August 11th 2018

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Doctor-patient privilege dies with My Health Record

EDITORIAL By-elections reflect disenchantment with major parties

CANBERRA OBSERVED Longman result may force PM to rethink policies

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS No question about it: the Don is in charge

ENERGY Lower electricity price a fantasy

EUTHANASIA Vulnerable will be victims of Leyonhjelm's deadly bill


PHILOSOPHY On human nature

CULTURE AND SOCIETY The shadow of that hyddeous strength

FICTION A Scent of Musk

MUSIC Globalised Music

CINEMA The Equalizer 2

BOOK REVIEW ADF as modern peacekeepers

BOOK REVIEW The men who built up a great tradition


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ADF as modern peacekeepers

News Weekly, August 11, 2018


ON OPS: Lessons and Challenges for the Australian Army since East Timor

by Tom Frame and Albert Palazzo (eds)

NewSouth Publishing, Sydney
Paperback: 344 pages
Price: AUD$39.99

Reviewed by Jeffry Babb

In the language of management-speak, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) has created a new paradigm.

In a situation where no obvious threat to the Australian mainland existed, the ADF has been involved in a series of operations that had the potential to turn nasty very quickly, such as East Timor and the Solomons – but didn’t. The re-equipping of the ADF to face future challenges has bipartisan support, but one thing must be kept in mind: in a democracy, the armed forces must have public support, both to keep the taxpayer dollars flowing and as a source of citizen soldiers.

Of course, Australians are proud of their Army but we are unlikely to wage another Gallipoli campaign. Manpower is too precious these days. The ADF must rebuild, in the mind of the public, a new standard for our armed forces, a criterion that recognises that the world is, on the whole, less dangerous than in years gone.

ISR – intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance – is the key to this new battle space. But data is not enough; it must be collected, certainly, but it must also be analysed and turned into information that commanders at the tactical level can use in battle. It is often forgotten that what German military strategist and theorist Carl von Clausewitz called “the fog of war” could paralyse battlefield commanders in days gone by. The army that can pierce this veil has a winning advantage.

It is commonly held that any enemy wanting to approach the Australian mainland must traverse the air-sea gap to our north, which involves first penetrating the Southeast Asian island chain. But this form of threat is not a credible basis for structuring our defense forces. As a locus for defence policy, it owes more to politics than to sound strategic analysis.

The operations in which Australia is almost certain to be involved will require more specialised competences and a high level of professionalism. As Major Anthony Chambers, a general and trauma surgeon in the Army Reserve points out, health support is necessary for our soldiers, but a surgeon may soon find himself doing caesarian sections for mothers-to-be in the local population, no matter what his specialisation.


Build coalitions

As former Prime Minister John Howard points out in On Ops, the ADF learned much from its deployment in East Timor in 1999. The InterFET (International Force East Timor) operation in East Timor taught the ADF two things: first, we must build coalitions; and second, our great and powerful ally, the United States, may not be willing to do everything we hope it would do. Certainly, the U.S. support in areas such as signals and intelligence was invaluable in the InterFET operation, but they were unwilling to commit to putting boots on the ground.

Howard comments: “There is much the Australian Army obviously can and plainly has learned from operations since 1999. Despite its esteem for traditions, customs and conventions, the Army has shown itself equally committed to creativity, initiative and innovation” (p31).

There are, of course, regional threats and theatres of operation where ADF units are currently deployed, such as in the Middle East. The situation on the Korean Peninsula has been volatile though recent developments make it possible that it may yet be capable of a painless resolution. The communist Chinese have almost completed fortifying the artificial islands that they have created in the South China Sea. We will hear more of this fortification in times to come.

Australia, along with its alliance partners, will almost certainly be required to assert the right to “innocent passage” in the South China Sea. Freedom of navigation is central to maintaining the law of the sea, upon which ocean commerce depends. Our allies will expect us to play our part.

The ADF cannot assume that it will always have public support, despite the enormous goodwill the armed forces enjoy. There has been no credible direct threat to the Australian mainland for over 70 years. The Chinese have not threatened us, the Koreans have not threatened us, the Vietnamese have not threatened us, the Indonesians have not threatened us. But we need a professional, combat-ready Army as much as ever.

As On Ops recounts, even small wars grow ever more complex. Topics such as logistics may appeal largely to specialists, but getting things from one place to another efficiently is vital when the Army is fighting in a remote area. The aim of an Army is to deter war, not to provoke it. Being defenceless invites attack.

When we talk of public support, the conversation naturally turns to the media. The Army appears to regard the media as an enemy only slightly less venomous than, say, the Taliban. Veteran newspaperman Brendan Nicholson writes in On Ops: “I have a great personal and professional concern about media coverage of the war in Afghanistan. It has become increasingly difficult to gain access to people and places that are needed to do a reporter’s job properly” (p189).

To be honest, the American media would not tolerate the degree of control the ADF exercises over reporters, though the freedom of access the American media is given can cause grave professional damage, as in the case of U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, whose career was terminated by a vituperative book by a writer whom McChrystal trusted to report with integrity and understanding.

Honest media coverage is the rock upon which the Army’s public reputation is based. These days, most reporting of the ADF lacks depth. Some good reporting does exist, such as has been published in books on the Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) campaigns in East Timor and Afghanistan. The ADF seems to have little stomach for fostering the “black ops”-style adventures beloved of amateur war gamers.

The ADF has adapted to changing circumstances. Tom Frame notes that, after the end of the Cold War in 1990, no one could have predicted that in the next 25 years ADF personnel would be deployed to Rwanda, Cambodia, Bougainville, Somalia, East Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq or the Solomon Islands.

Is this a “peacetime” Army? One can say that these smaller operations were often carried out in conjunction with alliance partners and friendly powers. It is fair to say that in redefining its role, the ADF has relied on a rigorous intellectual effort to cope with new environments with which it has little familiarity. These new campaigns are carried out by a professional Army. Conscription for military service is unlikely to be an option.


Dangers of bureaucratism

Today, we have an Army that is largely adapted to a peacetime environment. Armies tend to grow top heavy and bureaucratic in the absence of a major threat. The wars we will fight are likely to be little wars – small, but nasty. Peacetime armies tend to be concerned about things like gender equality, failing to recognise that women have never succeeded in frontline combat roles. My mother was an Air Force radar operator in World War II, when radar was the highest of high tech, but the RAAF ensured that female personnel were not put in harm’s way.

If our soldiers were hired mercenaries trained to kill on command, it would be a sad day for Australia. As On Ops shows, Australian soldiers are more than hired killers. Where restraint in the face of provocation is needed, a firm but sympathetic hand is required. As demonstrated in the Solomons, Bougainville and East Timor, the Aussie digger has few equals where peacemaking is as important as war fighting.

Armies are, by their nature, hierarchical organisations, but ultimately the performance of the ADF depends on the consent of its personnel. Tom Frame comments: “For the Australian Army, while the necessity of sound strategic advice is unquestioned, the importance of clear and unambiguous command arrangements is undisputed and the provision of well maintained equipment is undeniable, the best plans and preparations will be thwarted by individuals if their hearts, minds and bodies are not committed to the mission and its conduct or if their personal performance is impaired by an injury of some kind” (p255).

“Moral injury” relates to the disorientation of the individual soldier’s beliefs due to his experience while in the armed forces. Service personnel are rarely consulted prior to their deployment. The usual attitude is: “I’m a soldier and I do what the government tells me to do.” That is what, after all, governments are elected to do – take decisions.

In the two World Wars, public dissent from Australia’s war aims was not common, though not unheard of. Apart from the loathsome Eddie Ward (ALP, East Sydney), the wharfies waged an undeclared war on Australia’s servicemen (see Hal Colebatch, Australia’s Secret War, Quadrant Books, 2014).

But Australians on the whole are proud of their servicemen. A.B. Facey’s autobiography, A Fortunate Life, is about a knockabout young man who serves his country gamely at Gallipoli. This best-selling book gives expression to the sort of man we believe represents the epitome of the Australian tradition of the citizen-soldier. Bert Facey went home and spent the rest of his life as a tram driver; his Army service had impaired his health.

Tom Frame’s contribution to On Ops, “The Challenge of Moral Injury”, is well argued and thought provoking. Veterans have a certain standing in the community related to the service that they have rendered to their country. Perhaps if we had a clearer idea of the damage public hostility had caused to veterans of the Vietnam War they would have had a better understanding of their role in a necessary but ugly war.

This is a satisfying book for those interested in developments in ADF doctrine and organisation over the last 20 years. It is well written and, on the whole, free of acronyms and jargon.

Purchase this book at the bookshop:


All you need to know about
the wider impact of transgenderism on society.
TRANSGENDER: one shade of grey, 353pp, $39.99

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