For more on the 2021 Afghanistan NEO, watch The Cove's interview with LT Sam Burston from 1 RAR who was the Platoon Commander on the ground.

Non-combatant Evacuation Operation (NEO): An operation conducted to evacuate Australian and approved foreign national non-combatants threatened in a foreign country to a safe haven.[1]

– Australian Defence Doctrine Publication 3.10 Non-combatant Evacuation Operations, 2011


Non-combatant evacuation operation: An operation whereby non-combatant evacuees are evacuated from a threatened area abroad, which includes areas facing actual or potential danger from natural or human-made disaster, civil unrest, imminent or actual terrorist activities, hostilities, and similar circumstances, that is carried out with the assistance of the US Department of Defense. Also called NEO.[2]

– United States Department of Defense Joint Publication 3-68, Non-combatant Evacuation Operations,14 November 2017


The purpose of this article is to describe six ideas for the conduct of non-combatant evacuation operations (NEO):

  1. Caring for evacuees.
  2. Creating a planning framework.
  3. Defining agreements.
  4. Building relationships.
  5. Preparing evacuation centres.
  6. Setting and maintaining theatre capabilities.

These six ideas are based on NEO observations and experience from August 2021, combined with visits to three evacuation centres.[3] Complementing other Australian Defence Force (ADF) NEO thinking and lessons, these ideas may inform future versions of Australian Defence Doctrine Publication (ADDP) 3.10, Non-combatant Evacuation Operations, 2011. These ideas may also inform ADF NEO policies, operational plans, and interagency coordination – combined with setting and maintaining theatre capabilities.[4]

From the 14 – 30 August 2021, a United States (US) led, and coalition supported, NEO was executed from Afghanistan. During the 17-day NEO, ‘US and coalition aircraft combined to evacuate approximately 124,000 civilians (on average 7,500 people per day), which were enabled by 5,000 US military service members who secured and operated the Hamid Karzai International Airport (including six different airport entry points) in Kabul’.[5]

Partnering in the US-led NEO, the ADF, and their whole-of-government partners, successfully completed a NEO from Afghanistan. The facts of this mission, speak to the success of the ADF operation:

Australia's military air evacuation in Afghanistan was one of the largest humanitarian airlift operations in our history. Australia evacuated around 4,100 people on 32 flights from Kabul between 18 and 26 August 2021. The evacuation involved hundreds of Australian Defence Force personnel and government officials working together on the ground in Afghanistan, in Canberra, and in the United Arab Emirates. The Australian Government acknowledges the significant contribution of all those involved.[6]

Further exemplifying coalition enablers at Hamid Karzai International Airport, was a Norwegian Field Hospital supporting the entire August 2021 NEO. Unfortunately, on 26 August 2021 11 US Marines, one soldier and one sailor became casualties during the NEO.

Australian Defence Doctrine Publication (ADDP) 3.10, Noncombatant Evacuation Operations, 2011

Australian Defence Doctrine Publication (ADDP) 3.10, Non-combatant Evacuation Operations, was released in 2011. In that year: Apple introduced iPhone 4S; NASA concluded the Space Shuttle program with the final flight of Space Shuttle Atlantis; the leader of al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, died;  and, President Obama withdrew all US forces from Iraq.

Notably, ADDP 3.10, Non-combatant Evacuation Operations, omits a series of conditions present in contemporary and future ADF NEO operating environments, including: climate change, food security, cyber and space operations, biodiversity, urbanisation, internet, world-wide-web, wi-fi and wireless, energy consumption, remotely piloted/crewed air and ground systems, robots, and biometrics. In 2022, these operating environment conditions present persistent risks, opportunities, and threats to preparing, deploying and employing the ADF on future NEO missions.

Six Ideas for the Conduct of Non-Combatant Evacuation Operations (NEO)

The following six ideas – caring for evacuees, creating a planning framework, defining agreements, building relationships, preparing evacuation centres, and setting and maintaining theatre capabilities – are based on NEO observations and experience from August 2021, combined with visits to three evacuation centres:

Idea 1: Caring for evacuees: ‘Where there is evacuee processing, there is hope’. The top-5 questions and requests from evacuees at evacuation centres in 2021:

  1. What is next for evacuees? What is the estimated pace of processing? What are flight departure dates and times?
  2. What is our access to sanitation and comfort packages? (female, male, child)
  3. Can we source formula and diapers for babies?
  4. May we access phone charging facilities and free WiFi?
  5. May we access cigarettes?
  • Listen and Coordinate: NEO leaders and planners listen to peoples’ needs and coordinate daily routines for evacuees, including:
    • Meal timings and meal content.
    • Education programs, including language and cultural activities.
    • Sport.
    • Children play areas.
    • General awareness and special interest programs and activities.
    • Community information sessions with NEO leadership.   
  • Define and cohort evacuees:
    • Children younger than five.
    • Children older than five.
    • Females.
    • Older males.
    • Young males.
    • Examine population trends, i.e. are evacuee groups missing people of a certain age group or demographic? What are potential causes of these trends?
    • Consider keeping families together for their safety and, for COVID-tracing and protection.[7]
    • Maintain social distancing between non-family groups.
  • Requirements for religion:
    • Worship space.
    • Designated days for religious services. 
    • Birth services.
    • Funeral services. 
  • Medical capabilities: including paediatrics, mental health and basic dental.

Idea 2:  Creating a planning framework: leaders and planners cooperating and collaborating to:

  • Determine main effort. Knowing that the NEO main effort can, and will, change during an operation. In particular, the main effort may follow and adapt to the changing locations of most evacuees and/or the majority of sea, land and air evacuation capabilities.  
  • Define Evacuation policies, priorities and requirements, which will evolve and change as the NEO progresses, including:
    • Specific evacuation directions and orders.
    • Evacuees who are ‘at risk’ but who are not Australian or approved foreign national citizen or visa holders.
    • Unaccompanied minors, including potentially large numbers of displaced children.
  • Designate a single point-of-truth for total personnel numbers and status, for own personnel, coalition personnel and evacuees.
  • Designate minimum and maximum aircraft load limits, ensuring optimal flow of evacuees to evacuation centres and then out of theatre to final destinations. If necessary to accelerate the flow of evacuees, stop the movement of equipment on aircraft out of theatre. Consider that water, medical supplies and food will always need to keep flowing into theatre. Consider separate / dual air bridges for people/evacuees and logistics.
  • Plan security at air points of embarkation (APOE). Define APOE operations, including the senior airfield authority, visual flight rules, radar system capacity and notices to aircrew and mariners.
  • Assess evacuation centre capacities to simultaneously process evacuees into the evacuation centre and out of the evacuation centre? Or, do we need a sequential approach for evacuation centres that first processes evacuees into the evacuation centre, followed by processing evacuees out of the evacuation centre?
  • Ensure leaders and planners personally consult and support whole-of-government and interagency leaders on requirements to check, process and move evacuees from screening sites to their final destinations.

Idea 3: Defining agreements: leaders and planners cooperating and collaborating to define NEO:

  • Boundaries, including with host nations, partner nations and local authorities.
  • Access, basing and overflight permissions.
  • Rules of engagement for troops at the NEO site.
  • Accredited biometric testing capabilities (i.e. iris, fingerprints, facial recognition) connected to national (and ideally international) wanted person biometric databases.  Objective is a single-source expeditionary biometric testing system that is rapid, accurate and connected. Define the minimum age of evacuees requiring biometric testing.
  • Technical user arrangements.
  • Memorandums of Understanding with partner nations.
  • Social media plans for friendly, coalition and evacuees. Counter potential enemy social media capabilities and messaging.
  • Airfield capacity, including maximum aircraft operations on ground.
  • Helicopter movement policies, especially into partner nation / host nation-controlled areas.
  • International partners, including sub-partnerships. Defining sub-partnerships, for example an Australian and New Zealand combined NEO, are crucial, especially if a lead nation is unavailable as a partner because they are at maximum capacity providing NEO security.
  • Policies for excess real property and excess personal property to retrograde or destroy in place.
  • Deception plans to:
    • Protect the force.
    • Deny enemy knowledge.
    • Enable operational tempo.
  • Deployable wi-fi and virtual private network systems at evacuation sites. Plan for whole-of-government rapid, accessible and secure communications: WhatsApp, Signal, etc. Keep friendly phones off local phone systems to protect from third-party hacking of phones, ensure operational security, and avoid overloading local phone systems.
  • Decision points, branch plans and sequels for:
    • Isolated evacuees.
    • Ground lines of communication.
    • Alternate APOE.
    • Medical support plan.
    • Aviation support plan.
    • Logistics support plan.
    • Demilitarisation (destruction) of equipment not scheduled for extraction from theatre and/or define the plan to extract (future) mission essential equipment from theatre.
    • Opening / closure of Evacuee Collection Centre(s).
    • Start / end coalition and partner contributions to the NEO.
    • Withdrawal / retrograde plan for NEO forces. 

Idea 4: Building relationships: leaders and planners seek pre-NEO and pre-crisis training and mission preparation opportunities. These opportunities build relationships, enabling – when a NEO occurs – the rapid expeditionary fusion of whole-of-government evacuee collection and screening capabilities, especially at points of NEO embarkation. Building relationships include the following stakeholders and actions:

  • Evacuee elders/leaders to enable evacuees to lead, self-regulate, self-discipline, and self-organise ensuring their shared responsibility at evacuation centres combined with their mutual obligation for their group and individual norms and standards.
  • Ambassadors and embassy staff.
  • Understanding whole-of-government and interagency parallel planning, rehearsals, resourcing and synchronisation, before an evacuation commences.
  • Interagency partners, including: Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade; Australian Border Force; Australian Federal Police; and Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment.
  • International Organisation for Migration who are helpful in auditing temporary evacuation centre facilities and for guiding safe and appropriate accommodation arrangements for evacuees.
  • Non-government organisations, including charities who are helpful in purchasing additional care package items for evacuees from the local economy or elsewhere.
  • Provision of post-deployment debriefing and support available to whole-of-government agency personnel.

Idea 5: Preparing evacuation centres: ‘Continuously improving all facets of evacuee living conditions’. Leaders and planners cooperating and collaborating to prepare evacuation centre:

  • Command relations, including optimal headquarters size and locations.
  • Enablers for evacuation centres, including – as required – temporary safe-havens, evacuee handling centres and evacuee coordination centres.
  • Basic life support responsibilities, including for sites never intended as evacuation centres.
  • Multi-national and multi-agency coordination centres with a lead nation assigned for coordination, control and collaboration.
  • Multi-national and multi-agency information coordination points-cells-centres-teams, especially for moving/exchanging approved foreign nationals and enabling personnel recovery.
  • Mayoral Cell purpose, composition and tasks.

Idea 6: Setting and maintaining theatre capabilities: leaders and planners cooperating and collaborating to consider risks, opportunities and threats created by a NEO in one theatre to other operations in the same or adjacent theatres:

  1. Are there options to move capabilities no longer required in a NEO theatre to other theatres?
  2. What decision points for theatres outside the NEO theatre continue to require consideration and action?
  3. How can we compensate non-NEO theatres for capabilities they lose to a NEO theatre (e.g. airlift, logistics and weapon systems) through proactive, creative and innovative staff planning, consultation and coordination?   


This paper describes six ideas for the conduct of NEO:

  1. Caring for evacuees.
  2. Creating a planning framework.
  3. Defining agreements.
  4. Building relationships.
  5. Preparing evacuation centres.
  6. Setting and maintaining theatre capabilities.

These six ideas are based on NEO observations and experience from August 2021, combined with visits to three evacuation centres.

Complementing other Australian Defence Force NEO thinking and lessons, these ideas may inform future versions of Australian Defence Doctrine Publication (ADDP) 3.10, Non-combatant Evacuation Operations, 2011. These ideas may also inform ADF NEO policies, operational plans, interagency coordination, combined with setting and maintaining theatre capabilities.