From December 2020 through to March 2021, I was given the privilege of Commanding a Joint Task Element in support of Operation COVID-19 ASSIST. This appointment came to be the highlight of my career. No-one predicted the extent the ADF was tasked, in support of the national response to COVID-19. Yet we move into 2022 with the vast majority of our Defence Force having supported the operation in some form – many supporting it multiple times.
Joint Task Unit Two (JTU 629.2.2) was a patchwork quilt. It was built off a Supply Company Headquarters and bolstered by Soldiers, Senior NCOs, Warrant Officers and Officers of 3rd Combat Service Support Battalion, some of which had already marched out of the unit. Additionally, there was a mix of Navy, Army and Air Force personnel from other units within varying Service Categories. The JTU was tasked with supporting the Victorian Police (VICPOL) in supervising hotel quarantine.
At its largest, the JTU was 220 personnel strong with roughly one third from each Service. More than 400 personnel rotated through the JTU over 3 months which came with a significant reception and training liability. It supported 12 quarantine hotels and assisted in processing more than 16,000 returning international travellers. Due to the pressure placed on each service to provide staff, around one fifth of the contingent were officers. This included a Platoon (or Flight) of Pilot Officers awaiting courses. Brick Commanders varied from senior soldier through to Lieutenant Commander.
There were very few ranks across the ADF that were not assigned to our JTU. We worked under a well-established Joint Task Group Headquarters comprised of a mix of Service Categories, most of which lived in the local area. Three service cultures and a multitude of Service Category differences were now contained in one JTU. This tested the Total Workforce System.
The Unusual Character of Command in a Joint Environment
Due to the COVID environment we were forced to train in small groups when commencing the operation. Information passage was largely via digital means and external safety policies made it difficult to visit the troops while on task. Disaggregation of each of the teams impersonalised the way each leader could command. This hindered the command teams in their ability to supervise and provide governance oversight to junior leaders.
As a Federally controlled asset, the ADF supported a state-controlled entity – VICPOL. VICPOL worked for the State government in support of the newly raised state department COVID Quarantine Victoria. This organisation was based off two pre-existing state departments: the Department of Justice and Community Safety, and the Department of Health and Human Services. This made the environment more complex than an ADF controlled operation.
Service Culture and Joint Culture
We quickly set the conditions for the forming of a joint culture. Our JTU values were set early on as Respect, Responsibility and Reputation. We built our staffing around Service groups to reduce the complexity of the organisation, but due to the constantly changing needs of the operation we had numerous small teams that were joint. To help with achieving a joint culture we encouraged cross-service education. We used a simple yet highly effective icebreaker during our reception training. We asked a sailor who happened to be the only one in the contingent at the time to teach the JTU how to properly roll sleeves. This was a potential requirement for the tasks being conducted. I recalled from my time at HQJOC that there was a right way to roll sleeves. I also knew it would create discussion across services. It was successful and the individual service groups that had naturally formed, homogenised shortly after. We also had to acknowledge that standards across services were different, not better or worse. For Army this is difficult to accept. We created some Joint standards that had previously not been written.
Challenges of Applying Single Service Policy to a Joint Element
Single service policy was one of the greatest difficulties when setting and enforcing joint standards. Single service policies are currently being rolled into ADF policies, but we are only partway through the journey. There are basic examples of differences in policy such as dress and bearing and personal grooming. These are difficult subjects to form joint standpoints on as some are steeped in tradition. Others are purely due to difference in service culture. Some examples included facial hair, wearing of uniform, female hair on operations, and permitted shades of nail polish. Navigating the sometimes important and sometimes trivial issues that arose consumed time that could otherwise be spent on operational effect. But these decisions were important in maintaining a strong joint organisational culture. The JTU was made up of staff from more than 30 individual ADF units. But on operations it was one unit.
There were other highly important matters such as service discipline and incident administration. I found that there was considerable resistance to conducting service discipline within a joint setting. The default was to refer back to the home unit. Regardless, my team investigated and administered a number of service offences and incidents. One interesting example of differences in service policy is the policy on alcohol. MILPERSMAN Part 4 aims to roll single service policy into one. Yet its annexes are single service policies. The administrative actions available to a commander in response to alcohol related incidents differ by service. On this operation it was approved to consume alcohol in a garrison-like setting when off duty. Control measures were put in place to reduce the inherent risk, one of which being random and targeted breath testing.
As an example, if I had three JTU members arriving for a shift with a Breath Alcohol Reading of 0.05 and they were each from different services they would each receive different administrative actions. Below details the recommended administrative actions by service based on how many alcohol related incidents the member has been involved in.
- First Incident – Referral to Alcohol and Other Drug Program Advisor with performance counselling. Note that Navy have their own Alcohol and Other Drugs Service separate to Army and Air Force.
- Second Incident – Notice to Show Cause for Formal Warning or Censure.
- Third Incident – Notice to Show Cause for Rank Reduction or Censure.
- Fourth Incident – Notice to Show Cause for Termination.
- First Incident – Record of Conversation or Notice to Show Cause for Formal Warning.
- Second Incident – Notice to Show Cause for Formal Warning, Censure or Rank Reduction.
- Third Incident – Notice to Show Cause for Termination.
- Commander’s discretion based on severity of incident and number of occurrences.
This makes it extremely difficult to set and enforce a joint standard. I was faced with a very similar scenario and had to adjust the administrative actions given based on service whilst maintaining some level of fairness across the JTU. This wasn’t difficult to do at Commander’s discretion, but again added complexity to decision making in an already complex operating environment.
It’s not the operation we expected nor the one that we asked for, but we learnt a lot from it. We now need to reflect on how we use the insights gained to enable successful warfighting operations in the future. Growing joint capability is essential for the success of the ADF in achieving its key role. But it took a pandemic to make us work together. Setting the right joint culture is vital. Having joint policy and standards enables commanders and sets the foundation for JTUs to operate effectively in the future.