Swinging into action – reflections on East Timor by a logistics Unit Commander Part Three

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.”

 – from Reflections on East Timor by a Logistics Unit Commander – twenty years on 

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. Part One can be found here and Two here.


 

Once we were on the ground and established in Dili the full capability of the unit swung into action. We were augmented with B vehicle transport assets from 9 Force Support Battalion (FSB) and later in the deployment, some additional Unimogs from 1 Combat Services Support Battalion (CSSB). There were many issues that arose to make life difficult, the majority of which I put down to a lack of realistic training for this type of unit[1] and Clausewitzian organizational friction. When we returned to Australia, I tasked an officer (who did not deploy with us) to take our War Diary and write a Command Post Exercise using the Battalion Ops Log to build in the many Lower and Higher Control problems with which unit operations staff would have to deal.

He could not believe the number and nature of small mistakes, errors, misjudgements and wrong assumptions that collectively made even simple tasks difficult. Clausewitz noted that no military unit can be thought of as a single or solitary piece, ‘each part is composed of individuals, every one of whom retains his potential for friction.’ Discussion of these are best left for unit reunions but I will raise three: real-estate allocation, lack of flexibility when it came to regrouping, and recognition. I chose these because I was personally involved in each.

Real-estate

Appropriate sites to deploy in Dili were scarce. I arrived a couple of days after D-Day with a recon group late in the afternoon and the following day set about siting the unit. The Port was ‘vital ground’ given our role but there was neither room nor appropriate facilities for all elements of the unit within the Port area. We ended up scattered around city which made for both C3 and security challenges. What was frustrating at the time was the seemingly haphazard nature of allocation. I was surprised when one site I’d looked at, and confirmed with HQ INTERFET, was subsequently occupied by soldiers from another unit when I returned resulting in a tense and short discussion with the relevant Brigade Commander.

I returned to HQ INTERFET to the officer who had allocated me the site and demanded it be fixed. Needless to say, I lost. For a while I felt I was living my own Melian Dialogue and 10 FSB was the Melians. With the main body of the unit not far behind me, confirmed appropriate locations were essential. We subsequently found another area and this time I embraced my inner Athenian and tasked my MP Platoon Commander to have his soldiers immediately occupy the site and not move until relieved by the incoming sub-unit designated.

The other real-estate friction that arose was the Port. I knew that at some point, we would have to hand over the Port to the UN authority. The Port was going to enable seaborne trade which would be the life-blood of the new nation but in the short-term, it was enabling the life-blood of the INTERFET force. I recall a couple of short (and probably terse) discussions with an officer from the Maritime Component HQ who was seeking to impose a joint doctrinal solution to management of the Port that would see the majority of 10 FSB elements moved out.

I felt he wasn’t seeing the bigger picture and that to move 10 FSB from the Port would rob us of the scarce hard-stand facility needed and require significantly more assets, particularly terminal clearance transport, to manage the flow of supplies coming into the country. I was also annoyed at what I saw as a somewhat high-handed approach by the individual. Ultimately we stayed put but I didn’t win any friends in the Maritime Component. And in retrospect, I could have handled the issue in a more collegiate fashion but as is often the case when people are working hard, under pressure and tired, it’s easier said than done.

Unwillingness to Regroup Assets

A reality of operations, regardless of the type, is the need for the Commander to regroup assets as the operation unfolds, often to optimize the employment of scarce assets. A unit or formation which may have enjoyed the direct support of certain supporting arms or services during one phase, might find those assets redirected elsewhere given the nature or tempo of the next phase.

There was a period relatively early in the deployment when 10 FSB’s lack of B vehicles and drivers was impacting our ability to provide the required support. We had picked up a range of second and third line support tasks for an increasing number of largely coalition forces and I had been told clearly that more vehicles and drivers from Australia would not be forthcoming. My transport sub-unit commander suggested we approach 3 CSSB to see if excess capacity in their Transport Squadron could be utilized by us, under an appropriate C2 arrangement and for a finite time.

There had been unofficial discussion at field-grade officer level and the Squadron Commander was keen to help (I got the sense they were underutilized in their core role). Unfortunately, the absolute refusal by Bde staff to even consider the proposal meant we had to persevere with a range of sub-optimal solutions. I found this lack of flexibility enormously frustrating and contrary to the principles of war.

I admit the problem was exacerbated by my decision to not allow 10 FSB Mack Trucks with trailers to travel east from Dili. I had travelled the road myself and the volume of civilian and military traffic, the lack of a verge or safety barriers, and the tight turns and steepness of the grades led me to conclude a fatal accident would be simply a matter of time. I sought permission to have MPs exercise route control during a window of time, restrict civilian traffic and allow trucks with trailers to travel one-way during this window. The proposal was denied.

I know the drivers of the Transport Troop were disappointed and the Troop Commander made it pretty clear he felt I lacked confidence in his soldiers’ skills and was micro-managing his business. The skill of the military drivers was not my main concern but rather the local civilian vehicles which were invariably poorly driven, grossly overloaded and patently unroadworthy. An accident with a fully laden Mack and trailer combination would have had multiple fatalities   I stuck to my decision and I was pleased to get to the end of the deployment with no 10 FSB vehicles involved in an accident on that difficult stretch of road.

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Docked at Dili Port, Image by Department of Defence

Recognition

While this was an ‘in-theatre’ issue, it is obviously a command and leadership issue rather than logistics but nonetheless an issue worth mentioning. Towards the end of the deployment, the Commanding Officers of the Force Logistics Support Group (FLSG) were asked to nominate appropriate people for recognition through the Honours, Awards and Commendations system. I sought nominations from my subordinates, held a unit Honours and Awards board and went through each nomination carefully. I also personally wrote up a small number of nominations.

Once the dust had settled and the INTERFET force had redeployed to home locations the list was released from Government House. I was delighted to see Corporal Lee-Anne McClenahan from the Terminal Troop had been awarded a Commendation for Distinguished Service. However, she was the only one who was recognized in the formal Honours and Awards list. The other well-deserving officers and soldiers I had nominated missed out. Some were recognized through the Commendation system but others missed out altogether.

The sense that I, as the CO, was unable to carry the argument for my people to achieve appropriate recognition left a bitter aftertaste. There were moments of consolation, particularly when the Australian Active Service Medals arrived in the unit in November 2000 about three weeks before my tenure concluded, and at a unit parade, sub-unit commanders were able to personally present the medals to the soldiers with whom they’d deployed.

In January 2002, the unit was awarded a Meritorious Unit Commendation and later that year a number of veterans no longer posted to the unit, got to Townsville to see the unit presented the award by the CDF, General Peter Cosgrove. I was both proud and humble in equal measure to be part of the group and to be there on the day however a group award in no way negates the case for individual recognition and I remain disappointed that certain key officers and soldiers missed out.


Brigadier Kehoe’s experiences will conclude in a final article shortly.

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.

[1] I have mentioned the issues with the Supply capability. An additional example was the Terminal Troop. Not only had the Terminal capacity been reduced to a Troop in previous years, they had not unloaded a hatched ship in over five years. During the unit’s deployment the soldiers unloaded over 100 such ships.

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