What an operation twenty years ago can tell us about preparedness now – lessons from INTERFET in 1999

By David Beaumont.

The Australian Defence Force (ADF) went to East Timor in 1999 armed with luck and sustained by the outstanding initiative and resolve of its personnel. The logistics system, in contrast, was cobbled together from the remnants of twenty-five years of unceasing organisational change. It is difficult to avoid the feeling that the successful outcome of the International Forces East Timor (INTERFET) operation was achieved despite the state of logistics in the ADF, not because of it.

The ADF lacked the logistics resources, organic or those from civilian or international sources, to fulfil the requirements of a realistic approach to preparedness prior to the operation. Its joint command and control mechanisms were in their infancy, and the ADF’s strategic logistics and acquisition organisations were in the throes of major upheaval. The ADF had smart people, well-intentioned leaders both military and civilian, and was supported as best as possible from a Department that grappled with a complex and complicated mix of national circumstances in preceding years.

The ADF’s preparedness prior to this operation has been scrutinised through reports and analysis, at levels range from tactical to committees of Government. The lessons learned, or still waiting a resolution, have either morphed into what is thought to be daily business for Defence. We are fortunate in that an Official History of the INTERFET operation is being written. Similarly, the occasional articles such as Brigadier (retd) Mick Kehoe’s series at Logistics In War, remind us that there are pertinent personal stories from the past that remain eternally relevant to the soldier, sailor or airman. It’s always a good time to reflect upon messages from the past.

This article will describe the impact of strategic resourcing and logistics problems on operations. It will give a general sense of the traps the ADF and others fell into prior to leading this important coalition force. The problems of the ADF deployment in East Timor were not only because of the characteristic confusion caused by an unforeseen operation. Many preparedness problems had their origins in a long line of innocuous decisions made for the best of reasons. These had significant second-order consequences. A few will be outlined here.

Policy and concepts are important, but economics (and money) is everything

The hollowness and general inadequacy of the ADF’s logistics support was not a result of any strategy concept or policy including the ‘defence of Australia’ concept outlined in the policy document ‘Defence of Australia 1987’. Any operation defending the Australian north-west demanded was a difficult logistics enterprise, as highlighted by exercises such as the long-standing ‘Kangaroo’ series. A lack of logistics preparedness was a consequence of national economics, fifteen years of financial pressures on Defence, and a paradigm of Governmental outsourcing of functions considered enablers to combat forces.

From the moment that the strategic policy paper ‘Defence of Australia 1987’ (DOA) was published, the Australian defence budget began to tighten and senior decision makers in Defence had to compromise the strategic concept they were promoting. Four years after the document was aired, Australia was in the worst recession since the Great Depression and any chance that the funding ambitions to realise an ADF capability of delivering what DOA advocated were dashed.

Defence was compelled by Government to cut its costs. 1991, a year in which Recession was declared by Government, was a fateful one. It was the first year since the White Paper’s release that the ADF’s force structure was examined in detail. All planners in the review knew the commercialisation of Defence’s organic logistics and support agencies had to be accelerated to lower annual Defence costs. The report ‘Defence and the Community’ by former Secretary Alan Wrigley (Wrigley Report) advocated greater use of national industry for Defence needs, with a subsequent Inter-Departmental Committee (IDC) agreeing.

The 1991 Force Structure Review and the accompanying outsourcing program known as the ‘Commercial Support Program’, as well as the Howard Government’s 1996 Defence Efficiency Review and 1997 Defence Reform Program, substantially cut the logistics capabilities of the three Services. An assumption in all cases had been made that industry would – without any coherent prompts from Government or Defence – fill any short-notice operational needs. But there was another reason that the ADF’s logistics capabilities were in a parlous state by 1999.

East Timor - airfield.jpg

Beware paying for future capability with present-day preparedness

The cuts made to logistics capabilities had been a part of a long-term trend that had become unstoppable. Substantial components of the ADF’s organic logistics capability that existed well within the national support base operating messes and canteens, bases, supply depots, distribution services and numerous other functions had been systematically reviewed, assessed and outsourced. There was a belief, at the time, that though these services could be legitimately outsourced the depth of the logistics capability within the ADF would suffer as a consequence.

Defence leaders, however, had little choice other than to support these initiatives. Despite the intense funding pressures, ADF combat capabilities had to be modernised out of a period of ‘block obsolescence’. From ANZAC-class frigates to combat aircraft to Protected Mobility Vehicles (PMV); capabilities essential for the ADF’s combat capacity were being acquired and funds to these programs had to be protected. The size of the combat force had to be preserved as best as it could, though even these elements of the three Services couldn’t escape a portion of the personnel cuts.

Government and Defence broke one of John Collins principles of preparedness by failing to ensure present and future preparedness were in proper balance. The ‘consumption’ of the ADF’s enablers to fund long-term capability objectives would inhibit the ADF’s ability to respond to the unforeseen. But there were other areas of concern. One prominent issue related to the inadequate stockholdings of materiel and supplies for contingencies. After twenty years of trying, the ADF did not have an adequate supply of stores, equipment and vital consumables such as ammunition immediately prior to East Timor.

Paul Dibb, as a Deputy Secretary, could not entice the Services to spend their funds on adequate stockholdings in the early 1990’s to support the strategic concept he advocated prior to DOA87. Nor could successive Assistant Chief of Defence Force – Logistics (ACLOG), the then ‘strategic J4’, do the same afterwards despite policies and preparedness plans being created. Strikingly, these were exceptionally capable individuals; Major-General John Grey served as ACLOG during the 1991 force structure review and was promoted immediately afterwards to Chief of the General Staff.

The ADF, as part of Defence, ended up taking steps in the opposite direction by implementing a policy of ‘direct unit funding’. This approach to supply entailed unit commanders procure commonly available items from local civilian sources (i.e. hardware stores etc.). The concept sounded logical when conceived, and it reduced the need for units to hold stocks. It also reduced the need for costly deep storage. As forces consolidated in Darwin in 1999 these advantages were soon forgotten.

Units concentrated with inadequate stocks to sustain the operations planned for them in East Timor, and commercial supplies in Darwin were unavailable in the quantities required for a force that eventually exceeded 10000 personnel. Procurement of essentials was eventually transferred to Sydney, where the operational supply-chain eventually began. Thus, a decision made to reduce Defence costs had created a preparedness liability and required correction at the time the supply-chain should have been functioning effectively.

East Timor - Hospital.jpg

Effective logistics control requires organisational stability

The timing of peacekeeping operation into East Timor could not have been worse for Defence. As described earlier, the preceding fifteen years were organisationally tumultuous. As if the manipulations of the ADF’s logistics echelons wasn’t enough, the constant shifting of accountabilities and authorities with Defence magnified the uncertainty.

Since the Sanderson Review of 1989, the ADF had gained and lost a two-star ‘Assistant Chief of Defence Force Logistics’, replaced it with a two-star National Support Division to steward the ADF – national support base relationship, and created a two-star ‘Support Command Australia’ and ‘Joint Logistics Command’ out of Service Logistics Commands. With the size of the ADF decreasing, similar levels of turbulence were also seen within the Services and elsewhere in the Department of Defence. Operational-level command was less than a decade old, and the ADF lacked experience in planning major operations.

The ability of ADF commanders or logisticians to make high-quality decisions about logistics resources, or to coordinate support obtained from industry, international partners or elsewhere in the national support base, had been unintentionally damaged by the time of Operation Warden. Responsibilities for various levels of logistics had yet to be set by practice, command was diffuse, and control over logistics processes was conflicted. This manifested in range of issues during the mounting of the force, emblemised by the chaos witnessed in Darwin.

There was no appointed ‘strategic J4’ for the ADF with the ACLOG position disestablished, and Head National Support Division (HQ NSD) in HQ ADF was appointed as the CDF’s logistics advisor well under the operation was underway. Joint Logistics Command, merely two years old, lacked the proficiency and capacity to support the mounting of the force in Darwin. There was little choice but to rely upon available the single-Service logistics systems (predominantly Army’s Logistics Support Force) and employ ad-hoc arrangements to get by.


Force posture is critically important, but is irrelevant if it is only defined by the forward positioning of troops

Would these problems have been as severe had a greater portion of the force positioned in Northern Australia early? Perhaps, with some important caveats. Established military force posture is an outcome of answering ‘how much time does it take to get the most military ‘power’ to a given point in a given time?’. Forces are positioned in advance of military operations because it eliminates the time otherwise taken by transporting them.

Forward forces alone, however, are not enough. It should be self-evident that access to logistics support, ‘supply-chains’ and maintenance sites also ensure personnel and machines practically useful at the point of need. Industry and national infrastructure must be available, especially in the case of deploying a force. As established above, this was not the case in Darwin in 1999.

The relationship between industry and defence forces are typically focussed upon the acquisition and sustainment of materiel and specific services. This focus reflects, perhaps rightly, the nature of defence funding. However, it is also critical that concepts in which the national support base is ‘leveraged’ to support military operations are discussed.

In 1999, despite twenty years of intellectual investment in concepts for the defence of Australia, despite the establishment of NSD in HQ ADF to develop the plans and policies to marshal ‘national support’ for ADF operations, and despite military exercises, it concerned many at the time that Australia was ill-prepared for a sizable military force in its north let alone ready to project it much further than the shoreline. Risk was accepted from Government to the ADF that Australia would never need to enact policy or test its concepts.

Could defence industry made greater contributions during the East Timor crisis? They were involved at all levels, but as with the ADF, industry partners lacked the capability or capacity that was needed at short notice. Transportation services supported the deployment, telecommunications companies deployed, and a range of businesses offered opportunities to share the burden of military operations alongside the ADF’s logistics forces. The challenge was coordinating these inputs. At the time policy intent was not matched by ADF doctrine about ‘employing civilians in the theatre’ and the arrangements and capacities necessary to make the most of an otherwise health Defence-industry relationship wasn’t there.

East Timor - Streets.jpg


In considering the points this article makes it is important to remember just how unexpected the INTERFET deployment was, and that Defence worked tirelessly to make the operation the success it became. Similarly, it was a time of seemingly incredible difficulty for senior leaders in the ADF and elsewhere who had to make fundamental force structure and preparedness decisions, fully aware that no one could adequately advise them on the operational costs of their decisions.

This article is therefore not to criticise but to critique; to look to history to determine how best military leaders and civilian officials can best posture the military when the nature of future operations is unknown. It is an example which reminds them of the importance of every decision they make as the second-order consequences may have ramifications well beyond the considered strategic horizon.

The INTERFET deployment is a potent reminder of the intrinsic link between logistics and overall preparedness. Twenty years have passed since the operation and many of the problems have been addressed by the ADF and others across the national security community. A period of consistent operational commitments since INTERFET has created an experienced defence force that should be able to avoid a recurrence of the severe problems in preparedness experienced in 1999.

However, as operations are unique, we really can’t be too sure that the future ADF will avoid the problems which afflicted INTERFET. What is important that the ADF, and those that support it, now look for warning signs in preparedness that emerge from time to time. Risk acceptance is expected in defence planning, and it is impossible to prepare for every conceivable military circumstance.

The best option is to have a logistics process that can adapt quickly and effectively. For the ADF in 1999, this was not the case. Only time will tell if it is now.

The thoughts are those of the author alone.

The ‘So What’ of my experiences in East Timor – Reflections on East Timor by a Logistics Unit Commander Part 4

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, Two here and Three here.


There is probably no ‘eureka’ moment or significantly controversial recommendation as a consequence of my experiences in East Timor. Rather, I think I can only reinforce the views or intuitive thoughts of the reader. What follows is hopefully a small number of take-aways for future leaders thrown into a military contingency for which they are unprepared for.

You will never be fully prepared; the trick is to be better prepared than the adversary. From a supply chain perspective, the ADF will never be fully prepared to launch into a short-notice, major operation the size of the East Timor deployment. However, that doesn’t mean that leaders at every level should not strive to squeeze every ounce of preparedness out of the organization. Australia will always be in a state of competition with a number of countries; this is the nature of the international system. Competition can quickly morph into conflict or war through miscalculation or malicious intent. If you think this view pessimistic, you are not a student of history. As an ADF, we will go to the next fight with the force we have, not the force we’d like. Despite that, logisticians at every level must never rest in pushing to have the force as fully prepared as possible. This drive must be led, and visibly led, by CJLOG but a key message in that drive is that logistics is a command responsibility, not just a logisticians responsibility.

Don’t be fooled by Readiness Notice. The start of any operation has always been characterized by confusion about the strategic end-state, Clausewitzian friction, excessive secrecy and compartmentalization, stove-pipe planning and an expectation that forces will be moving immediately once a political decision is made. It was the case for LTCOL Lou Brumfield when he deployed the 1 RAR Battalion Group to South Vietnam in 1965 and for LTCOL David Hurley and the 1 RAR Battalion Group deploying to Somalia in the early 1990s. Official and unit histories comment on preparation being hampered by compartmented planning, reduced readiness, and problems with the supply system, both stock availability and responsiveness. It was the same for the Australian forces deploying to East Timor in September 1999, and when you’re ‘first in’ it will always be the case. To mitigate some of the inevitable difficulties, Commanders at every level need to engender a mindset of individual and unit readiness quite separate to official readiness. A useful question for every Troop, Squadron and Battalion Commander to ask his subordinates: ‘Are there any standing impediments that would prevent you going home from work today, picking up your field equipment and echelon bag, and deploying tomorrow?’ A similar question can be applied to organisations. ‘If I was tasked to deploy my (insert organisation) tomorrow, what equipment and non-combat supplies do I lack?’ The Commander must then strive to do something about the issues identified as a result of those questions.

Talking doctrine may seem dull but it’s vital. The Army does not devote sufficient effort and priority to what should be seen as our body of knowledge on how Army intends to operate. Doctrine establishes a common frame of reference including tools (physical and intellectual) that leaders can use to frame and solve problems. We need a balance of principles and tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP’s). Doctrine is not always prescriptive but it is authoritative and a start point in addressing issues, particularly the design of individual and collective training. The principles, anchored in real case studies for context, should foster proactive leadership and initiative. TTPs are essential for logisticians who, due to the reality of peacetime constraints, rarely get to practice the full range of their skills. If we’re not prepared to post the right people to these important doctrine appointments then we need to find another way.

Logistics staff capacity needs to be addressed.   The capacity of the logistic planning staff in the Deployable Joint Force Headquarters and Brigade headquarters needs to be increased. Logistics staff in these headquarters cannot both contribute to operations planning, and simultaneously conduct the breadth of logistic planning required with their current manning levels. I saw smart, professional and hard-working officers simply swamped by the size and tempo of the planning task and lack of capacity in their respective staff areas.

Training.   I am less confident about recommending changes to training given a decade has passed since I transferred from the ARA.   Somehow, we must find a way to educate and train our people in theatre level general support tasks that are rarely practiced in times of peace. The ones that come to mind are:

  • Air and Sea ‘Point of Disembarkation’ operations:
    • Personnel reception and staging.
    • Transit area operations.
    • Bulk handling.
  • Force supply planning.
  • Force supply operations.
    • Fresh rations receipt, bulk break and distribution.
    • Bulk aviation and ground fuel operations including fuel quality testing
    • Theatre level receipt storage issue, testing and EOD.
  • Supply chain management incorporating Joint Operations District.
  • Personnel Services including postal, cash office, amenities, personnel tracking (into and within theatre).
  • Cost-capture.
  • Mortuary Affairs.
  • Logistics Over the Shore.

A combination of simulation and regular exercising of these capabilities is the answer but the key challenge is for commanders to make this a priority. And this is more than the biennial Exercise Talisman Sabre.

Recognition. The honours, awards and commendation system has been reviewed since 1999. However I’m not convinced that some of the constraints around awards in warlike operations have been adequately resolved. It was difficult with the guidance I was operating under in 1999 to adequately recognize the officer or soldier who achieved a satisfactory result, but did so in spite of the circumstances not because of them. I’m referring to inadequately trained people, a lack of appropriate tools and systems, competing priorities and unreasonable time demands. Clausewitz again comes to mind: ‘Just as the simplest and most natural of movements, walking, cannot easily be performed in water, so in war it is difficult for normal efforts to achieve even moderate results.’[1] A number of my subordinate commanders did an outstanding job in achieving what they did but that doesn’t read well in a draft citation. I suspect this will always be a challenge for the future commander.



The relevance of these reflections of an operation now two decades ago depends largely on the circumstances of the reader. As a story for a story’s sake it is of no value. However, there is the potential for these words to contribute, in some small way, to contemporary discussion, debate and thinking in the areas of logistics and leadership.

Sixty years ago, Rear Admiral (Retd) Harry Eccles observed:

In war, mistakes are normal; errors are usual; information is seldom complete, often inaccurate, and frequently misleading. Success is won, not by personnel and materiel in prime condition, but by the debris of an organization worn by the strain of campaign and shaken by the shock of battle.

The objective is attained, in war, under conditions which often impose extreme disadvantages. It is in the light of these facts that the commander expects to shape his course during the supervision of the planned action.[2]

I can identify with some of this however the ADF could not use the excuse of ‘the strain of campaign and shock of battle’. As the ANAO audit somewhat timidly observed, the structures, systems and processes were not up to it.

Every operation has challenges and I don’t pretend to claim my experience was more difficult than others, but it was my experience. I formed a view, reinforced when I was Commander 17 Brigade, that the initial phase of any operation was the most fraught, and will always be the case. Hopefully, the commanders and staff officers of the future will ensure they are as well prepared as possible for the next contingency and if this paper provides some help in that regard, I will be well satisfied.

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] Carl von Clausewitz, ‘On War’, ed. and translated Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton University Press, 1976, p.120.

[2] Eccles, H.E, ‘Logistics in the National Defence’, Stackpole & Co, USA, 1959

Planning to sustain the force – Reflections on East Timor by a Logistics Unit Commander Part Two

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. 


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.

Staff Capacity

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.

3 CER building a bridge near Maliana

Individual Readiness

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.


Reflections on East Timor by a logistics unit commander – twenty years on

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[1], 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.

My decision to write something on this topic was prompted by two factors. First, it’s important to learn lessons not only from your own experience but also the experiences of others. This is especially important in the profession of arms as, thankfully, we are not ‘in the fight’ or the same fight, all the time. If we can avoid mistakes by learning from the experience of others, we have a better chance of prevailing when called upon. Second, in the business of the profession of arms, writing ‘places our personal analysis of our unique profession in public view. When writing, our ideas, thoughts and statements are open for debate, criticism and often enhancement by other military and non-military professionals. This…in small measures, contributes to contemporary military discussions and thinking.’[2]

What will follow is not a theoretical exposition, nor a comprehensive evaluation of the mission on which I was involved. It is, as the title suggests, some reflections of my experience as Commanding Officer 10th Force Support Battalion (10 FSB) during those tumultuous months in 1999-2000 and some thoughts on the ‘So what?’ question. I would add two additional qualifications:

My professional library, East Timor-era notebooks and other primary source materials are currently in storage in Canberra. If you feel I am wrong in any recollection of an issue or event, you may be right. I recall Sir Michael Howard commenting that for his first military history project, he chose to research and write the history of his Regiment during a period when he knew almost all the characters and had been involved in most of the Regiment’s key engagements during WWII. Ironically, he found this work the most difficult and he was often amazed by what he thought he knew but didn’t, and the stark differences in opinions about what happened, even among eye-witnesses. Consequently, I’ll simply say that while I cannot hope to tell the whole truth, I have endeavoured to tell nothing but the truth.

I also acknowledge that like everything to do with the character of war, the planning and execution of operations have evolved and will continue to evolve. Issues that bedevilled us 20 years ago may well be solved. Digitization, miniaturization, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, robotics and the integration of these are just some of the known developments that might solve these issues.

I know of at least one talented officer with whom I deployed 20 years ago, doing outstanding work in the area of logistics information and other management systems. I’d be delighted if he told me that all is under control, however notwithstanding technical advances, adversaries have a way of adapting. A deployed force, particularly in the land domain, will always require smart, responsive and hardened combat service support delivered by soldiers who can crew weapon systems and fight; not just in self-defence but with the ability to manoeuvre and deliver effects as part of a wider mission.

The ADF’s inability to learn lessons from planning and executing logistics support to operations in the 1990s is well documented.[3] While these deployments were small in comparison to East Timor, most of the problems that arose with INTERFET had surfaced in some way during previous ADF deployments to Somalia (1993) and Bougainville (1997-2002) and there was ample opportunity for an appropriate lessons learned process to be applied. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen and it is a matter of public record that ‘when the East Timor crisis developed, Defence’s logistic structures, systems and processes did not prove suitable to support the military deployment. It is my aim to provide you with a few observations and experiences as to why this was the case.


How we prepared


Doctrine should be our professional body of knowledge and the foundation for the three pillars of professional learning: formal individual education and training; collective training; and self-development. LTGEN John Coates[1] once said, ‘essentially doctrine is method…if doctrine is uncertain, how does an Army train and for what?’

Logistics doctrine in the late 1990s was poor and reflected the flawed thinking of the Defence of Australia dogma and was not a sound, coherent body of professional knowledge. I recall the relevant Military Land Warfare ‘Logistics’ volume had diagrams with lines of communication represented by broad arrows connecting the industrial heartland of Australia’s south to joint force areas of operation in the north of Australia.

These arrows swept smoothly, seamlessly and inexorably from ubiquitous ‘Log Units’ via multiple modes of transport across boundaries, through Points of Entry to tactical level formations and units. It all seemed, in a diagrammatic sense, wonderfully simple. I don’t recall off-shore scenarios, nor any significant discussion of information management systems for supply chain visibility, or for managing and tracking personnel into and out of the theatre; both were significant issues during the INTERFET deployment.

I’ve always liked the UK analogy of doctrine being like a handrail to guide your way. Thirty years in uniform and another decade working in the professional military education space has reinforced for me the value of sound, well-written doctrine and the absolute danger of doctrine which is out of date, plagiarized without thought from another country, turgid in its flow and poorly expressed. Some US doctrine may as well be written in a foreign language. Doctrine needs to be written in plain English, neither overly prescriptive or too abstract.

The old debate about what we want from doctrine ─ broad conceptual guidance or detailed procedures ─ was supposed to be addressed with a tiered approach where ‘procedural’ doctrine was to be covered by Land Warfare Procedures providing tactical-level details and fundamental skill-sets in a clear context, for the execution of tasks down to the lowest levels. But that had not been implemented fully by 1999 and particularly in Supply Support, there was a dearth of appropriate doctrine on which to anchor training.

Following the introduction of the Standard Defence Supply System (SDSS) – a contemporary logistics information system – we were effectively asleep at the wheel regarding the science and practice of provisioning, and there was no acknowledgement of the challenges of asset visibility in a complex supply chain which experience from the 1990s had shown we were not capable of controlling.

Logistic Preparedness

The ANAO report concluded our logistics systems were not prepared to support the operation undertaken. Nor was 10 FSB and, as Commanding Officer, I bear full responsibility.   There were no excuses but there were reasons. In 1999 the role of 10 FSB was to provide third line or General Support to a nominated dependency within an area of operations. When the unit was raised in 1998, the waters were muddied by its dual role as a fourth line logistic support unit in the North Queensland region for Support Command-Australia. Unfortunately, in the supply support capabilities of the unit, there was lack of clarity as to what was deployable and what was not.

The non-combat supplies organisation was ‘Equipment Company’, a predominantly non-deployable element focused primarily on their Support Command task with a significant number of civilian storemen. Additionally, the management of Classes 1, 3 and 5 was done by ‘Combat Supplies Company’ which included barracks responsibilities for the North Queensland-based dependency units. This sub-unit also included a number of civilian APS employees but nothing clearly indicated how we might manage the ‘worst case’ – 10 FSB deployed on operations and a significant proportion of the peacetime dependency remaining in North Queensland, or if deployed, other units replacing them in North Queensland. These Support Command-Australia tasks provided useful technical training opportunities but had a transactional, junior rank emphasis rather than a deeper, supply planning focus.

This dual role was not news to anyone and had been the situation since the 2nd Field Supply Battalion was raised in Townsville in the 1980s. A former CO of that Battalion said to me later when reflecting on these difficulties, ‘senior people just could not envisage an East Timor-type scenario where Australia would carry such a substantial load for logistics support.’

I was fortunate to work for a Commander Logistics Support Force (LSF) – Brigadier Jeff Wilkinson – who ‘got it’ and gave me clear direction on priorities and importantly, top cover. In the first few months of my tenure, I deployed the Battalion, including BHQ, to the field and this shook out cobwebs and allowed new sub-unit commanders to identify and iron out the basic wrinkles. Shortly afterwards, I recall a rather tense visit to the unit by the Support Commander – then Major General Des Mueller –  who left me in no doubt that in the area of fourth line logistic support, 10 FSB was ‘the worst performing business unit’ when viewed through Support Command metrics.

In the first few months of my tenure I decided to put up my hand for an Army establishment review that might bring resolution to these issues. This was a dangerous course of action as the 1990s was replete with horror stories of a ‘razor gang’ approach by Army Headquarters Establishment Review teams and I was well aware that a possible outcome may be a reduction in uniformed positions and no resolution to the fundamental problem.

As it turned out, the East Timor deployment and the subsequent decision to raise the Joint Logistic Unit – North Queensland largely resolved the issue.

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.


[1] I always saw myself as a Combat Service Support officer rather than a logistician and believe the differences are significant. However, for simplicity I’ll use the term logistics.

[2] Chris Field, ‘Two Reasons Military Professionals Must Write’, The Cove, 10 April 2018, available at <https://www.cove.org.au/unit-pme/article-two-reasons-military-professionals-must-write-education-humility/>, accessed 20 May 2019.

[3] I direct those interested to the work of Colonel (Retd) Dr Bob Breen who continues to be a great friend of the ADF in his capacity as a scholar.

[4] Australian National Audit Office report, Management of Australian Defence Force Deployments to East Timor, 20 March 2002.