| The Cove
CANBERRA - Stepping out of my LandCruiser and stretching my legs after a long, bumpy drive up the Highlands Highway, I surveyed the misty town of Mendi, provincial capital of Southern Highlands Province.
It was early 2015 and I was on my first of many adventures during my two year secondment to the Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF) Engineer Battalion, accompanying my PNGDF boss to a meeting with Chinese state-owned engineering group, COVEC.
COVEC had recently been awarded the contract for a large road reconstruction project, and the Engineer Battalion had been deployed to the province to provide local security to the COVEC workers.
Our mission was to review and update the extant memorandum of understanding between the two organisations.
We had stopped briefly in the middle of town between a petrol station and a buai (betel nut) market. My PNGDF comrades were refuelling cars and refilling bilums while I shivered on the street, mentally kicking myself for not bringing a jumper to a town at 1,620 metres above sea level.
My train of thought was interrupted by a gentle tug at my DPCU sleeve. A man of about 60 years politely introduced himself, and asked me “Wen bai yupela kam bek gen?” (When are you coming back again?).
Seeing my puzzled expression, he gestured towards a dilapidated government building and explained, “Australian Army engineers used to work there. The roads used to be so nice. When are you coming back again?”
The man was referring to 12th Chief Engineer Works (12 CE Wks), a small unit of the Royal Australian Engineers based in Mendi from 1970 until 1999. 12 CE Wks consisted of Royal Australian Engineers and support personnel – usually accompanied by their families – and locally employed Papua New Guinean staff.
For decades, this unit was responsible for vital infrastructure projects throughout the province including the construction of roads, government buildings and schools.
The man told me of the tremendous impact 12 CE Wks had had on the community, and the hopeful expression on his face told me that his question wasn’t a rhetorical one.
We chatted for few moments before I excused myself, saying something that I hoped sounded reassuring but was no doubt weak and non-committal. As we continued on our way to COVEC’s sprawling compound, we hit the road reconstruction project and were stopped by a traffic controller.
The sight of Chinese nationals and locally employed staff busily excavating, rolling and compacting the road together was a stark contrast with a not-too-distant past.
The vacuum left by the ADF’s departure from the province had not taken long to fill. As I waited for the “go” sign, I wondered whether the ADF’s commitment to our closest neighbour was enough?
The Department of Defence recently released its 2020 Defence Strategic Update in response to significant changes to the strategic environment since the 2016 Defence White Paper.
The government is adjusting defence policy, capability and force structure to ensure Australia is able to shape our environment, deter actions against our interests and respond with military force when required.
According to the Strategic Update, Defence planning will focus on our immediate region. Papua New Guinea is specifically mentioned five times throughout the document, while the rest of its Pacific neighbours are captured under the sweeping ‘South West Pacific’ umbrella term; a clear indication of where Papua New Guinea sits on the spectrum of strategic importance.
Despite being our largest Defence Cooperation Program, the ADF’s current permanent footprint in Papua New Guinea is not reflective of its strategic importance. DCP-PNG is a diverse and capable team of 40 Army, Navy, Air Force and Department of Defence personnel.
They do an excellent job at building relationships, developing intimate cultural awareness and mentoring and enabling the PNGDF, often under incredibly austere conditions.
But they are spread thin, usually with only one or two mentors per PNGDF unit or headquarters. Moreover, the top heavy officer and senior non-commissioned officer structure limits their ability to mentor and shape the more junior ranks within the PNGDF.
Army somewhat mitigates these mentoring gaps through the 3rd Brigade’s Olgeta Warrior series, which sees Mobile Training Teams deliver essential technical training to PNGDF units throughout the calendar year, culminating in several major partnered exercises between PNGDF and 3rd Brigade units.
The Olgeta Warrior series is Army’s most expansive annual international engagement activity, and participants from both sides of the Torres Strait come away from it with excellent experiences. But it has its limitations.
The short duration activities (typically between six weeks and three months) make it difficult to develop a working understanding of the country, let alone establish enduring relationships. Further, the international border closures as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted just how tenuous our Fly in – Fly out (FIFO) model of mentoring really is.
Nothing beats boots on the ground. There is no more effective organisation than the 40 men and women of DCP-PNG for furthering the PNGDF-ADF relationship and shaping the strategic environment. Imagine how much more effective 400 personnel would be?
Assuming the relationship between boots on the ground and mentoring and shaping effectiveness is positive and linear, infinite ADF personnel posted to Papua New Guinea will lead to Strategic Environment Utopia.
Of course, there isn’t an infinite pool of ADF personnel to post to Papua New Guinea; taking into account financial constraints, establishment caps and competing domestic priorities, there is a realistic sweet spot or point of maximum return which lies at a number much less than infinity, but, I contend, much more than 40.
According to a 1984 report by the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, there were 679 ADF personnel posted to Papua New Guinea at the time of independence in 1975. This number was reduced to 146 by 1983, 58 by 1991 and to less than 30 by 2010.
This downwards trend was due to a post-independence transition plan known as ‘localisation’, which aimed to replace ADF personnel in line positions with appropriately experienced and qualified PNGDF personnel.
This policy was well-intentioned, appropriate for the time, desired by the PNGDF, and no doubt dovetailed neatly with the downsizing of the ADF in the 1990s.
However, the rapid localisation of the PNGDF was not contingent upon any measures of effectiveness, and it was conducted under very different strategic circumstances to those that we face in the region today.
The following excerpt from the 1984 report demonstrates the threat picture that framed past decision making: “The South Pacific is the most stable region in the world. The area is free of super-power rivalry and faces no significant external threats either at present or in the foreseeable future.”
Clearly, the situation has changed. Applying 20th century logic to a 21st century problem is flawed, and has resulted in an overstretched and outgunned team of 40 in a high-stakes race for access and influence.
DCP-PNG’s posted strength has increased by around 10 over the last decade, which is a move in the right direction; however, much more is needed. The Strategic Update declares that continuous transformational reform within Defence is essential to build our capacity to respond to a more uncertain external environment. I offer the following suggestions:
Platoon/Troop sized infantry, engineer and logistic secondments from 3 Brigade units (or the wider Army) to the PNGDF. These personnel and their families would be posted to DCP-PNG for 12-24 month rotations, embedded within the PNGDF Battalions. They would establish deep connections with their PNGDF counterparts at the Private to Lieutenant rank levels, and enhance local access and influence when joined by larger formed bodies on exercise or deployment. The permanent loss of Platoons would affect the capability of the parent unit; however, to argue on this basis alone is akin to being refused items from the Q-store in case they are needed for later. These personnel are needed now.
Relocate a Works Section of technical Royal Australian Engineer personnel from 19th Chief Engineer Works to DCP-PNG, embedded within the PNGDF Directorate of Engineers. This Works Section already exists and is already committed to Papua New Guinea; however, its ability to build relationships and mentor the PNGDF from Randwick Barracks is limited. While Australia can’t match the scale of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, we can add value through partnered, in-country project management of new construction projects and base maintenance programs. Under the current DCP-PNG structure, this responsibility falls almost entirely upon a single Warrant Officer.
Permanent basing of Armidale or Arafura Class Patrol Vessels, their crews, logistics and maintenance support, and their families at Lombrum Naval Base, Manus Island. This would enable continuous partnered PNGDF-ADF patrols in what is a strategically well-positioned area, and would enhance the mentoring effects of the RAN personnel already embedded within the PNGDF Maritime Element. This option would leverage off the significant infrastructure redevelopment and expansion of the base which is currently underway, courtesy of a joint commitment between the Australian, Papua New Guinean and US governments.
These proposed additions to DCP-PNG would boost numbers of permanent ADF personnel from 40 to 150-200, a number more reflective of the ‘stable’ 1980s.
Stability in the PNGDF-ADF relationship is the key to its strength, and a permanent in-country presence offers much more stability than short duration exercises.
If Papua New Guinea is truly as important as the Strategic Update suggests, there is a large gap between what we currently espouse and the actions being taken on the ground.
In his announcement of the Strategic Update, the prime minister stated that we need a new approach to the challenging and changing nature in the Indo-Pacific. It’s time for Defence to take a bold new approach in Papua New Guinea. Taim bilong yumipela i go bek gen.
Major Phillip Hermes commands the 3rd Combat Engineer Regiment. He has served throughout the Pacific on operations, exercises and engineering activities. In 2015-16 he was posted to the PNGDF Engineer Battalion as part of the Defence Cooperation Program