The Voices of War

15. John Blaxland - Reflections On Australian Military Operations And Lessons Learnt

VOW 15 | Australian Military Operations


My guest is John Blaxland, a Professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies and former Head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.

Before his academic pursuits, John enjoyed an extensive career as an Intelligence Officer in the Australian Army, including as the principal intelligence staff officer for the Australian infantry brigade deployed to East Timor in September 1999, an intelligence exchange officer in Washington DC, Director Joint Intelligence Operations at Headquarters Joint Operations Command and Australia’s Defence Attaché to Thailand and Myanmar. You can view John’s biography, academic credentials, and list of books he published here

As you will hear, we covered a broad range of subjects, including:

  • John’s Army career and journey into academia
  • Building the cultural knowledge of Timor Leste
  • When strategy and tactics don’t align—reflection on Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq
  • Were Australia’s commitment to Afghanistan and Iraq strategic successes or failures?
  • Impact of operations in the Middle East on Australia’s understanding of Southeast Asia and the South Pacific
  • Understanding the human terrain and culture—critical to mission success
  • John’s proposal to create a regional maritime cooperation forum for Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, and Singapore—MANIS
  • Australia’s posturing toward China
  • Likelihood of war between the US and China

You can access ‘Niche Wars: Australia in Afghanistan and Iraq, 2001 to 2014’ here. And, as promised in the episode’s intro, you can order ‘The Australian Army From Whitlam to Howard’ here.

Listen to the podcast here


John Blaxland – Reflections On Australian Military Operations And Lessons Learnt

My guest is John Blaxland, who is a professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies, and Former Head of the Strategic & Defence Study Centre at the Australian National University. John holds a PhD in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada, a Master of Arts in History from the Australian National University, and a Bachelor of Arts from the University in New South Wales.

He’s also a graduate of the Royal Thai Army Command Staff College and the Royal Military College down Truman. Prior to his academic pursuits, he enjoyed an extensive career as an intelligence officer in the Australian Army. Some of his career highlights include serving as the Principal Intelligence Staff Officer for the Australian Infantry Brigade, deployed to East Timor in September 1999. Being an intelligence exchange officer in Washington, DC, working as Director of Joint Intelligence Operations at Headquarters Joint Operations Command, as well as serving as Australia’s Defence Attaché to Thailand and Myanmar.

Throughout his career, he has published an extensive list of books, some of which include The US-Thai Alliance and Asian International Relations: History, Memory, and Future Developments, Niche Wars: Australia, Afghanistan and Iraq, 2001–2014, a book which we will discuss now, In from the Cold: Reflections on Australia’s Korean War 1950 to 1953, A Geostrategic SWOT Analysis for Australia, The Secret Cold War: The Official History of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization. East Timor Intervention, The Protest Years, and many more. John, it is a real pleasure to host you on the show. Thank you very much for joining me.

Thanks very much. Great to be with you. You missed the book I’m most proud of, which is The Australian Army from Whitlam to Howard. It’s my only Cambridge book. As it’s a Cambridge book, it’s a bit more expensive than usual. It’s not a free download. I reckon it’s my best work.

Before we delve into some of the pressing security concerns that you are wrestling with and are quite vocal about and also have a social commentary on, maybe we can start a little bit about your background because yours is certainly very interesting. You were in the Army for many years, so maybe we can start there. When did you join the Army, and what motivated that decision back then?

24th of January, 8:30 AM, 1983, not that I remember specifically, I signed on the dotted line, and I got on a bus at the recruiting centre in Downtown Sydney near Central Station, and we rode down to Canberra to be a cadet at Duntroon for four years. I hadn’t quite appreciated what I was getting myself into. None of us have when we got that far.

There’s no immediate family connection with the Army. The closest relative was a great-uncle who died in the First World War. I bet, for some reason, I wanted to join, but I also wanted to get a degree. I knew that I didn’t want to go the short route. I wanted to go the long route. The degree mattered to me because I figured I wasn’t sure how long I was going to stay in the Army, but I knew I wanted to challenge my brain a bit. I loved the scholarship. I went to Duntroon, and I was not one of those people who viewed 51% wasted effort and 49% wasted year. I was like, “I wanted this. I wanted high distinction. I wanted to top the class.” I don’t know what drove me to do that, but here I am.

Academia sets the tone for you as well as for your future. I mentioned in the bio that you are an Intelligence Officer. Did you graduate from the Intelligence Corps?

I graduated from the Intelligence Corps, and then I went to ADFA where I was mentored by now professor then Lieutenant Colonel, Dr. David Horner, Australia’s preeminent military historian. I was very fortunate to have him as my mentor. He steered me towards a study of Australian military history. My first paper on the pen tropic organisation of the late-’50s, and early-’60s organising an Army, which was fortunately for me, published by the centre at the moment, the Strategic & Defence Studies Centre. That got me fired up. I then did my Regi time in the Signals Corps. I was allocated to the Satellite Terminal troop, and I thought that was a bit of a funny one because it was a bit of a pogue posting it turned out.

VOW 15 | Australian Military Operations
Signals, Swift and Sure, A History of the Royal Australian Corps of Signals 1947-1972

It was a blessing in disguise because I had time to volunteer to write the Signals Corps history. I started down that path, and also the Satellite Terminal troop was the ground link for the satellite system connected to the DSD, which is in Melbourne. I got my first top-secret security clearance, and I have got this alphabet super clearance. I’m thinking, “I didn’t know what had happened to me.” Somebody said, “You can’t talk about it, and you can’t take any notes.” That’s a good thing because I can’t remember what he said to me.

You are trying to write the history.

I slowly started piecing things together because somebody said, “You might want to read Des Ball’s stuff. He’s written a couple of interesting books about this.” I thought, “Okay.” I started reading it, and then the penny started dropping about how it all hung together. That was very influential as I was writing the Signals Corps history, which includes a little bit of SIGINT in there.

As it happened years later, I ran into Des. The first time I met Des Ball was in Thailand when I was Defence Attaché. My Thai intelligence interlocutor invited me out for dinner with Des Ball, and I’m thinking, “How come you guys are inviting me? How does that work? I’m in Bangkok.” Anyway, it turns out he’s best friends with the Thai intelligence people because he has been working very closely with them on monitoring the Burmese. It’s a very interesting time.

It gave you a very early introduction to the murky waters of intelligence and the multiple crossovers. Who speaks to whom?

It was a blessing in disguise because I felt a little bit cheated because I wasn’t going to a field unit. It seemed like I was a little bit disadvantaged. As it turns out, in my graduating class, no one went to the infantry. There seemed to be a surplus of infantry, so they didn’t want anybody from in corp. Quite a few of us went to Signals. As I said, it’s a blessing in disguise because I’m not a terribly technical person, but what I realised was that Signals is one of those areas that non-technical people can’t get their heads around, so they leave it to the techies.

Whereas it’s important for non-tech people to work on getting their heads around, and that’s what I tried to do when I wrote the book, Signals – Swift and Sure – A History of the Royal Australian Army Corps of Signals 1947 – 1972, post-World War II through to the end of Vietnam. It got me on a roll. As I said, I wanted to then write more books. That was all part-time while I was doing a job at DIO and then a job as an instructor at Duntroon and a job at Land Headquarters and now Forces Command, and then various jobs along the way.

Was writing in your family?

My dad had an interest in military history. He kept me supplied with a stock of books, and there was a tenuous link to Field Marshal Montgomery. On my old father’s side, there’s a Montgomery link. We are going way back. It’s a fairly tenuous link. He’s kept me supplied with the path to leadership and memoirs of Monty. I steeped in particularly World War II British military history from Monty’s perspective and then started reading more into the Australian side of things as I went along.

One of your career highlights is that you were the Principal Intelligence Officer in East Timor in ‘99.

That was extraordinary because I was finishing up at Staff College in Thailand when I got a call from the career advisor saying, “We are going to post you to Townsville.” I’m thinking that’s a long way from strat communications in Melbourne, isn’t it? That’s quite a stretch. I’m thinking, “That’s a good challenge. It will be good and fun.” Three brigades don’t ever deploy anywhere, so I will be sitting in barracks the whole time, but it will be in an interesting posting. Some teams will get deployed out doing something somewhere. You can’t look at it twice a month. I thought, “Townsville. Sounds good.”

You can write another book.

I didn’t have time to write another book. I had my tail hanging out. Interestingly, I arrived up there and then Brigadier Peter Leahy says to me, “Why do I need you?” I thought, “That’s an interesting question.” In his career, a peacetime post-Vietnam Army, intelligence had not featured all that prominently.

I joined the brigade as things started getting interesting. We have got trips in Loganville, but things turned pear-shaped in Indonesia. We prepared for a possible services-protected evacuation operation. Things to start getting petered in East Timor. John Howard wrote a letter to Habibie the President of Indonesia, who took over from Suharto because he had been overthrown after the Asian financial crisis.

Things are starting to bubble away. Peter Leahy moves on to be promoted and goes on to big and better things, and then Brigadier Mark Evans comes in and he’s completed CDSS at the College of Defence and Strategic Studies at Western on the promotion of brigadier. He says, “We need to focus on a couple of things. We need to focus on the Solomon Islands. PNG, obviously, and we are going to have to focus on Timor.”

I said, “No problem. I’m happy to oblige.” We then focused on those three things, but as time went on, we focused more and more on East Timor. We were then told not to plan to go to East Timor. Mark Evans, in his wisdom, says, “We are not planning to go to East Timor. We are planning to go to Orange Land. It happened to look like Timor.”

I had a board with my team. I had now Navy Captain Dean Cummings. I had Steve Dixon. I had the whole swag of competent people working with me, and we were pulling this extended IPB on the terrain, the culture, the history, the language, and we are pulling it together over most of 1999 because we figured, “This is going to go pear-shaped, in some way, shape, or form, and chances are we are going to be the bunnies having to do something about it.”

In the preparation work, we did try to figure out all the roads, the groupings, the cultures and as time went on, the militia groups too who was in the zoo and who was resourcing them and how that worked. Trying out getting my head around that and trying and break them. The brigade commander and the chief commanders of the units in the brigade about that was quite an adventure.

Pinnacle was deploying, putting all the training that was done over the years seemed quaint and esoteric on one level. Here I was putting it into practice. I’m like, “This is awesome.” It was an absolute pinnacle experience working with a top-notch team. All are very competent and confident in their abilities. Collaboratively, we worked together to deliver a service to the brigade commander and the brigade and then worked with the support units, the 162 Regi squadron, particularly good support working closely with the deployed human and EWD with the infantry battalions working with the PsyOps teams and the PR people on messaging. This classic end-of-course CPX buzz, but over a prolonged period. I’m still dining out on it. There you go.

You should because I speak for many people. Your impact on that operation has echoed through the ages. I found out about your performance in that job well before I ever looked at any of the books that you have written. I have heard about it through the corps. Congratulations on that.

Thank you. My many inadequacies were covered by some excellent team members, and I have mentioned a couple of them, but it was a team job. They made me and the corps look good. It was proof of the quality and the efficacy of the training that we went through. It delivered, and it was a buzz to know that you were part of that and that the system was working that way.

That whole operation goes down in the certain history of the Australian Army as a success. Perhaps not as interesting.

My colleague here at SDEC made the point that it was a strategic failure. When I first heard that, I thought that was a bit jarring. It doesn’t fit with my experience because my experience was this awesome experience of the team being thrilled that we were there. Yet the only complaint was why didn’t you come sooner. Not, “Why did you come?” but, “Why not earlier?” This is the big question, which was an international politics question.

Hugh makes a point that it was a strategic failure. Why? I said, “What do you mean?” He was saying, “Essentially, when John Howard wrote the letter to Habibie, it was never meant to be for independence. It was meant to be for some matching accord like the French had done for New Caledonia to put off the ambitions for independence and ameliorate their concerns.”

That blew up because Habibie has been mercurial as he is. He went into a bit of a funk and decided to lay down the gauntlet. We are going to have a referendum, and it’s going to be in or out. That was when we had UNAMET, UN Assistance Mission in East Timor, unarmed observers. The bravest of people, I will have to say. Police, defence force members, and people who were very brave in very trying circumstances during Australia proud, who predated my time with that. Going there armed and with thousands of people around me and me sitting in the headquarters. Not living nearly as dangerous as some people had done during the UNAMET time.

You made a point that you were well-prepared during your planning, and you focused on the culture and the tribal influencers. How much did that reflect the reality on the ground? How valuable was that lesson to take with you as an intelligence officer coming back and also for our corps to embrace the importance of understanding the terrain?

You’d have to ask people who were the recipients of our products, how they view that, but my sense is that they were overwhelmingly happy with the support they got and with the material that we provided them, but the appetite was voracious, so we could never give them enough. There was always something more that people were saying, “Why didn’t you tell us about this? How come I didn’t know about this?”

It was literally and metaphorically uncharted territory for us. We hadn’t given it much thought since World War II. A lot of the material, when we were digging up material to share with people about what it’s like there was from the Second World War. We went back that far because there hadn’t been that much.

Under the Portuguese, they hadn’t paid much attention. We hadn’t paid it much attention either. Under the Indonesians, we weren’t all that welcome to do very much in East Timor, and we left it to them to run to be fair. It was a bit of a black hole, and it was one that over time we slowly filled the gaps. As I say, it was an iterative process of getting a bit more information. Dribs and drabs on various bits of the culture on the geography, demography, and language, and we’d feed it out to the various units and brigades along the way.

It was demonstrably valuable, and it did speak to the importance of doing that ground research. Brigadier Peter Leahy, now Professor Peter Leahy and I are on very good terms because his appreciation for the importance of intelligence went through the roof thereafter. The proof is in the pudding.

I will bring in some of his perspectives from Niche Wars from his chapter because as the former Chief of the Army, he drew some important lessons. Perhaps this is one that’s weaved into that narrative at least. To what extent do you think that our collective experience in East Timor set us up for success in our then subsequent or concurrent wars, arguably in the case of Afghanistan? How did it set us up for success or failure in the Middle East?

There’s a distinction to be made between the tactical and operational successes and the strategic level. One of the points we make in the book Niche Wars is that Australia did not buy in at the strategic level in shaping the purpose, the narrative, the rationale, and the mission. That was the case in Iraq and Afghanistan, unfortunately.

Australia did not buy in at the strategic level in shaping the purpose, the narrative, the rationale, and the mission. Click To Tweet

Despite the valiant professional efforts of many people over two decades in Iraq and Afghanistan, there’s not that much to chauffeur there now because the strategic rationale and strategic direction provision were lacking. Australia’s political leaders and its senior military leaders were a little bit too cynical by heart in thinking that we were making a contribution to the alliance. Therefore, the next priority was keeping everybody alive, which is fair enough, but if you are putting people in harm’s way, it’s not enough to say that the mission’s accomplished by getting the Dutch into Oruzgan and us into NATO. That’s not good enough.

That’s where I was going with that question. I must admit. I haven’t read the whole book, only 5 or 6 chapters of Niche Wars, and I highly recommend it. I get the sense that it’s a deeply reflective book, and the authors of the various chapters try to be candid about the experiences. We are talking about senior defence leaders or even ministers who are writing their reflections on those wars. When you sat down to think about this book, to write it, to ask, or to be one of the editors for it and to seek contributions for various authors, what motivated that book in the first place?

One of the things that motivated me was the friendship I had with Colonel Marcus. Marcus was the S3 of 3 Brigades in 1999 and 2000. He and I became very close friends through that bonding experience of preparing for deploying and then conducting operations in East Timor. We collaborated, and here’s established the military history and heritage in Victoria. A not-for-profit group that focuses on military history.

We ran the conference together that led to the book East Timor Intervention: A retrospective on INTERFET published by Melbourne University Press in 2015. We were doing a repeat effort essentially with Niche Wars. The conference we called was the War in the Sand Pit. It had the lineup of speakers that are in the book, minus 1 or 2, and plus 1 or 2 that we picked that we came along.

Marcus has been the driving force at MHV. Marcus and I sat down and we worked through whom we would have and how it would be arranged to cover as many aspects, much like with the East Timor Intervention book, as many aspects of the operation from the strategic down to the tactical to give a rounded perspective on not the Army perspective or the Navy and the Air Force, but the civilian aide, federal police, DFAT strategic policy perspectives to complement our understanding of what the hell we were doing there and why.

Getting back to your earlier point, I didn’t finish off properly. You asked me about the importance of the experience in East Timor, setting us up for East Afghanistan and Iraq. I don’t think there’s any question that the experience of conducting intelligence support to operations in East Timor in ‘99 and 2000 had a completely energising effect on the corps and on the professionalism of the corps, which was a professional body already but was inexperienced.

I remember going on my OOAC, Original Officer Advanced Course, at Kanangra, I had a blinder at the time. It was a great time catching up with old friends and learning a few new things. It was in early ‘96. Back then, it seemed like the good old days of the unipolar moment are going to last forever, so there’s nothing going on. We are doing this to go through the motions. We practise procedures for major operations, and we are thinking, “When on Earth is that ever going to happen?”

Lo and behold, only a couple of years later as I say, they are doing it for real. We then have two decades of doing it for real that is energised by the East Timor experience, as well as the experience in the Solomon Islands. We have a core element of experienced professionals, the intelligence corps. Understand the needing and the need to work collaboratively with the engineers, the survey people, the Signals Corps people in the EW domain and everybody else in the sharing of collection and then we do the processing and then disseminating, but then facilitating the dissemination.

I look back upon my training and on the ROBC, which was then the Regimental Office Basic Course, what’s now IDIC and DIRAC. The Introduction to Defence Intelligence Course and the Defence Intelligence Research and Analysis Course for those who may not know those acronyms is the centrality of understanding the intelligence cycle and how the various components of that cycle apply.

It’s just amazing how the enduring utility of an understanding of the intelligence cycle and the components of it, and how they function and how they interact and interrelate. It informs my teaching here at ANU in the course I teach now, Honeypots and Overcoats: Australian Intelligence in the World. I have a lot of fun teaching that, drawing on the lessons I learned along the way plus, the fun I had writing about a g o and other intelligence bodies subsequently.

I have had a number of guests that have spoken about this professionalism at the tactical level, and the training that we all undergo is exceptional. Most other militaries will say that about Australian Defence Force with large.

It’s gotten better since the days that I was doing it too. That’s informed by the feedback, the learning loops, and the deployments abroad have helped generate it.

The point I was going to make or the question I was going to ask is, so for example, I had Harry Moffit. You have probably heard of him. He’s a bit of a SAS hero on the show. I also had Major General Roger Noble on the show. In many ways, they have both echoed what you said about the strategy being misaligned or whether is it an actual strategy regardless of how well the jobs are being performed on the ground. There is no strategy. It’s not one that we can shape control. It might be part of the problem rather than the solution. That’s also what echoes strongly, at least in the chapters there are read about in corps. How are we reflecting on that point? What do you feel at the moment?

One of the joys I had with working on the Niche Wars project was writing the introduction and conclusion and trying to distil us. What are the final remarks at the end of the conclusion? One of the things that strike me is that while the professionalism and the honing of the force are acknowledged from the experience in the Middle East, the key lesson I believe that needs to be learned that I don’t think has yet been learned is the need for courageous and visionary thinking through the implications of force options that are put before the government for them to consider. That is something that when it came to operations in the Middle East, in what we call the niche wars. Where we were making niche contributions to wars led by others, we didn’t buy in on the strategy regretfully.

There is a need for courageous and visionary thinking through the implications of force options put before the government for them to consider. Click To Tweet

Was that a choice?

It was a calculated choice because we didn’t want to have too much of a role. After all, we didn’t want to have too much exposure because we didn’t want to have too many casualties. This is one of the wrong lessons from the Vietnam War experience that there was a sense that casualties from the Vietnam War led to the politicisation of Australia’s involvement in that war. I think it had more to do with our involvement in conscription. A choice that it’s debatable but my sense is it could have been avoided by making or incentivising voluntary service efforts. That idea wasn’t explored adequately in my view. An incentivised voluntary service could have mitigated some of the negative effects of conscription on society.

Getting back to the implications of the lessons from the Niche Wars, the successive Prime Minister John Howard started this off. He very carefully calculated and reckoned the level of support that Australia needed to provide to support the United States, mindful that the United States was experiencing its unipolar moment.

It didn’t physically need us to do the job it wanted to do, but we should have been more critical in our thinking about American strategy formulation. Mindful not so much of the experience of the 1991 Gulf War, but of the previous major war, which was the Vietnam War. We know there that was not seriously thought through. It was seriously thought through, but not adequately thought through because part of it was not doing the work that intelligence officers should be doing.

That is not mirror imaging your expectations of how the war is going to go onto how your adversary thinks it might go. Mirror imaging is one of the fatal flaws of intelligence analysis. You formulate your assessments on the assumption that your adversary thinks the way you do because they don’t. That’s an important point.

Mirror imaging is one of the fatal flaws of intelligence analysis. You formulate your assessments, assuming your adversary thinks the way you do. They don't. Click To Tweet

Australia is not very good. There’s a line I’d like to use occasionally. Australians are barely monolingual. We don’t speak English very well. We are not culturally attuned all that well to our neighbours either. We can sometimes come across as a bit haughty and it’s incidental. Some people are quite humble and respectful, and others aren’t. There’s a real area of room for improvement for us as we think about what our strategy might be for looking at it.

Here’s the point. This is not some esoteric point about the past because we are not going back to Afghanistan and Iraq. The view would hold. The point for what the future might hold. When we think about what the future might hold, it potentially involves us making much more existential choices in our neighbourhood. For that, we do need to have a much deeper understanding of the culture of the way our potential partners and potential adversaries might view the world, and at the moment, we are starting from a low base. I would argue.

That’s music to my ears to hear you say that, as I mentioned that I’m deeply involved in teaching a number of courses that try to bring that point to light. Do we need to spend more time understanding the ecosystems? I will use that word because it’s alive. There are multiple stakeholders that exist within each of these areas of operation.

One of the things that stand out about Afghanistan is that we certainly didn’t understand that. To go back to the point that the enemy doesn’t do what you think the enemy is going to do. Another point here is that the enemy is not necessarily who you think the enemy is. While I sleep easy at night, and I have said this previously on my show. I was certainly part of that push where we embraced a certain narrative and anybody that looked at us wrong, anybody that might have carried a piece of ID was the Taliban. That wasn’t true because we didn’t understand that it was about potential survival. There’s a whole bunch of other social dynamics that we didn’t appreciate. We reinforced a simple Black-and-White narrative. You are either with us, or you are against us.

Part of that was because we weren’t sufficiently invested in winning. We weren’t there to win.

What was the victory? Did we even define victory?

My friend and colleague, Palazzo, would argue that we were successful because the point of the mission was to boost the alliance. My counterpoint is that the alliance has been damaged because America has been damaged. America has spent trillions of dollars not building the BRI or not investing in American infrastructure but pouring money, blood, and treasure into the sands of the Middle East. We are a little to show for it.

On that front, I don’t think Australia was a good ally. Australia wasn’t successful because the United States is no longer in a stronger position to provide the security guarantee that we have always looked to it for. From that point of view, it’s been quite harmful and part of that is because we didn’t buy in on the strategy.

I’m not saying it would have made a huge difference, but had we bought in more on the strategy or had we been prepared to put some elbow grease in? I had a short stint at the then Land Warfare Study Centre, now the Australian Army Research Centre AARC. It’s called now, but I wrote a little monograph called Revisiting Counterinsurgency. This is back in early-2006.

I remember back then thinking, “There are lessons from our experience in Vietnam that might be applied applicable as we are going back into Afghanistan to do reconstruction as we were planning to do in Uruzgan province that we could apply,” but there was no appetite in Canberra in the senior military and political levels for a holistic attempt to be successful in Uruzgan. We weren’t there to do that.

It was much more constrained. It was about showing the flag and making a contribution, but a contribution that wasn’t about making sure that Uruzgan was successful. What happened though was that our soldiers and our ADF people when went there because they are professional and got standards and got ethical compasses. They want to make a difference.

They went there thinking, “We can make a difference. We are Australians. We are the ADF, and we are the Army. We can do something constructive literally, physically, and metaphorically,” which then left Colonel Mick Ryan with the first reconstruction task force tried to do, but if you are not backed up with a strategy that’s about following through on that and delivering on that, you are pushing it uphill.

This goes to explain why Karen Middleton’s chapter on the media in the book Niche Wars is so significant as well. Why was the media so constrained? It’s not so constrained with the Canadians, Brits, and Americans. It’s constrained because we are a little bit embarrassed. We don’t want people to know how constrained our force posture is, or how constrained our mission scope is.

It was successful in terms of supporting the US Alliance. It was successful in keeping casualties low. Here’s where I disagree a little bit with Hugh Poate, who’s Robert Poate’s father, who wrote the book Failures of Command, which is an important book. Don’t get me wrong. It’s critical of some command decisions that were faulty. No question. The people involved have acknowledged that they were faulty.

VOW 15 | Australian Military Operations
Failures of Command

In the context where the mission was very constrained, and where we only lost 41 people there, we have lost hundreds subsequently from PTSD. When you have a mission that is focused on being there and coming home alive, there is something’s got to give. The manifestation of PTSD is one of those things that’s given along the way.

There are those who would argue that PTSD in terms of veterans from Afghanistan and Iraqis is not that particularly higher in level than it was for veterans of the 1st or 2nd World War. I don’t know the answer to that. I suspect it’s probably not quite right, but at least. Warfare is shocking, and it does induce trauma. That is not that surprising on one level. It is accentuated by the fact that there was a real moral ambiguity about what we were doing and why, and that did not help.

That’s an important point. General Peter Leahy makes the argument in the chapter of his book as well, that he acknowledges the importance of the alliance to the US but it wasn’t worth it. When we also superimpose on top of that ultimately none of us went to fight a war that we thought we were fighting and that’s the reality.

At which point do we start drawing the line and reassessing how we even go to war, our decision-making process to go to war? Minister Robert Hill in the same book makes the point. He had no military background. He had an environmental portfolio and my portfolio before he became defence minister. Do they understand enough of the cost of war to be able to make those decisions, arguably in support of something that is now with hindsight rather questionable?

The tension between the chapter written by Lieutenant Colonel Anthony John Rawlins on his experience in Al Muthanna, Iraq, and the chapter by Major General Mick Crane as Commander Joint Task Force 633. It’s like water and oil. It’s a polar opposite fuse. John is trying to do something on the ground that’s positive, that’s not sitting there twiddling their thumbs behind the barbed wire. He’s wanting to respond positively to invitations from the Brits and from the other apartments in the area, and feeling extremely frustrated as are all his subordinates in the unit who are chafing at the bit to do something. Get out of the barrack and compound. Patrol meets with the locals to do something with their hands.

The other view of General Crane, who’s got very tight marching orders. Black and white interpretation of the rules and who rides them pretty tightly. You get the tension in the two chapters. It’s very interesting the dynamics that speak to this irreconcilable dialectic of the Australian soldier wanting to go and do something for good with a real sense of wanting to make a contribution and much more politically savvy and attuned to the government’s direction, Commander of the JTF who says, “Don’t do it.”

That’s a very interesting point because it is a real dynamic and attention that we ought to explore some more as well, and perhaps even as military officers, we need to unpack that and talk about it because it is so real. I don’t want to say we forget, but because we are so operationally focused and so focused on achieving the job, even in the absence of a mission, we will create a mission. That’s the Australian soldier. It is about doing what you can while you are there. Reflecting on that vacuum is truly important. If we can maybe pivot now to our region because you have made a very interesting point that we perhaps don’t know our region well enough.

Maybe I’m slightly biased. I have been out of defence for a number of years. I have invested a lot of time into studying the importance of culture in intercultural communication. I have been to Iraq as a consultant, and I have seen the post-violent conflict industrial complex, which is another beast on its own. We misunderstand what happens on the ground.

I have echoed this very question to a number of defence seniors whom I won’t call out publicly, but many of my friends will laugh at that point because I had been quite vocal, particularly about the region that we don’t have systematic and institutionalised effort to understand the region. I will quote some of those seniors, “It’s over to you. Speak to your counterparts whom you meet on courses,” which to me is not necessarily getting the point.

The metaphor I like is playing primary school soccer. The fallback doesn’t stay in position when the ball was kicked.

Everyone chasing the ball.

In the Army, if you have got a thrusting bone in your body, you will want a deployment. If the deployments are in the Middle East, then who cares about learning Indonesian, Tagalog, or Thai? Who cares? That’s not going to get you a gong. It’s not going to get you a command. It’s not going to get you a promotion.

This is the skewering effect of our involvement in the Middle East for the last decades. We have dropped the ball on our patch. Here is invested in Southeast Asia or the Pacific. Very few people. I lecture occasionally at Staff College. The last time I was there I asked how many Australians in the audience spoke Bahasa Indonesia. Just one. That’s shocking.

I said, “If this was in the UK Staff College and we asked how many people spoke French. If your hand didn’t go up, it would be embarrassing.” We are so underinvested in the relationship with our neighbours and Indonesia is a classic. We have been playing a game of snakes and ladders when it comes to Indonesia.

1 or 2 steps up the ladder, and then down the snake we come over. Boats, spies, clemency, Timor, Papua, Jerusalem, you name it. We have poked them in the eye of a range of things. We haven’t stopped to ask them what they think or how they feel. We forget that this is the country ten times our population on a trajectory of economic growth that’s set to eclipse us in our lifetimes.

Indonesia is ten times our population and on a trajectory of economic growth set to eclipse us in our lifetimes. Click To Tweet

That’s culturally quite different and with whom it is in our interests to get on well, but you wouldn’t know it. We are so cavalier about literally and metaphorically flying it over it on our way somewhere else. The same goes for some of the other neighbours in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. For a long time, while the operational deployments of the Middle East were flowing, I completely get it. I remember being in the Army myself, and everybody wanted to get a gong. They wanted to have a go. They wanted to deploy on an operation wherever their operation was.

The point is that the seniors should not be worried about what the soldiers or the junior officers might be interested in. They should be thinking about where the Army and the ADF need to position themselves in the future. I know this but we are playing a bit of catch-up these days. There are investments with seven brigades with different focuses on different parts of the region, which is terrific, but it’s from a low base. It’s something we need to double down on.

It’s a secret. There’s also the dragon to the north as well that everybody is keeping an eye on as well, and China’s influence in the region is expanding. You have been quite vocal on this point as well, not certainly on social media.

We have been pretty good at speaking loudly and carrying a small stick.

It should be a double way around, right?

We need to be a little bit more clever. It’s appropriate to stand up for ourselves. We need to be much savvier about working with our neighbours, working to do so collaboratively, and also doubling down on capability enhancements. It’s important to note that it’s not a car key. It’s not ADF-coloured uniforms that are required.



VOW 15 | Australian Military Operations
Australian Military Operations: We need to be a little bit cleverer. It’s appropriate to stand up for ourselves. We need to be much savvier about working with our neighbours working to do so collaboratively and also doubling down on capability enhancements.


What we are seeing probably amongst China’s most effective pieces of the arsenal are its maritime militia and its coast guard. They are not wearing PLA uniforms. They are operating below the threshold of kinetic warfare, but they are effectively pursuing pretty adversarial policies at the expense of it being a zero-sum game. It’s at the expense of our neighbours and our friends particularly in South Asia, but also in the Pacific.

We look at it, without getting into the figures, even the defence expenditure. Say, again, the US versus China. You can’t compare the two, but who’s having the actual impact? You made the point about the US spending $2 trillion in the Middle East. Whereas China’s Belt and Road Initiative is paying dividends, arguably, those expeditionary wars have only left more destruction and problems.

Tragically, that’s the case. This also begs the question, “What does it mean? What’s going to happen?” If the Americans have such a patchy record, patchy being kind, what stunt are they going to pull in our patch? This is why it’s so important. Not that we distance ourselves from the Americans but that we seek to influence them constructively.

Think through the implications. One of the things that struck me when I was in Washington on my posting there was the sense that we did Southeast Asia and the Pacific because they did North Asia very little consciousness of Southeast Asia and the Pacific in Washington that’s seen as our patch. I had this chat with the CDF a few years back, who said to me, “We can walk and chew gum.” I said, “Maybe but barely.”

We haven’t been in a position to deliver for Australia’s safety and security, let alone in terms of any contribution to the alliance from our investment in the neighbourhood because we have been underinvesting for two decades. We are playing catch up and some good things are happening, but as I say, low base.

You would have seen it because I have advocated a couple of times. We need to do much more than the Pacific step up. We need to offer a grand compact to the Pacific, much like New Zealand has done with its relationships with the Cook Islands. The US has done this with Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia. We should offer a deal. Similarly, it’s not the same in Southeast Asia because the dynamics are entirely different.

We should be looking to develop what I have called MANIS, which is an Indonesian word for sweet. I’m proposing MANIS as a regional maritime corporation forum for Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, and Singapore. When I have mentioned it to my Indonesian counterparts, it’s always been very well received. Nobody in Canberra, the policy world has yet sought fit to act on it. It’s one of those things. It’s not a perfect idea, but it’s trying to capitalise on the dynamics that we see that the benefits accrue to Australia from our engagement through the FPDA, the Five Power Defence Arrangements with Malaysia and Singapore.

The problem with FPDA is it’s a bit slightly anachronistic. It was set up initially to protect Malaysia and Singapore against Indonesia because there was a fear of a return to a confrontation-like period. Those days have long gone, but no self-respecting Indonesian wants to join the FPDA because it was set up against them. They have got the non-line inclination that they don’t want to join an arrangement like that and it’s got the Brits in there, which is fine for FPDA.

The problem with FPDA is it's a bit slightly anachronistic. It was to protect Malaysia and Singapore against Indonesia because there was a fear of a return to a confrontation-like period. Click To Tweet

With the MANIS idea, I’m saying, “Let’s leave defence formally out of the title. Let’s leave security out of the title. Make maritime regional cooperation for it. It’s about those five countries collaborating on regional maritime, secure maritime issues, and security all over. It scoped us for us to do more. It’s interesting. We have seen a closer alignment of our interests with those of Indonesia than we have in a long time.

Indonesia has never seen us as a threat. It’s miffed us over East Timor and it’s a little bit worried about what we say our rhetoric matching what we might do about West Papua. By and large, when we have a chance to explain between Indonesian counterparts, there’s no way that we are going to do in Papua what happened in East Timor.

It’s about twenty times as large. It’s got unmandated. It’s officially sanctioned internationally as part of Indonesia. We have no appetite remotely for upsetting that upper car, and it’s way more important for us to make our relationship with Indonesia work. The message there is to Indonesia, “Please make your relationship with our work.” We don’t have to worry about it. Make it work, and exercise justice and equity. It’s easier set than done because it’s an ongoing strife there at the moment.

Stability and security in our patch are integrally connected to the security and stability of Indonesia. That’s not something we have seen as fundamentally important in the past. Going back to the defensive Australia days of Paul Dibb’s papers back in the 1980s. It was never stated, but it was implicit that essentially, we were looking at a confrontation-like scenario. Paul hopes to be the most plausible of the least of the range of implausible scenarios.

As it turned out, that wasn’t very plausible, but it was enough of a construct to justify the four structures that we had, including three brigades and the development of defence-related infrastructure across the North of Australia, which turned out to be pretty handy when it came to his team in ‘99.

The scope for us to be thinking afresh about the significance of Indonesia to our security instability. Looking at it not as an adversary but in light of the defence strategic update as a partner or a country that can benefit from what we can bring, and we can benefit from what they can provide as well. That partnership approach, a respectful partnership, is something we haven’t given much. We haven’t been all that comfortable with doing it, but it’s where we should be aiming or heading.

I found it interesting that you mentioned the power of rhetoric as well. Rhetoric might make Indonesia question our true intentions. My question here is, and I have written this one down because I have given some of the comments I have seen on social media and some of the posts you have made. Particularly our rhetoric, many have referred to it as the beating of the drums of war against China. How effective is that, and what is the risk of it becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy? Is posturing ourselves in this way counterproductive, risky, or dangerous? What do you think?

There are a couple of sides to this. Firstly, we should be clear about who’s beating those drums. To be fair to Marcus, he was talking about the Chinese drums being beaten. It wasn’t about Australian drums. Australia’s got little tin canned drums.

That’s my first realisation.

This is what I’m saying. We need to speak softly carrying a bigger stick. The other side to this is that my sense is that what Marcus was getting at was that there’s a bit of a wake-up call to Australia because we have been thinking we are spending about the right level on defence. I think we are having ourselves on. It’s not just defence. It’s across a range of areas.

I touched on this in my A Geostrategic SWOT Analysis for Australia. We have got a range of challenges. A great power contestation is part of it, but looming environmental catastrophe is also part of it, as well as a spectrum of governance challenges, and we are seeing that even in Samoa. The talk is potentially a breakdown in law and order there.

Let’s fingers crossed and put in a few good words for men upstairs that will work out, how diplomacy efforts and those of New Zealand will also help. The bottom line is that there’s a range of challenges in our neighbourhood relating to people smuggling, drug smuggling, transnational criminal groups, and the undermining of law and order, particularly among some of the microstates in the Pacific that is deeply worrying.

When you aggregate those three domains of great power, contestation looming environmental catastrophe, and then a spectrum of governance challenges, we are undercooked in terms of how we respond. It’s not just about the ADF. It’s about border force, policing, diplomacy, aid and investment. It’s a whole range of issues that we got in stove pipes.

We have separated them into different domains by different departmental remits with different purposes that are not sufficiently cross-focused and being integrated. We are not doing enough. We have seriously undercooked diplomacy. We are being outplayed in our patch. We need to lift our game. Part of that gets back to what we were saying before is having a deeper insight into how the world and around us think and how they operate, and not assuming that we can mirror images and think that they will think as we do. They don’t.

This point also echoes China itself. We can see what China is doing, and there are a number of ways one can analyse, but we don’t understand China as well as we think we do. That’s part of that problem as well.

One of my favourite comments worth repeating is don’t poke the dragon if you don’t have to. That’s not productive.



VOW 15 | Australian Military Operations
Australian Military Operations: Don’t poke the dragon if you don’t have to. That’s not productive.


What’s your gut feeling? I asked this because I have asked this a number of people and one, in particular, who is a Chief Political Advisor to six 4-star generals in NATO. Whether the war with China is inevitable, and he laughed it off, “No. It’s not going to happen because it is in no one’s interest because of the interconnected world we live in.” I’m paraphrasing what he meant, but it’s mutually assured destruction again as we had in the Cold War. What’s your feeling about that?

I hope he or she is right. I don’t know who you interviewed there. We can’t assume that we are going to manage to avoid it. Thinking that way is a dangerous way of thinking. We should be, in my view, thinking it’s possible and therefore working furiously to mitigate the risk of that possibility by being very circumspect about what we say and how we engage by keeping the doors open for constructive engagement.

Mitigating the risk of American adventurism in a way that is not in our interests. Working closely with our neighbours, Indonesia especially, but others in the Pacific and Papua New Guinea and elsewhere to, align our thoughts, strategies, and approaches to work collaboratively, foster security and stability, and maintain our prosperity. It’s multifaceted and multi-pronged, but I do not take for granted that the risk of war is real.

I don’t want to overplay it and I tried to make a point in an article I wrote for the conversation that China doesn’t want war, at least not yet. It recognises that there are enormous negative consequences of up in unity. Therefore, it’s very eager to operate below the threshold of kinetic warfare to pursue its interests. We need to be mindful of that and not try and push it over the threshold, but respond in a way that addresses the issue at the level it’s being addressed in a constructive way that looks to de-escalate, not escalate. That’s easy for me to say. Doing it is incredibly hard.

You made the point about diplomacy that it’s been rather undercooked and keeping those live channels, whether it’s track 1, 2, 3, 1.5, or whatever tracks we can have for negotiations. I hope that we do have track 3 or some 4 diplomacy now as well. We haven’t closed those doors because that would be detrimental.

We also need to be reasonably sanguine about all of this because we need to avoid exacerbating the situation. China is a big power, and it’s got enormous internal insecurities. Political uncertainty about longevity in power and questions about what’s motivating him and the Chinese Communist Party to operate the way it does.

We have to be attuned to what’s happening there, paying close attention, keeping options open, and being as respectful as possible without compromising sovereignty. I agree. The decisions are on the way. There is no question in my mind at all. I suspect there’s a domestic political angle to them, which has accentuated the way decisions have been made. I’m saying we need to be very wary about not making things more difficult for ourselves than we need to.

Maybe one final question. If you could change one thing about the way we go to war, what would it be based on all your experience in reading, learning, and serving?

It’s so important that a decision to deploy troops on operations is not done by a prime minister on his own but that he reaches out to parliament for endorsement. That process, hopefully, if it were to be implemented, would help focus the mind of the policymakers to shape a strategy that has enduring utility rather than short-term political purpose.

My concern is that we have a democratic system that focuses on tyranny, the urgent, and on the short-term political cycle. That’s not focused on intergenerational prioritisation. We have challenges, as I say, great power, contestation, and environmental catastrophe in the spectrum of governance challenges that require our political leaders’ visionary and holistic engagement with a range of issues, not for the next election, but for the sake of our grandkids. We are not there yet by a long shot.

We have a democratic system focusing on tyranny, the urgent, and the short-term political cycle. That's not focused on intergenerational prioritization. Click To Tweet

Australia is rather unique in that. That was a point made. Might have been Peter Leahy in the book, which is a chapter I recommend. John, thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it. It’s been an enlightening conversation, a sobering one as well. You brought up a number of important points for us to chew on. I hope people read what you have to say. Thank you very much for your time.

Pleasure talking to you. Thank you very much.


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