By Brigadier Michael Kehoe (Retd).
“In the two decades since the Australian deployment to East Timor as part of the International Force East Timor (INTERFET), much has been written about the operation predominantly from the national and military strategic perspectives. This focus is not surprising given Australia’s decision to act decisively in the immediate neighbourhood in a leadership role, and the nature and scale of the intervention, remains unparalleled since Federation. At the operational and tactical level, East Timor may not be a great case study for combat arms officers however for the logistician, there are lessons to be learned at every level from the Commander Joint Logistics down to the private soldier. As the operation recedes into history, we need to ensure the key lessons identified do not also fade.”
Editor’s note – this article continues with the experiences of the then Commanding Officer, 10th Force Support Battalion (10 FSB), deploying to East Timor (now Timor Leste) as part of the INTERFET operation.
Provisioning the force
Supplying any force requires an understanding of ‘provisioning’ and ‘stockholding’. To say these were done poorly is an understatement. At the tactical level, effective supply support results from the provision of appropriate in-service items of supply necessary for the identified force to conduct the operation. Without getting into too much detail, the logistic planners require crucial information from the Joint Military Appreciation Process including a dependency and anticipated rates of effort from which usage rates are derived. From this point, logistic planners can assess stockholding levels and locations, transport assets required and warehousing infrastructure needs.
Obviously there’s a symbiotic relationship. Logistics both enables and constrains the operational plan but the key is that operations and logistic planning must be synchronized at every level. ‘Surprise’ is a great principle of war but is not a good principle of planning. Suffice to say that 10 FSB, my unit, had none of the essential information ingredients to plan and build the logistics information systems infrastructure to enable the appropriate third line supply support to the force. In that crucial pre-deployment time, other than HQ INTERFET and 3 Bde (-), we really had no visibility of the force dependency.
As the combined Australian and coalition force built up, force elements just got swept up, included in our growing list of dependencies and the operation rolled remorselessly on. Of course we expect our people to be flexible, to ‘improvise, adapt and overcome’, and they did this magnificently. However people are part of a wider logistic system that could not react in the quick time-frame wanted. Criticism that 10 FSB took the wrong provisioning information into theatre is misguided. Any District we took would have been wrong given the lack of key information. We built the plane in flight with predicable outcomes.
When addressing supply, I must mention the Operational Viability Period (OVP) concept. The OVP ‘…is the period immediately following deployment during which forces must maintain self-sufficiency until the logistic resupply system is in place to conduct replenishment.’ This system requires a layered approach meaning each level (section, sub-unit, unit, formation, force) carries with it a degree of inherent sustainability. This allows supply elements and units appropriate time to stop their support in one location, pack up, relocate, set-up and recommence support.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work in the initial deployment phase. I recall one unit submitted over 300 high-priority demands in the 14 day period before they deployed, all for items they arguably should have held at unit level. The supply system was swamped with high-priority demands for every item imaginable, both in-service and those requiring procurement action, and the demands kept coming during and after units deployed. Combat units particularly had fallen into a very austere mindset exacerbated by short exercises where soldiers and unit-level Q staff were able to be self-sufficient for the duration. Additionally, no logistics units held stock remotely near the requirement. In many cases, this resulted from deliberate decisions by Fleet Managers seeking to manage peace-time budgets; an unenviable task I acknowledge.
Ten years before the INTERFET operation, Army had considerable deployable logistic staff capacity and capability. The Commanders in the headquarters of Divisional Transport, Supply and Electrical and Mechanical Engineering were both commanders in their own right and staff officers, known as ‘Advisers’, for the Divisional Headquarters. Their staff crunched the numbers and came up with the Distribution Plan, the Supply Plan, Repair and Recovery Plan and so on for the next operation or phase of the campaign. These plans were issued as Orders or Annexes to Orders and importantly, were issued under the authority invested by the Divisional Commander. For example, Commander Divisional Transport had the authority, responsibility and resources to plan, direct and execute the Distribution Plan on behalf of the Divisional Commander.
When these units were disestablished to form Brigade Administrative Support Battalions in the 1990s, the staffs at the brigade headquarters were not increased to off-set the elimination of that capacity. Army now lacked a considerable logistics planning capacity, replaced with units designed to only perform in accordance with higher direction from the Brigade planning process and subsequent orders. This has a significant impact on the ability of headquarters to plan logistics operations.
Fast forward to 1999. We had a particularly lean Division Headquarters with a Personnel / Logistics branch (J1/4 branch) trying to contribute to the operations planning process, conduct parallel logistic planning for the combined joint task force of an unknown size and composition, and get itself in a position to deploy. At the same time, a Force Logistic Support Group headquarters (HQFLSG) was pulled together from across the ADF, but this had no experience as a team, no SOPs, equipment or establishment and also had to get themselves to East Timor and into the fight.
Not surprisingly, the deployed logistics system (in the broadest sense of the term) lived hand-to-mouth for about the first two months. Ultimately, the in-theatre support arrangements that had developed in the first couple of months were formalized by the operations staff at HQFLSG and a range of orders were issued under the authority of Commander FLSG in his capacity as Joint Logistics Component Commander.
In the lead up to the deployment, I was heartened by the professional approach taken by the soldiers. In deploying the unit we crashed through readiness notice and in many cases worked around the clock to get ready for a deployment of which the nature, dependency and duration were largely unknown. To borrow liberally but not literally from Donald Rumsfeld, ‘You go to war when you’re told, not in accordance with your readiness notice.’
As I moved around the unit and spoke to sub-units and platoons and spoke about the expected duration of our deployment, I told them to plan on nine months and I could tell a number of soldiers swallowed hard at my estimate. Privately I felt it would be less than that for most, but I wanted to get people in the right mindset. This would not be like a month-long exercise in the local training area.
I recall one reassuring example of a young NCO who was either a single mother or her husband was in another high readiness unit; I now don’t recall. Her response, relayed to me through her sub-unit commander was gold. ‘That’s fine Sir. I just need a couple of days to fly my kids to Adelaide, settle them in with my mother and I’ll be back and good to go’.
Why did 10 FSB deploy, and 9 FSB supoport Darwin operations?
I was recently asked my view on the decision to send my unit to Dili and the 9th Force Support Battalion (9FSB) to Darwin. 9 FSB was a partner battalion within the Logistics Support Force (now the 17th Sustainment Brigade), with both battalions supporting land forces in the main. I was surprised by the question; at no stage during the lead up or during the deployment had anyone sought my opinion. To me, it was self-evident and my boss – Brigadier Jeff Wilkinson – got it right. Some flesh on the bones of this comment:
During the INTERFET operation, both units anchored the supply ‘bridge’ between Darwin and the area of operations. Key tasks for both units were mainly but not exclusively supply chain management tasks. Ideally, joint, strategic, Support Command elements including a Joint Logistics Unit in Darwin should have anchored the Australian end of the bridge with augmentation from elsewhere in Support Command (uniform, APS or hire-assets). However, this Command was newly formed an ill-prepared for the task of supporting the mounting of the force. In the absence of that, some other organisation needed to.
Although a joint operation, RAN had no suitable organisation and although RAAF had the Combat Support Group, whether Air Force would have been capable or interested in doing the job was doubtful; whether the question was ever put to them I don’t know. Ultimately, I suspect Commander LSF as the appointed theatre ‘Logistics Component Commander’ knew he had to find a solution from within the assets he controlled.
At the time, 9 FSB was structured similarly to the 9 Transport Regiment. It lack no capacity to supply beyond its own needs and lacked certain capabilities normally associated with third line support. 10 FSB, on the other hand, had under command a:
- Combat Supply Coy (for rations and water, fuel and ammunition);
- Supply Coy (other commodities);
- Local Purchase capability;
- Water Transport and Terminal Squadronincluding an Amphibious Beach Team;
- Postal Unit;
- Third line Workshop Platoon that knew the 3 Bde dependency (and to my recollection, the only third line workshop element in the Army); and
- Battalion HQ that had a habitual relationship with 3 Bde.
These comments are not a criticism of 9 FSB. The battalion did sterling work in Darwin, having deployed there at short notice, eventually replacing 10 FSB in Dili in late February 2000 with little respite in between. What Army really needed was Support Command to step up and own the ‘Darwin problem’. It would be a few years yet before the joint force could support a force as large as INTERFET became.
Brigadier Kehoe’s experiences will continue over coming articles at Logistics in War.
Brigadier Michael (Mick) Kehoe served in a wide range of Australian Army and Joint appointments throughout his long and distinguished career. He is currently advising the UAE defence force professional military education program.
Images from Department of Defence.