainty.  Indeed, the Royal Australian Navy often feels that it has more in common, in a cultural sense, with the Royal Navy or the United States Navy than with the Australian Army or the Australian Air Force.

Presiding over this system, and ultimately responsible for the effectiveness of the ship, is the Captain (or Commanding Officer). The captain of a ship is the master and commander whether the ship is at sea or alongside. The captain’s authority is absolute and nothing occurs on the ship without the captain’s approval.  The most revered role in the Navy is an independent sea command where a captain has a ‘godlike’ responsibility; [3] “a ship… was a world unto itself, with its captain absolutely responsible for every soul and consequence that fell under his [her] command.” [4]

Unlike the other Services, the Navy operates a Divisional Officer system for the personnel management of the ship’s company. The Divisional System provides an avenue of support that is outside the sailor’s direct chain of command.[5] In this way, the sailor has someone they can turn to when they are in trouble or are struggling to cope with Navy life. However, while a Divisional Officer is there to provide advocacy, even during disciplinary hearings, they have no actual authority over the management of the sailor.

The disciplinary authority on board a ship or Navy base is the Commanding Officer or Captain.  ‘The Captain’s Table’ is the term given to dealing with disciplinary matters.  As in any judicial situation, the Captain hears evidence and administers judgment as he or she considers appropriate in order to maintain the good order and discipline of the ship’s company.  Navies, and in particular the Royal Navy, have historically had the harshest punishments of the three services, perhaps  born out of the need to maintain tight discipline when far from home ports. Of course, the days of keelhauling[6]and flogging are long gone. Nevertheless, the Navy has always relied on a culture of selfless duty ‘come hell or high water’. Navy personnel who do not work for the good of the ship do not last long in the Navy.

The reality of being ‘all in the same boat’ creates a deep sense of identity amongst Navy personnel. Sailors live in extremely close proximity to each other, which means they need to consider the needs of others and make personal compromises in order for everyone to get along. Consequently, Navy personnel seem reluctant to complain about their lot. Because everyone is in the same situation it is pointless whingeing about the reality everyone shares equally. Navy people often appear to have a more attuned sense of humour that assists to ease tensions and deal with conflict in a kinder way than might be experienced ashore.

While most military personnel develop a deep connection to their colleagues, especially during operational service, Navy personnel are so often away at sea that this sense of intimacy and brother/sisterhood is more marked. Navy personnel are very loyal to one another, to their ship and to the Navy – this connection is closer to a family relationship and may explain why the Navy approaches personnel problems in different ways to the other Services (see below). This combination of closeness and self-reliance can also be apparent amongst Navy families as they cope with long periods of separation. This aspect of Navy culture should be considered when addressing issues with Navy personnel.

The Navy is the highest user (although only slightly) of Disciplinary Officer convictions and of Administrative Sanctions.  Navy NCOs and officers generally refer Disciplinary Officer or Defence Force Disciplinary Act (DFDA) matters to the Naval Police Coxswain (NPC).  Indeed, the NPC is responsible for most disciplinary matters on Navy ships and bases.  Difficulties can arise if the NPC does not have a clear line of action because the referring NCOs/officers may be less aware of what military justice action could or should be taken.  This may lead to either no action or inappropriate action being taken.

The NPC is always the Prosecuting Officer in a disciplinary action whereas the Defending Officer is either selected by the accused, which is their prerogative, or appointed by someone in their chain of command. Defending Officers rarely have a great deal of specialist experience in the role, therefore mounting a successful defence against a military charge is relatively rare. This isn’t considered a huge problem, as it reflects the main point of the exercise, which is to maintain good order and military discipline; not debate the finer details of military justice. Navy frequently uses Formal Counselling as a punishment and/or ‘Letters of Reflection’ to address the negative behaviours and actions of subordinates. Letters of Reflection are a softer option than Formal Counselling, which is viewed as a sanction with potential ramifications for one’s future in the Navy.  However, Formal Counselling can be used when a Formal Warning might have been applied by another Service.  A Formal Warning would very often prevent the Navy from deploying a member, which can have serious operational consequences.  Indeed, Navy personnel who transgress at sea may be put ashore and a replacement sailor or officer joins the ship’s company.

Despite the Navy’s history of harsh punishments and tough discipline, recourse to the DFDA is not as frequent as it is in the Army; although it is more frequent than in the Air Force. According to the Defence Annual report, 1.15% of the Navy’s continuous full-time workforce is charged under the DFDA per year (taking total force figures from 2016/17 Defence Annual Report and 2018/19 IGADF Report). A further 10.18% of the Navy workforce is the subject of a Disciplinary Officer[7] conviction and 2.37% of the Navy’s full-time personnel are subject to Administrative Sanctions.[8] These results suggest the Navy employs a more diversionary approach to discipline, with formal DFDA charges used as a last resort. However, it might also be the case that Navy personnel sort out behavioural issues between each other with only more extreme disciplinary breaches being brought to the attention of command.

Army Leadership and Discipline

The Army operates in diverse physical environments, from desert to jungle, from remote outposts to highly populated urban environments, to flat land and mountainous terrain ─ and in all extremes of weather and temperature.  Access to water, food and shelter can make these environments hostile to human survival, let alone combat. While fighting in any environment is dangerous, there is no question that harsh environmental conditions make it even more dangerous.  Similarly, fighting in urban environments populated by non-combatants makes conducting operations ambiguous, stressful, and challenging.  Just as Navy’s institutional driver is tradition, for Army it is mateship and honour, including the honour to serve one’s country. “Of all the military services, the Army is the most loyal servant and progeny of this nation, of its institutions and people.  If the Army worships at an altar, the object worshipped is the country; and the means of worship are service.”[9] Always service above self.

Army commanders at unit or sub-unit levels are usually commissioned officers from lieutenant to lieutenant colonel.  Their responsibility is the effectiveness of their combat or support team and achieving designated missions.  This includes everything from training to leadership in combat.  The leader has the dual responsibility of mission success and preservation of the fighting unit as much as possible.  A significant indicator of likelihood of success in combat is effectiveness of training, both individual and collective.  This is why the Army places a very high importance on the development of personnel, both as individuals and as a team.  Army personnel posted to a unit are “’owned’ by that unit and the Commanding Officer is at liberty to employ them as they see fit, placing the best people in the most critical positions.  This prerogative is essential for operating effectively in combat where casualties may occur.

Combat is not a natural environment for anyone; yet, in a very direct sense, this is the environment in which the Army must work. Army discipline has always taken into account the potential for extreme fear experienced either prior to or during combat.  While leadership by example is one way of increasing confidence in subordinates who are experiencing fear, the fear of disciplinary action for failure to perform is another way of keeping them actively involved in the fight. However, perhaps the strongest influence on the behaviour of soldiers in the face of the enemy is the opinion of one’s mates. The fear of being thought of as cowardly, or worse ‘Jack’ (colloquial for self-centred and me-focused) is generally enough to motivate most soldiers to behave honourably. This fear of public shame and rejection, a shame that can even extend beyond oneself, can be so deeply rooted in a person’s psyche that ‘look after your mates’ is a common mantra in the Army.

The Army unit is effectively an individual’s family.  It provides the essentials of life and security at many levels.  The Army leader is the ‘paternal’ (even if they’re a woman) head and main influence in this family.  They praise excellent performance and punish bad behaviour.  They teach through example, training, education and practice, and record a subordinate’s progress and development.  This often occurs through the Section or Platoon Commander’s Notebook, where observations of a subordinate’s performance are recorded as they occur.  These notes are often referred to in the development of annual performance reports, which are viewed as developmental tools.

Army leaders view discipline as a key component of command and leadership. The DFDA is a tool to maintain unit discipline and set standards. It can also be used to shape the behaviour of their subordinates. As a Service, Army is the biggest user, per capita, of the DFDA. The Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM)/Company Sergeant Major (CSM) is expected to be the font of all knowledge relating to disciplinary matters at an Army unit and, as such, they are a critical resource not only for Army commanders and supervisors but for joint Commanders.  Army leaders are also generally commensurate users of graduated options available under the Military Justice System.

Military discipline is considered not just corrective but also character building. The Army, with its greater emphasis on masculine traits such as aggression and competition, is aware there will be times where people overstep the mark and need to rein in their behaviour. Discipline is a culturally accepted part of this process, and almost everyone (including junior officers) in the Army experiences some form of formal correction early in their military career.  Indeed, formal disciplinary action was once seen as a cultural ‘rite of passage’ for Army personnel, as it demonstrated an individual’s willingness to engender and confront conflict.  Further, Army has in the past used the punishment of ‘Extra Duties’ to address shortcomings in behaviour.  ‘Extras’ are outside the DFDA system, and while the member given the ‘extras’ may be appreciative that no formal record of conviction is recorded, the system has been open to abuse in the past.

Charging under the DFDA is certainly a more common practice in the Army and this is probably because it is seen as a normal part of Army service. In any given year the Army charges approximately 2.25% of its continuous full-time workforce under the DFDA (total force figures taken from 2016/17 Defence Annual Report and 2018/19 IGADF Report), whereas 8.32% have Disciplinary Officer convictions recorded and 2.36% are subject to Administrative Sanctions. This is a very different rate of disciplinary action to the other Services and emphasises the fact that the formal charge process is a more common way of managing soldiers.

The Australian Army is not a numerically large force in comparison with other countries. ‘The small size of the Army and the high value placed on soldiers’ lives have taught the Army to emphasise manoeuvre, to seize opportunities when they present themselves, and to give subordinates the freedom of action to exploit opportunities to the full.’ [10] As such, the Army values initiative and taking action when required.  Indeed, the mantra that ‘offence is the best form of defence’ is often used. In combat operations, the fighting quality of audacity is held in high regard and represented in the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.  Army doctrine states that ‘the successful soldier will act with drive, energy, determination, self-discipline and willpower’.[11] This bias for action, and even controlled aggression in combat, has been a feature of Army operations since Federation.  This mode of behaviour permeates into non-operational environments as it is a valued characteristic in the Army.  Drive and controlled aggression can be viewed as intimidating by non-army personnel. In joint environments, Army personnel need to be aware that the drive and initiative valued so much in their parent Service can be viewed as overly aggressive or confronting by those from other services or the Public Service. This holds true for both verbal and written (especially email) communications.  Non-Army personnel in joint environments need to be aware of this Army bias for action and not be overly sensitive where they experience it.

Air Force Leadership and Discipline

The Air Force is different to the other Services because the distinction between its fighting element and support element is more precisely demarcated. As a percentage of total personnel, fewer Air Force personnel are directly engaged in combat compared with the Army or Navy. Even so, a far greater percentage of Australian Air Force aircrew personnel have died serving their country.[12]

Notwithstanding the perception of international and domestic commercial air travel as safe, military flying is a particularly dangerous activity. Indeed, despite their use in warfare, military aircraft remain fragile and sensitive to the dangers and emergencies encountered in the air. Consequently, the survival needs of one group of Air Force personnel, namely aircrew, become a central focus for almost everyone else. Whether that is to maintain aircraft, service weapons systems, ensure all the specific equipment to survive at altitude ─ such as breathable oxygen, a survivable temperature, food and water are all provided ─ and also to care for the day-to-day administration of the Force.

To promote safety and survival in this environment requires a twofold system of international and domestic regulation and control as well as maintenance of aircraft to meet specific international and domestic standards.  To conduct combat operations in the airborne environment adds a third level of complexity to what is already a complex and unforgiving operating environment.

To ensure the Air Force remains effective requires teams of personnel with specialist skills and proficiencies.  If any one of these team members fails in their role then the safety and effectiveness of aircraft and weapons systems can be compromised. Air forces, in general, consider themselves highly technical organisations, both to keep aircraft in the air and to maintain a technological competitive edge over their adversaries.  In Carl Builder’s construct, “The Air Force could be said to worship at the altar of technology’.[13] Australian Air Force members aspire to ‘professional mastery’, which focuses on mastering their specific professional skills and a deep understanding of air power.

Given the intense focus on professional mastery and technical competence, Air Force personnel take great pride in their specialisation, sometimes identifying more with their specialisation or professional group than the Air Force itself.  Teams in the Air Force often comprise a group of specialists, not necessarily having the other team members’ skills.  In this environment, the emphasis is on the individual rather than the team, and nowhere is this more pronounced than amongst pilots. Prospective Australian Air Force pilots, like most other militaries, must successfully navigate one of the most challenging selection and training processes of any military occupation.[14] Perhaps unsurprisingly ‘Pilots are likely to identify themselves… as pilots even more than Air Force officers”.[15]

Because of the nature of Air Force specialisations and musterings, it is not uncommon for an Air Force leader to have only a vague understanding of a subordinate’s role or unique skills. As a result, there can be a reluctance to make judgements about the performance or competence of subordinates.  This only becomes an issue when either aspect is deficient, but it can mean there is limited scope to address technical deficiencies in performance where no alternative specialist is available.

With respect to the disciplinary management of Air Force personnel, the Air Force views the DFDA as one of a number of tools to produce an appropriate culture. The main purpose of military discipline in the Air Force is to balance the requirements of military capability with the rights and responsibilities of each individual. Leadership behaviour, administrative measures and training opportunities are also used to ensure personnel stay motivated and focused.  In the training environment in particular, the emphasis is on changing behaviour rather than on discipline or punishment. Wherever possible the Air Force assumes ‘noble intent’ rather than assuming the wrong thing occurred due to avoidable negligence. However, when behaviour needs to be changed the corrective action is immediate and usually achieved through formal counselling.  

The Air Force, more than the other Services, considers the DFDA a blunt instrument for ensuring an effective military culture, especially with respect to air operations.  Air Force commanders are generally reluctant to charge personnel under the DFDA except in the most serious offences.  The DFDA is generally regarded as a sanction mechanism with unproven deterrent outcomes.  By contrast, the infringement (Disciplinary Officer) system is more frequently used to moderate unwanted behaviour. Follow-up administrative action then focuses on behavioural remediation as part of the process.  For example, formal warnings set out standards of behaviour expected and provide an end date for the member to aim for. In large part, they form a behavioural compact or agreement between the Air Force and the individual and, as far as the Air Force is concerned, are more likely to result in lasting behavioural change than a charge and punishment under the DFDA.  However, it could also be the case that Air Force supervisors are often reticent to take DFDA or Disciplinary Officer action due to a lack of experience, training and Air Force/unit culture.  

As might be expected based on the above, the Air Force has the lowest rate of charges under the DFDA. In any given year less than 1% (approximately 0.46%) of its continuous full-time workforce are charged under the DFDA (taking total force figures from 2016/17 Defence Annual Report and 2018/19 IGADF Report). Interestingly, in stark contrast to both the Army and the Navy, just 2.62% of personnel receive Disciplinary Officer convictions and 1.16% are subject to Administrative Sanctions.

So, what happens when Navy, Army and Air Force people are smashed together?

In totality, members of the Navy, Army and Air Force have more in common with each other than with, say, members of the civilian community – so differences between the Services are a matter of degree. Members of the Navy, Army or Air Force have all voluntarily chosen to serve their country, they have all been through a process of enculturation (basic training), and have survived working in an organisation that places demands upon their lifestyle well beyond what would be generally expected in the wider community. All three Services operate in environments that are hazardous in their own right, without the added risk of engaging in combat.  All members of the ADF are expected to be proficient in their own specialisation and have undertaken recruit/officer training in their own Service or in a joint Service environment (ADFA).  All members are expected to demonstrate their Service values and to be self-disciplined and adaptable.  They are expected to understand the Profession of Arms and their role in delivering maritime, land or air effects as part of a joint Force.

Most Navy, Army and Air Force personnel will spend the majority of their career, at least in the early stages, within their parent Service’s culture, although there are some exceptions such as the Australian Federation Guard and Australian Signals Directorate. Even so, by mid-career many military personnel have had some experience working with another Service, even if only briefly. However, despite all our similarities, there seem to be deep divisions between personnel from different Services that can be unhelpful, especially in joint environments.

Generally, Service members posted to joint units adapt well.  They are either well briefed beforehand or learn fast on the job.  With good humour, compromise and a focus on the unit’s mission, Service differences can be accommodated; whether they be in language, direction-giving or approaches to discipline.  While someone may have a preference for an Air Force style of leadership, where recourse to the DFDA is rarer (for example), it is not essential to have an Air Force leader to discharge one’s duties in an acceptable manner. Even so, ‘rub points’ are more predictable in a joint unit.


Communication and Direction  

While an understanding of what leadership is, or is not, exists between the three Services, how one leads can be very different. Leadership in the Navy tends to flow down from the captain through the Executive Officer (XO) to Heads of Departments (HODs) that have specialised roles.  Leadership in the Army is more specific to the situation, a concept known as ‘mission command’. It is expected leaders at all levels will have mastered the same skills as those who are required to carry out a tactical task.  Leadership in the Air Force relies on conveying intent and timeframes with subordinates expected to apply their specialist skills in achieving the intent and timeframe.  Army orders and direction will tend to include more detail than Navy or Air Force orders and require less interpretation than orders issued by Navy or Air Force leaders.

Furthermore, feedback from the chain of command is more frequent in Army.  The Army operates on verbal and written briefs and back-briefs – a requirement of land operations.  Navy and Air Force tend to report back by exception, ie generally when some element of the original orders cannot be achieved and it is considered that the leader needs to have this situational awareness (SA).

Development of Subordinates

While leaders in all three Services take the development of subordinates seriously, the Army is the most overtly active in pursuing this task as part of normal unit routine.  Air Force, to a greater extent, and Navy to a lesser extent, see subordinate development beyond basic on-the-job experience to be a Service HQ role through courses and self-education and not necessarily related to the member’s direct supervisor (who may not have the same specialist skills).  Navy and Air Force subordinates may find this level of interest in their personal development by their Army supervisor to be intrusive, whereas Army supervisors see it as a major part of their responsibility as supervisors.  Misunderstandings in this regard may be exacerbated when the supervisor uses a section commander’s notebook.

The ‘rub point’ in subordinate development often comes from the use and intent of the annual performance appraisal report.  While Army uses the annual performance appraisal report for promotion decisions[16], it is also widely used as a development tool.  While Air force is trying to move to a practice where it is a development tool, it is very much seen as the only means to get promoted in often very competitive trade musterings. Developmental opportunities outlined by an Army supervisor on an Air Force annual report may be viewed as a kiss of death as far as promotion prospects are concerned.  From an Air Force perspective, opportunities for development are welcome, particularly in mid-term counselling. However, if these same shortcomings are reflected in the annual report, especially after they have been addressed by the member, it can be both personally aggravating and potentially career ending when compared with the appraisal of peers in Air Force units.

Attitude to physical fitness  

While physical fitness is considered important by all three Services, for the Army it provides a direct edge to its combat capability. The army views success in combat as strongly correlated to an individual’s and a section’s level of fitness.  This is why the Army places such high importance on physical fitness and strength.[17] Physical training comprises a significant part of Army unit routine and is regularly conducted during core work hours.  Army views an individual’s fitness as a function of their self-discipline or self-leadership; therefore a lack of fitness or obesity is often perceived as a lack of self-discipline on the part of the individual.

Specialist employment groups in Navy and Air Force require specific levels of fitness and strength, ie firefighters, clearance divers, etc. However, other than during initial training during work hours, time is rarely allocated to maintaining one’s personal fitness.  This ‘apart from’ versus ‘a part of’ difference in commitment to fitness training during work hours needs to be understood and somehow accommodated within joint unit routine.


As shown in the IGADF statistics quoted throughout this paper,[18] the three Services vary considerably in terms of recourse to the DFDA. This is not an indication of the number of ‘bad’ people in each Service but rather an indication of how each Service uses these mechanisms to change and influence behaviour consistent with their own operational culture.  Seeking the advice of Service representatives before considering DFDA action against a member from a different Service would be very wise, as the ‘meaning’ of such action is very different across Services. A one-size-fits-all approach to the application of formal discipline may have unintended consequences for both the individual and the unit.

Table 1 notes the differences members may encounter with bosses/supervisors and subordinates in joint units. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, but highlights the areas where ‘rub points’ are most likely. These differences are discussed in more detail below.

Table 1: Joint Unit Survival Guide Cheat Sheet

Your Service

Your Boss’s Service

Your Subordinate’s Service


Army – expect a strong emphasis on teamwork – work well with peers. Maintain (improve!) your personal fitness level.

Air Force – will delegate more than you are used to and expect you to get on with your job unless told otherwise

Army – be prepared to give explicit direction and be prepared to follow up. Provide time for PT sessions during work hours.

Air Force – smart but challenging. Increase awareness of how the team depends on their work.


Navy – they may refer decisions up the CoC in shore postings more than you are used to.

Air Force – Don’t expect detailed direction. Your planning/organising skills will be appreciated.

Navy – will seek recognition of their traditions in unit routine.

Air Force – will appreciate being given a task but not how to do it.  Will want to know the intent of the task (mission command)

Air Force

Navy – leave executive decisions to your boss – he/she owns the unit. They will expect you to sort most issues at your level.

Army – Learn how to verbally brief and expect to be given direction at the end.  Give regular updates (back-briefs).  Don’t be surprised if your role/position is changed based on your performance - he/she owns you.  Discuss in private, support in public. (Discussion can be viewed as dissent rather than information seeking).  They will show an active interest in your professional development and give you challenges. Maintain (improve!) your personal fitness level.

Navy – Learn where senior sailors fit in and how they can best be used to achieve unit/section aims and deal with personnel matters.

Army – will seek explicit guidance/direction, rather than just getting on with their job.  Ask them for options (Courses of Action). Learn to be directive instead of requesting (sign of weakness). Be prepared to allocate work time to PT sessions.

What are Bosses like?  

All bosses will have a responsibility to achieve their allocated mission and to look after their subordinates.  What sometimes differs is how they go about achieving this.  Further, all COs will influence the culture, attitudes and behaviours of members of their unit.

Navy Bosses – If they are in a relatively independent position, Navy bosses will make the decisions based on advice from their executives. If not in an independent position then many decisions may be referred upwards through the chain of command.  Navy CO’s/supervisors may be more relaxed in shore billets rather than when posted to a ship.[19]  They will expect their subordinates (senior sailor equivalents) to look after their people in a broad context.

Army Bosses– Army bosses will operate independently.  They will entertain a small amount of discussion on issues, and may seek input from subordinates, but their decision is final.  It would be unwise to push for a repechage on a decision, particularly in public.  Army bosses expect sections within their organisation to work as effective teams and hold supervisors responsible for building section cohesion and performance. They appreciate that the Navy, and in particular the Air Force is ‘different’ (why Dig In when you can Check-In?).  Army leaders will expect their subordinates to be able to ‘go the extra yard’ when required, even when it impinges on the work/life balance of individuals.

Air Force Bosses– Air Force bosses of joint units can appear aloof or not engaged.  This may be true, but it is more likely a function of their trust in subordinate’s ability to get on and do their jobs. Don’t expect praise for merely doing your job from an Air Force leader – you are expected to be the expert in your field.  Air Force bosses may not provide the detail or direction that Army subordinates, in particular, expect. When posted into joint units, Air Force Officers/NCOs need to become familiar in broad terms with what Military Justice action is required in response to short comings ranging from ‘having a word’, corrective training, counselling, Disciplinary Officer action or DFDA.  Knowing what options are available in a graduated response is useful and avoids ‘going around the buoy’ repeatedly (ie never do more than two Records of Conversation for the same behaviour before elevating the response to DOS or DFDA).  Knowing how to apply the policy on corrective training is also valuable.[20]  Air Force supervisors in joint units should be prepared to seek advice from RSM/CSMs or NPCs regarding disciplinary matters for Army and Navy personnel respectively – they will win more respect by asking rather than avoiding taking action when required.

What are subordinates like?  

Navy Subordinates– Navy subordinates will respond well to specific direction but may speak up or complain where the direction is considered contrary to how things are usually done in Navy units. They will often wish to know the reason for specific direction. Navy personnel are very proud of their Service and dislike being treated the same as another Service, especially the Army. The manner of carrying out the task will be consistent with Navy work practices in term of breaks, access to rations, etc. Navy personnel respect leaders who are prepared to speak their mind, not just give the party line. Senior sailors play a key role at sea and in operational environments. They can solve many problems at their level and should be sought out for advice.

Army Subordinates – Provide Army subordinates with detail and specific direction.  They will expect you to show a keen interest in their professional development extending to their release from the unit for professional development courses.  Army personnel, at all levels, are well trained in planning (Military Appreciation Process) and organising  troops to task considerations, and take pride in their ability to lead in this way. They admire physical prowess and confidence. They strongly disapprove of weakness, either personal, professional or organisational. Once you lose their respect it is very hard to regain it.

Air Force Subordinates– Air Force subordinates will perform well if you appeal to their professional competence and specialist skills.  They will demonstrate innovative thinking and find workarounds when required in order to achieve the set task. Air Force subordinates can be considered insubordinate by asking why a direction/order has been given.  This should be seen as them seeking greater understanding of the problem so the best solution can be found, ie a desire to meet the intent where there may be a better way (according to their professional knowledge). ‘Tell me what you need, rather than giving me an order’ – similar to mission command.

Army, Navy and Air Force leaders’ management and leadership of APS staff will take on the same flavour as their leadership and management of subordinates in their parent Service.  They may need to develop the skills to provide direction rather than issue orders.  APS and contractors may find ADF leaders direct, to the point of rudeness, not only in their use of language but also in written communications, particularly emails.  Not taking this personally will lessen some of the initial negative reaction.


The Navy, Army and Air Force all have their own organisational cultures that serve them well in the environments in which they operate.  The application of military discipline is a part of this organisational culture.  Leadership and communication at all levels often reflect the parent Service culture.  The intention of writing this paper was to inform those who are trying to understand why differences between the Services exist; it was not to stereotype individuals from each Service. When Service personnel come together in joint units these different leadership and discipline expectations may cause misunderstandings and sometimes friction.  Some of the friction points have been outlined in this paper, as have approaches for dealing with them.  With tolerance, adaptability, good humour and the assumption of noble intent, most cultural differences can be accommodated. Joint units offer a unique opportunity to develop greater flexibility in leadership and an insight into how the other Services operate. Rather than being a problem this can be a refreshing eye-opener.


Australian Army Journal, Culture Edition 2013, Volume X, Number 3. Land Warfare Studies Centre.

Brown, James. Fifty Shades of Grey: Officer Culture in the Australian Army, Lowy Institute, at accessed 2 June 2020.

Builder. Carl H., 1989. The Masks of War – American Military Styles in Strategy and Analysis. RAND Corporation. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Commanders’ Guide to Discipline, 1st Edition, March 2018. Head People Capability Group.

Department of Defence Annual Report 2016-2017, Department of Defence, Canberra.

Inspector General of the Australian Defence Force Annual Report 01 July 2018 to 30 June 2019, Canberra.

Long, Gavin (1963). The Final Campaigns. Australia in the War of 1939-1945. Series 1 – Army. Canberra. Australian War Memorial.

Mastroianni, George R., Occupations, Cultures, and Leadership in the Army and Air Force,  Parameters, US Army War College Quarterly, Winter 2005-06, Vol 35, No. 4.

About the Author

GPCAPT Brown is a now a Reserve officer who serves in the Centre for Defence Leadership and Ethics at the Australian Defence College.  Three of his 18 postings throughout his career in the Permanent Air Force have been in joint units as have many of his training courses and exercises.  His interests are organisational culture, human behaviours, leadership, and ethics.

[1]Builder. Carl H., 1989 The Masks of War – American Military Styles in Strategy and Analysis. RAND Corporation. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore. p. 3

[2]Ibid. p. 18

[3]Ibid. p. 18

[4]Ibid. p. 18

[5]Although more recently the Divisional Officer system has been mirroring the Chain of Command

[6]A punishment that involved dragging the miscreant under the keel of the ship.

[7]The Disciplinary Officer Scheme is the lowest tier of DFDA discipline and enables minor disciplinary matters to be dealt with quickly, fairly and simply where the ADF member has admitted to the disciplinary infringement and elected to be dealt with by a Discipline Officer. Discipline Officer Manual, 2019, Edition 1.

[8]Administrative sanctions can include; Formal Warnings, Censure, Termination of Service, Reduction in Rank, Deny/Delay Promotion, Loss of Security Clearance.

[9]Builder, Ibid. p. 20.  Although Builder was referring to the United States Army in this publication, the analogy applies equally to the Australian Army.

[10]Land Warfare Doctrine LWD 0-2-2 Character, Commonwealth of Australia (Australian Army) 2005.

[11]Ibid. 3-6

[12]Long, Gavin (1963). The Final Campaigns – Australia in the War of 1939-1945 Series 1 Army. Canberra. Australian War Memorial.  The most recent conflict where the enemy had a near peer air capability.

[13]Builder, Ibid. p. 19

[14]Mastroianni wrote in 2006, ‘Because Air Force pilots (who are all officers) are technical experts at a task to which non-pilots have nothing to contribute, pilots have very different needs (and perhaps habits) when it comes to seeking out information and advice from others, as compared to ground force officers. For the Army officer, other officers, NCOs, and soldiers are all valuable resources to be respected for the expertise and experience they bring to the officer’s warfighting task. Army combat units are far from democracies or college debating societies, but leadership is not usually viewed exclusively as a form of tyranny. The officer is and must be in charge, but the quality of the unit’s performance will be determined by how effectively he or she uses the skills, experience, and leadership of his or her subordinates in building and developing the unit. This most fundamental reality of Army leadership engenders a corresponding respect for the importance of human relations in the Army.
In the Air Force, the brotherhood of pilots is necessarily somewhat separated from the experiences of others by virtue of the specialized nature of the task: pilots simply don’t need advice from non-pilots on how to fly. The myth of the solitary and heroic single-combat warrior is important to Air Force culture, and it conditions the understanding of Air Force leaders about the essential nature of leadership. Air Force NCOs are regarded and treated as the superb professionals they are, but they do not (and cannot) participate in the dominant warfighting myth in the same way that Army or Marine Corps NCOs do; their expertise, concerns, and activities overlap only partly with those of pilots and officers.’ pp.80-81

[15]Builder. Op.cit. p. 26

[16]Army CO’s have the power to promote Privates to Lance Corporal within their units.

[17]Land Warfare Doctrine 0-2 Leadership, 2002, Land Doctrine Centre. p. 19.

[18]Any leader within a Joint Unit would be well advised to familiarise themselves with the Commanders’ Guide to Discipline, 1st Edition, March 2018 and particularly Section Four which includes links to Single Service Documents that outline implications of disciplinary action for members of each Service.

[19]COs can suffer from “post command blues” when reintegrating back into a shore position after being at sea.

[20]Air Force members should be aware that a Disciplinary Officer Scheme sentence is on a member’s record for only 12 months, so should be considered a lighter action than a Record of Conversation which remains on a member’s Permanent Record.