Transforming the Australian Army’s logistics – sustaining INTERFET

‘In the past the Australian armed forces have not had to invest in substantial deployable logistic capabilities. Our forces have relied upon major allies such as the US and Britain. The logistic support for INTERFET was magnificent, but sustainment was not achieved without frustration and some failures. Frankly, if the ADF is required by the nation to go offshore again in a lead role or as a contributor to international military action, we will have to underwrite our operations with a responsive and effective logistic system with stamina. At the moment there is room for enhancement of our capability to support offshore operations. We succeeded in East Timor but our logistic engine was under extreme pressure most of the time’

– General P. Cosgrove, Commander INTERFET[1]

This post continues the ‘Transforming the Australian Army’s logistics’ series, and is an abridged extract from a larger paper.

Renowned strategist Colin S. Gray once wrote that ‘strategic history likes to be ironic and paradoxical …[when] we believe we have found the answer, someone changes the question’.[2] For the Australian Defence Force (ADF), and the Australian Government, evidence of this came in 1999. In September 1999, and after a succession of preliminary operations, the ADF led a coalition to East Timor as part of Operation Stabilise, also known as Operation Warden. International Forces East Timor (INTERFET) was a major stabilisation operation that tested the ADF’s ability to lead and sustain a large coalition – the first time it had been required to do so in its history. While the detail of this operation will not be discussed here, it was a major test of a military organisation caught unawares by a requirement to lead and sustain a large, regionally based, coalition. It was a seminal event for the Australian Army, and its logistics forces.

Commenting soon after the completion of this operation, former Commander of International Forces East Timor, and now Australian Governor General, General Peter Cosgrove made a stark reference to pre-operational logistic capability gap; a consequence of a decade of reforms that history now regards as over-zealous in their application. It is impossible to believe that Army leadership were not well and truly aware that a major regional operation would severely test Army’s logistic capacity, but it is evident that this operation surprised many with the extent of the hollowness within Army’s logistic capabilities. Given the challenges this operation placed on the Army’s logistic elements, it is unsurprising that several well-known reviews and academic papers now document this operational challenge.

Foremost among these reports was that drafted by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO); in the ‘Management of Australian Defence Force Deployments to East Timor’, the ANAO described that logistics should have been ‘as easy as it gets’ given the proximity of East Timor to Australia and the absence of the ‘stresses and demands of sustained combat’ suggested that the ADF was ill-prepared for ‘low-intensity’ operations.[3] In academic research conducted after a career in operational analysis, Colonel Bob Breen outlined numerous issues in logistic planning and execution, the ad hoc and inefficient nature of logistic arrangements at the tactical level, and the inadequacy of the embryonic operational and strategic approach to logistics of the time.[4]

Turmoil had been caused by widespread organisational reform at the strategic level of the ADF, there was uncertainty as to who was actually performing the ADF’s ‘strategic J4’ function at the time, and the youth of joint logistics agencies conspired to create a confluence of problems. Service logistics re-emerged as a solution to a variety of problems; Army’s already stretched Logistics Support Force, an under-strength formation responsible for providing theatre logistics to land task forces, was given the task of deploying capabilities to East Timor but also supporting the projection of forces. If it wasn’t for the efforts of a range of individuals and commanders of Army and ADF logistic units, and the appointment of a task force commander to control mounting in Darwin  (Commander Northern Command, the logistic support to the operation might have been severely compromised.

The key weaknesses in Army’s logistics capabilities in the time are well-known now, and perhaps unsurprisingly, were those contributing to the projection of forces from Australia rather than those required for operations within it. In an important paper prepared within the joint domain by the strategic agency responsible for mobilising the national support base, National Support Division, and the operational-level Joint Logistic Command, the Chiefs of Service Committee in 2000 were informed:

Ongoing organisational rationalisation, particularly at force level, has resulted in severe limitations in critical skill areas, such as [sea and air] terminal operations, which are virtually impossible to reconstitute for short warning contingencies…. [5]

This report implored the Chiefs of Service Committee, among other crucial changes, to endorse growth in a number of theatre-level logistic functions; operational contract management, bulk water and fuel transportation, petroleum management, support engineering and a number of areas in the joint force Army were responsible to raise, train and sustain personnel such as operational movements. The assumption that commercialised logistic arrangements could substitute for deployable, organic, land force logistic capability was reported upon as having failed, and the inadequacy of the national support base to respond at short notice to an operational crisis was similarly reflected upon.

It became clear through the post-operational analysis that Army had lacked the capacity to logistically sustain a coalition as effectively as well as planners had hoped. This was due to  combination of training and preparation, but also in terms of the overall scale and size of its logistics capabilities. Most coalition partners had arrived light, with expectation of Australian logistical support; they were deficient transportation, basic consumables and victuals, as well as a variety of administrative services. This was a turn of events for an Army who itself had traditionally drawn upon others, including the US or UK, to provide such support it on operations. The only way some of the coalition members could be sustained due to a paucity of distribution assets was due to command decision-making with tactical consequences; certain coalition forces were allocated to areas of operation on the basis that they could be sustained in the field, rather than the tactical effect they could provide.[6]

However, the biggest problem for Army’s logistic force elements, was also the most obvious; they had become austere, and as described above, simply lacked sufficient capacity in those capabilities fundamental to launching independent expeditionary operations beyond Australian borders. Subsequent discussions in Parliament noted concerns that in an Army of nine regular and reserve brigades, Army’s force (which it referred to as ‘field’) ‘logistics capability cannot support more than two brigade deployments’; highlighting a ‘serious underlying force structure problem’ that made a reviewing House Committee ‘uncertain of the Army’s capability to support two dispersed operations’, a basic strategic policy requirement.[7] As operations in East Timor had proven, these logistic elements could not easily be reconfigured from elsewhere in an ad hoc fashion.

‘Restructuring the Army’ Phase 2 trials were due to begin in 1999, the next stage of adjusting Army to meet the strategic policy requirement to defend continental Australia, might have examined this very capacity in Army, but due to changes in 1 Brigades readiness notice to support potential East Timor operations, this activity was delayed[8]. Exercise Crocodile 1999, a predecessor to the biennial Exercise Talisman Sabre, would have also tested the national capacity to support major operations. Perhaps had this trial phase been conducted, or Exercise Crocodile had been earlier in the year, opportunities may have emerged to address a number of capability gaps in Army’s logistic force structure. However, given the rapidity of the East Timor crisis, it is extremely unlikely that any short-term changes may have had a noticeable effect on operations. Whatever the case, Army now had a compelling reason to embark upon a major transformation of its logistics.

This series continues in a succession of posts. David Beaumont is a serving Australian Army officer, and the thoughts here are his own. He can be followed on Twitter @davidblogistics.

[1] Australian National Audit Office (ANAO), Management of Australian Defence Force deployments to East Timor, Audit Report No. 38, Department of Defence, Canberra, 2002, p 63

[2] Gray, C., ‘The 21st century security environment and the future of war’, Parameters, 38:4, Winter 2008, 2009, p 23

[3] ANAO, 2002, p 52, 88

[4] B. Breen, Struggling for self-reliance: four case studies of Australian regional force projection in the late 1980s and the 1990s, ANU e-press, Australia, 2008, pp. 156

[5] Chiefs of Staff Committee, 2000 cited in ANAO, 2002, p 57

[6] Cosgrove, P., cited in Smith, S., A handmaiden’s tale: an alternative view of logistic lessons learned from INTERFET, Australian Defence Studies Centre, University of New South Wales, Australia, 2001, p 7

[7] Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, From Phantom to force: towards a more efficient and effective Army, Commonwealth of Australia, 2003 This referred to the strategic imperative to support a one brigade deployment, with another battalion operation elsewhere.

[8] Fisher, J., Brennan, M., Bowley, D., A study of land force modernisation studies in DSTO1996-2000, Defence Science and Technology Organisation, Commonwealth of Australia, Australia, 2002, p14

4 thoughts on “Transforming the Australian Army’s logistics – sustaining INTERFET”

  1. Great overview and agree with analysis for strategic issues, less so for initial tactical phase. As someone in 3 BASB who deployed with initial forces in Sept 99, I feel the preference to blame the logistics ‘system’ entirely also masks some planning & decision making failures. This mostly relates to logistics not being well understood across various ADF planning teams / HQ involved plus a type of hostile attitude towards logistics, as though it was contemptible – regularly people made comments like ‘bludging F’ing pogues!’ Even with the limited assets we had, poor decision-making impacted their proper employment. I include the movements system in this, who had contempt for logistics transport requests. They would sneer, ‘the Commander’s priority is the combat units’ and we would try and explain that the stores were for the combat units and that they desperately needed them, but the Movements struggled to understand this. There was dumb call to leave behind a critical medical corps Officer for example, and without him, medical stores management became a mess. There was decision to go ‘light logistics footprint’ at the start, without establishing requisite support in Darwin to allow that to occur, or allocate enough strategic lift from Darwin to Dili that would enable this. In summary, at the BDE-DIV level, initial planning in 30 days prior to deployment and during the first 10 days – month of deployment, there were cultural-attitudinal issues at play in all of this as well. General Cosgrove did have great empathy for logistics units and his talks to the troops were critical for morale. This led to diggers tearing up at his talks and naming the local airport dog in his honour. Other senior Arms Corps Officers never really got the problem or understood what the extremely stressed small logistic unit was going through.


  2. Thanks Liz, I can certainly verify that the plan was to saturate Dili with as many ‘combat’ forces as soon as possible and to accept austerity in terms of logistics. In many ways it was easier to deploy these forces first as the supply chain caught up with the operation; the ‘log-jam’ in Darwin becoming so bad that conflicting priorities resulted periods where terminal and movements staff had to make determinations on what moved forward on the basis of the loose priorities at play. As a movements planner at the time, I can also verify that deployment schedules were all staff via HQINTERFET, and often Cosgrove directly, who was often frustrated at the often quoting of his name to bump cargo and personnel up the prioritisation list. While interesting, what was encountered during this operation reflects a friction in logistics all to common in the deployments of militaries of all persuasions. Dave Beaumont.


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