As early as 1959 investigations were made into the desirability and feasibility of integrating all or part of the cadet training of the three arms of the Australian Defence Force. However, not until 1970 was the concept crystallised into a specific plan by a committee chaired by Sir Leslie Martin. After detailed studies of the Martin proposals, the Government agreed in July 1977 to the establishment of the Australian Defence Force Academy on a site in the Canberra suburb of Campbell, adjacent to the Royal Military College, Duntroon.
After further deliberations including an examination of the proposals by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works, the Minister for Defence announced that the Council of the University of New South Wales had approved in principle an arrangement whereby the University would guarantee the academic integrity of Australia's Defence Force Academy.
In May 1981 the Commonwealth and the University of New South Wales signed an agreement which provided, amongst other things, that the University would establish a College within the Australian Defence Force Academy. In June 1982 the Interim Academy Council, chaired by Sir Edward Woodward OBE, QC, held its inaugural meeting.
In February 1984 the University of New South Wales announced the appointment of Professor G.V.H. Wilson as Rector of the University College. In April of that year the then Chief of the Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Sir Neville McNamara, formally established the Australian Defence Force Academy as a Joint Service Unit under Section 32c of the Defence Act 1903. He simultaneously announced the appointment of Rear Admiral P.R. Sinclair, Royal Australian Navy as the Commandant. In September 1985 the Interim Academy Council ceased its functions and the Australian Defence Force Academy Council held its inaugural meeting under the Chairmanship of Sir Edward Woodward.
In January 1986 ADFA began providing undergraduate education and military training to midshipmen and officer cadets. A new, more comprehensive agreement developed between the Commonwealth and the University of New South Wales was signed in December 2003.
Arising from this agreement the Academy Council was discontinued and an advisory council known as the Australian Defence Force Academy Consultative Council was established. This council advises the Commander of the Australian Defence College on the development and operation of the Academy.
As of January 2001, ADFA sits within the reorganised Australian Defence College (ADC) command. In addition to ADFA, the Commander, ADC is responsible for the command of the Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies (CDSS) and the Australian Command and Staff College (ACSC). Through these three institutions and its other activities, the ADC promotes learning and growth of leaders and managers who have professional interest in national and international defence and security issues, be they military or civilian, from Australia or overseas.
In 2012, ADFA expanded its operation to incorporate the Capability Technology & Management College, Defence Force Chaplains College and Australia’s Federation Guard.