Contemporary Operating Environment

Op COVID-19 Assist - Lessons learnt from JTG 629.2

By James Eling February 23, 2021


The ADF has been supporting the Australian response to COVID-19 since late March 2020.  The pandemic response has been very much State driven, with ADF demonstrating flexibility in supporting each State with the resources requested to assist in the overall COVID-19 response.  During the end of July and early August 2020, Victoria experienced two days that were in excess of 700 daily cases.  ADF members deployed to the State have been utilised in a wide range of roles and have supported a wide range of agencies. These include; Victoria Police on the border of Metropolitan Stage III and IV lockdown; contact tracing; Authorised Officers conducting contact tracing interviews; COVID-19 testing and supplementing staff in Residential Aged Care Facilities.

This article will share some of the lessons that our team, working in the State Control Centre have learnt since the end of March 2020.

Know your Enemy

'He who knows his enemy and knows himself need not fear the result of a hundred battles' - Sun Tzu.

Firstly, if you are looking to deploy into the area of operations and seek to gain an understanding of the enemy, then read John Barry’s book, 'The Great Influenza'.  Whilst acknowledging significant differences between The Spanish Flu and COVID-19, it is worth pointing out some similarities and, more importantly, the similarities in the Nation’s response.  Debates over the use of masks, border closures, deniers, shutdowns and lockdowns –  were all factors in the State and Federal responses to the Spanish Flu.  There are a number of lessons to be learnt. Both pandemics stemmed from RNA based viruses where public health measures are the key response to  the outbreak.

At the time of writing this article, a good overview of some of the issues in dealing with COVID-19 and the latest updates from around the world can be found on the Coronacast Podcast by Dr Norman Swan:  https://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/coronacast/.

Tools of the trade

Everything is very simple in a pandemic, but the simplest thing is difficult.  The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced a pandemic.  (Clausewitz would have written this if he had written ‘Von der Pandemie’)

Despite the lack of experience in managing pandemics in Australia, the ADF can provide a range of tools that can make a significant difference.  Chief amongst these is our doctrine. Specifically, our planning doctrine.  A key capability that ADF brings to multi-agency operations is the ability to plan for operations where no one has any previous planning experience.  When our doctrine is combined with a little flexibility, generation of robust plans within very short time frames can emerge.

SMEAC

Emergency Management Victoria uses a SMEAC format for their Operations. This means Police; Fire Rescue Victoria; Department of Energy, Land, Water and Parks; Ambulance Victoria and a range of other organisations are very comfortable receiving orders in the SMEAC format.  However, when working with these organisations we must remember the civilian context and demilitarise the language and delivery whenever we can.

The MAP

Doctrine is like a smorgasbord, you take what you want and leave the rest.

For those in a planning role, the Joint Military Appreciation Process (JMAP) is an excellent tool that is eminently applicable for the operations that you are likely to encounter.  Mission analysis, scoping and framing, likely tasks and the resources required to meet those tasks are all very useful processes.  The JMAP process, especially when planning with tight time constraints provides clarity and a framework of questions that introduces significantly greater rigour than is generally encountered in general adhoc planning sessions.  The scoping and framing questions in the JMAP are particularly useful. Spending a little time to articulate the desired end state is a task that can pay large dividends because it provides clarity to all those in the operation.

**Full disclosure – we often skipped course of action development and war gaming.  Resource limitations, time limitations and restrictions and requirements of operations often dictated a course of action.  The aim was to always utilise robust lessons learnt (see below) to allow for daily improvements of the plans.

Centre of Gravity

Centre of Gravity analysis, whilst not dwelt upon, highlighted two important aspects of the War on COVID-19.  Firstly, the virus has unlimited resources.  It can strike in 100 facilities creating simultaneous main efforts. Therefore, hardening and denying mobility between high risk locations is a critical part of the strategy in fighting COVID-19.

Secondly, time is not our friend. Applying speed to action is critical, not only to controlling the spread of COVID-19 virus, but the follow on impacts. Between February and September, 208,000 people lost their jobs and the resources used in maintaining lock downs, testing, managing outbreaks and the impact to the community has been inordinate.

'There is no instance of a nation benefiting from prolonged warfare'- Sun Tzu.

Reconnaissance

The old adage that, ‘time in reconnaissance is seldom wasted’ has been borne out on many occasions during Op COVID-19 Assist.   Whether planning an operation or executing the plan, reconnaissance greatly assists in the ability to visualise how the operation will unfold, its likely risks, the resources required and the best way to achieve the desired end state.  It is also an opportunity to meet with stakeholders and initiate key working relationships.

Risk Assessments

The Military Risk Management tool is based on well understood principles and has been applied in numerous occasions to assist both ADF and civilian agencies to understand risks and work to mitigate them.  Accepting risk and managing it are key parts of the leadership role. It is most successfully utilised when there is a clear Commander's Intent and trust between superiors and subordinates.  The art of the risk assessment involves assessing the likelihood of a risk occurring, possible mitigations and weighing these risks against the impact of the activity not being undertaken.   

The ‘on the ground’ component of the risk assessment is important in a multi-agency environment because the risk assessment should align with the risk being accepted by other agencies where possible.  Obviously different organisations have different risk tolerances, but the decision to terminate an essential task for mission success, one way or another, only means that the risk has been accepted by another organisation or accept mission failure.  ADF risk assessments around COVID-19 sometimes precluded actions which the State was required to undertake.

Intelligence Fusion

ADF supported the State’s development of situational understanding by enabling the development of an intelligence fusion capability.  New formal and informal information sharing arrangements were required to be developed within the State, because unlike Class 1 emergencies, with well-rehearsed procedures and data collection processes, COVID-19 was a Class 2 emergency with the Department of Health and Human Services as the lead agency for COVID-19.  As this information grew in volume, ADF assisted in developing the procedures for fusing the information and the development of actionable intelligence for a range of agencies.

Microsoft Teams

The restrictions on office space and the requirement for working from home resulted in a significant number of Microsoft Teams meetings.  It is widely used across Victorian Departments.  It is not uncommon to have meetings with 20 people all working from home.  Best practice is to ensure your Microsoft Teams account is set up before you deploy to support a planning or coord role.  Once set up, download and get familiar with Teams, (ensure you have access to a headset). 

Battle Tracking

A key skill in every Command Post is Battle Tracking. In complex fast developing situations these skills are invaluable.  The ADF team in the Victorian Aged Care Response Centre (VACRC) revised battle tracking capabilities to build these processes to support the monitoring and reacting to outbreaks in Residential Aged Care Facilities. The dynamic situation required strong situational understanding across a number of teams within the VACRC.  This was complicated by the need to physically distance, hence creating a battle tracking solution enabled rapid responses to outbreaks and decreased the spread and the impact of the spread for residents and health care workers.

Lessons Learnt

The lessons learnt process is critical in ongoing improvement of operations, especially when operations are planned as short notice tasks.  The end of day ‘hot wash’ debrief enabled lessons from those on the ground to filter back to planners and enables the rapid embedding of lessons learnt.  Some plans, created on tight time frames, were made significantly more robust over a very short time frame by ensuring that the experiences of the teams on the ground were captured, analysed and the plan updated accordingly.  This agile improvement process is a strong sustain for multi-agency planning. 

Visibility

The ADF brand is very strong and members in uniform are highly recognisable.  On numerous occasions, actions have been attributed to the ADF when in fact they were supporting other agencies.  It is the downside of working for an organisation with such a strong brand and something that everyone needs to remember and ensure that all ranks understand it in an effort to minimise the reputational risk.  The other side of the coin was the excellent use of ADF Public Affairs Officers and the media to enhance the public’s understanding of the contribution of the ADF to the State’s response.

Rank  

To many civilians, everyone in green, blue or grey is ADF and rarely understand the rank structure. They see all ADF personnel as the same.  Everyone in the chain of command needs to be aware of this and ensure that communication is occurring at the right level.  This works both ways when operating in a multi-agency environment. Please note that all of the agencies have formal and informal rank structures and it is important to understand the rank structure before engaging with members of a new team to ensure you are engaging at the right level.

Mission Command

There is still room for improvement for the effective implementation of Mission Command.  The person on the spot usually has a better idea of what needs to be done, how urgent it is and risk involved.  Some of the highlights of our support so far have been when people have leaned into the missions, ran with the Commander’s Intent and completed the tasks.  However, there have been instances of self-inflicted friction where the assigned mission, risks involved, and/or urgency were not understood by higher headquarters. This decreased the ability for the ADF to support the State’s response.

CALD (Culturally and Linguistically Diverse)

If you’re not thinking CALD, you’re not thinking.

Community engagement, door knocking, running a testing site and conducting a cordon: these are simple tactical tasks, but think about the complexity of operating in an area where 25% of the population doesn’t speak English.  Some of the Task Units have been able to increase their effectiveness by anticipating the likely languages that the public will speak and ensure that any members fluent in those languages are a part of the Force Element responding.  Supporting Local Government and other agencies in ensuring a CALD approach to the local communities significantly improves the effectiveness of operations.

In the targeted postcode testing operations, where 10 hotspot postcodes were to have door to door testing, one of the local managers in the best performing team remarked that it was amazing the number of conversations that were occurring in languages other than English.  This was because the temporary work force was drawn from the local area and matched the demographics of the people in the houses being visited.  Houses with non-English speaking occupants were identified and a speaker of that language was able to visit and explain the purpose of the visit.  This resulted in a significantly higher testing rates for the operation, largely because of friendly faces speaking in their own language being able to explain the reason and the importance of testing.

Language Matters

One of the challenges in a JTF is to speak a common language amongst Army, Navy and Air Force.  On Op COVID-19 Assist, getting the language right is even more difficult as each agency has its own terms, acronyms and ways of doing business.

Very few civilians know what CoG, CoA, or C2 mean, let alone understand the concepts, so it is important when briefing agencies to ensure there is as few military acronyms and concepts as possible.  The quicker you can understand concepts like IMTs (Incident Management Teams), PHESS (Public Health Event and Surveillance System), DHHS, (Department of Health and Human Services) AV (Ambulance Victoria), Reff, (effective R0) the quicker you’ll be able to effectively communicate with your peers and be accepted by them.

Conclusion

From my point of view, the best part of deploying on Op COVID-19 has been working with incredibly smart and dedicated professionals across a range of agencies, including volunteer organisations.  ADF have been able to play a key role in the Victorian response; either augmenting workforces, such as the Aged Care Facilities and the testing facilities; or, by providing a workforce that can be quickly trained, as demonstrated within the contact tracing area or to provide bespoke skills to supplement the State response. These are examples of what our small planning team achieved in the State Control Centre.


Portrait

Biography

James Eling

James Eling is currently posted to HQ 4 BDE and served in BG Jacka in the BG HQ for Ex Talisman Sabre 19. He is also the producer of the Principles of War podcast.

 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.



Add new comment

Cove App

COVE App

Fast access to The Cove anywhere, anytime. Additional feature of receiving notifications for new content.

Reflective Journal

REFLECTIVE JOURNAL

Record your reflections in a structured way to improve your performance.