The Australian Army conducted more joint and interagency operations with law enforcement and Other Government Agencies (OGAs) in Australia during 2020 than any other time in our history. The scope of the whole of government approach to a raft of domestic operations has seen soldiers supporting civilian organisations from a variety of state and federal departments to achieve a common mission. Interagency operations are not a new occurrence; however, critical interactions are increasingly becoming the responsibility of junior leaders and many will not have been exposed to this during the training continuum.
Therefore there is value in us, as an organisation, capturing our experiences, to enhance the ability of our junior leaders to operate in this environment in the future. This article seeks to provide poignant lessons I learnt commanding forces on interagency border protection operations on the Western Australian coastline as part of Operation Resolute.
Interagency operations are challenging, but the personal reward is significant. The challenge stems from working alongside people who have different backgrounds and training compared to their Army equivalent and interacting with groups that have a different organisational culture. I hope that by reading about my experiences, it will help future leaders and better prepare them to plan and conduct these types of operations.
Background - Border Protection Operations
The Regional Force Surveillance Group’s (RFSG) mission is to generate a remote-area, land and littoral surveillance and reconnaissance capability in Australia's North and North-West in support of whole of Government efforts to maintain national sovereignty and border security. As part of the RFSG, 2 Sqn of the Pilbara Regt has an Area of Operational Responsibility (AOR) that covers, approximately 1500km of the WA coastline (longer than Great Britain). This coastline includes many remote islands and isolated beaches that have been targeted multiple times in past years by criminal groups attempting to land large quantities of illicit drugs, undetected.
During September 2020, the Pilbara Regt led a rotation of Operation Resolute along part of this coastline, supporting land and maritime based officers from the Australian Border Force (ABF). The team consisted of Reconnaissance and Surveillance patrols from the Pilbara Regiment and NORFORCE, and Ground Surveillance Radar from 2/14 LHR (QMI). Officers from the West Australian Police (WAPOL) also partnered with the Army and ABF for combined overt patrols. Intelligence and planning support was provided by Maritime Border Command (MBC), the Department of Home Affairs and the Australian Federal Police (AFP).
Lesson 1. Engage early and often during the planning process
From the earliest stages of planning, other agencies were included in all major decisions. The most challenging part during this process was that the key stakeholders involved in planning were geographically dispersed between Perth, Geraldton, Carnarvon, Karratha and Canberra. Compounding the geography, the level of IT infrastructure at each of those locations was different and the ADF IT system could not integrate well with the ABF system, making conversations at the appropriate classification level challenging. Despite these friction points, the key planners met weekly, using the ABF systems, during the months leading up to the operation to present briefs, discuss options and make decisions. This was vital to building a comprehensive intelligence picture to inform our planning and develop the scheme of manoeuvre. This also allowed the ABF and Pilbara Regt plans to be conducted in such a way to synchronise our effects, leveraging the advantages of both organisations.
Lesson 2. Understand each organisations' specific expertise to leverage the best from the team
Just like a conventional combat combined arms team, each element in an interagency task force brings unique strengths and limitations. There are components of any operation that will be best addressed by a specific agency individually and other parts that are best tackled with a combined team. For example, RFSG patrols are experts at long range reconnaissance and clandestine surveillance, they have the unique training and equipment to remain in concealed observation posts in remote areas for long periods of time. ABF Officers have the specialised training and legislative powers to conduct activities such as boarding vessels at sea. These are instances where each agency is best employed separately to achieve a specific effect relevant to their area of expertise.
At other times there is value in conducting tasks together. On this operation, ABF supported the insertion of Army elements into an offshore island chain. Pilbara Regt and ABF maritime craft were employed together to move soldiers and equipment into position. During an overt patrolling phase of the operation, RFSG patrols teamed up with ABF and WAPOL officers to conduct overt collection focused on enhancing border watch efforts by engaging with local residents of the area.
Simply putting a soldier and an ABF officer together out on a task is not an example of optimal interagency teaming. The key is to make sure that when agencies are operating individually, the effects they create are synchronised.
It is also important to train this interoperability prior to operational tasks. Rehearsals, familiarisation and habitual relationships are all important steps to optimising specific expertise and leveraging the best from the team.
The final part of this lesson is to remember culture. Each organisational culture is different, built from different histories, role and experiences. For example, Army has a strong culture of training and professional military education (PME) which builds expertise on subjects such as planning. This is developed as Senior Non-Commissioned Officers (SNCOs) and Officers progress through their careers, where they are fortunate to have multiple opportunities during the training continuum to take time off the tools to study and grow skills. Our colleagues in the ABF had not had the same depth of training in planning, they are constantly on the tools, unable to take time away. The ABF are on the frontlines of border protection every day of the year and their knowledge of ship movement in the local area was second to none. It is vital to take the time to understand their culture and how they operate formally and informally. Don’t assume we are better, because we have a culture of PME as opposed to learning on the job.
Lesson 3. Engagement is important at every level
Engagement between agencies is not solely a job for commanders and liaison officers, it is critical that it occurs in a meaningful way at all levels. For example, during Operation Resolute the marine crews of both organisations formed a tight relationship that allowed them to share specific information about maritime matters relevant to operating their respective vessels. During the months prior to the operation, the Pilbara Regt and ABF boats crews conducted numerous vessel familiarisation activities, combined reconnaissance of key locations, discussed planning considerations in depth and rehearsed key emergency drills together, such as recovery at sea. This enabled the vessels to operate in challenging conditions and allowed the surveillance patrols to be inserted on to remote islands. This would have not been possible, without this level of cooperation.
At Task Element level (Sqn), the ABF and Sqn HQ ran a combined Command Post, supported with an intelligence soldier from MBC. This created an immediate synergy between the ABF and Pilbara Regt operational effects, but it also greatly enhanced the intelligence picture by leveraging the local ABF District Commander, who is the most knowledgeable subject matter expert on border protection in this area, due to their years of experience. The information flow in both directions, assistance to make assessments and ability to plan with interagency partners in real time was invaluable.
The Task Element HQ (Regt), based in Perth, utilised liaison officers from multiple organisations and from both intelligence and operations disciplines, to break down information stovepipes and, more importantly, conduct the coordination that allowed us at the tactical level to get on and do our job.
Lesson 4. Developing beyond transactional relationships
It is important to recognise that developing productive, meaningful relationships between individuals in partner organisations is not instantaneous. It takes time to develop the mutual trust, shared understanding and respect that will genuinely optimise any engagements.
It is therefore imperative that key personnel from partner agencies are engaged as early as possible, ideally before an operation is even known. Leaders should be reaching out to their equivalent personnel in partner organisations well in advance of potential interagency operations being conducted. Local engagements are vital to build trust, relationships and understanding of capability.
Not all engagements should be formal and about work. Some of the best engagements are conversations had over a tea or coffee (or Kombucha), with a wide range of topics. Knowing each other, offers an opening for times when we need each other. Over time these engagements produce the sort of close professional relationship that optimises operation effects in the field.
Where possible share as much information as possible, as soon as possible. There will always be operational security considerations, but sharing a much as you can should be the default. Having said that, understand that other organisations may not share everything with you. Law enforcement organisations in particular have a necessary tight interpretation of principals such as “need to know”. Where organisations are not willing to share information it’s important not to be offended, often they are restricted in what they can share by their own policies or legal restrictions. We must be there to help. Developing a genuine and deep relationship, as described above, increases the chance that partner organisations will share information when they are able to.
Lesson 5. Training Interagency Operations
Based on my experiences, I would argue Joint Interagency Operations is becoming a Squadron Commander’s war. No longer is it merely the field of Senior Officers. Junior Commanders are working closely with other agencies at all levels. In Army’s current officer training continuum, in-depth training on interagency operations is not conducted until Command and Staff College, which officers don’t attend until after they have completed sub unit command. If the trends identified above continue, there is value in Army providing both junior officers and SNCOs more specific training and PME on interagency operations at earlier stages of their career. This should be provided as part of the All Corps Training Continuum to better prepare soldiers and officers to conduct operations, such as disaster relief or border protection in cooperation with our civilian counterparts from other government agencies.
This article has described some of the lessons that were identified when conducting joint interagency border protection operations in 2020. While all interagency operations will vary considerably, I hope that the above lessons will prove useful for leaders who conduct these types of tasks in the future.
2019 and 2020 has shown that soldiers and officers from all levels should increasingly expect to find themselves deployed on tasks or operations that involve working with interagency partners from OGA. Developing meaningful relationships with our partners by understanding each organisation's strengths and limitations will allow commanders to better synchronise effects resulting in better operational outcomes.