On 07 Jan 2020, before the new march-ins arrived in Townsville, the 3rd Combat Engineer Regiment (3CER), was tasked to deploy a Company sized, Royal Australian Engineer (RAE) element to Victoria in support of Operation Bushfire Assist 2020.  Attached was a Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF) Engineer Company, who would deploy international in support of Australia’s bushfire disaster.  The mission: Provide a tailored Defence Assistance to the Civil Community (DACC) response, in support of a Government led response, to preserve life and enhance Army’s community reputation.  With no obstacles to breach, minefields to clear or rivers to bridge, this was almost entirely a logistics problem.  To achieve the mission, 3CER’s Task Group Dingo (TG Dingo) was to deploy to the alpine region of Victoria, provide DACC assistance in accordance with Government priorities, and be prepared to operate within the Area of Operations (AO) for up to 90 days.  There were many unknowns.  The Task Group didn’t know exactly where it would be required to operate, what support Government agencies would require or how we would be resupplied.  Mission Analysis also determined that to enhance Army’s community reputation, TG Dingo had to support and enhance community recovery and return to normality, rather than interfere or interrupt.  The latter would require innovative thinking on how we were to establish ourselves and operate within the AO.  Planning was conducted at a feverish pace.  Forward elements deployed three days later.

My experience as S4 for TG Dingo, reinforced that the principles of logistics (Responsiveness, Simplicity, Economy, Flexibility, Balance, Foresight, Sustainability, Survivability and Integration) apply to any situation, and teaching logisticians how to think, rather than what to think, is critical when providing commanders with workable logistic solutions to complete the mission.  My aim is to provide lessons learnt from TG Dingo’s experience during Operation Bushfire Assist, that may help logistics commanders and planners in the future.  Preparation for TG Dingo’s deployment began well before the deployment order was released and also well before the Victorian bushfires started. 

Responsiveness and Foresight:  During his Commanders Philosophy brief in 2019, CO 3CER used the phrase 'Fight Tonight' to articulate readiness to the Regiment.  This simple phrase resounded with me and encapsulates a mantra of being ready to go at a moment’s notice.  Commanders and logisticians at all levels should ensure that at all times, as much as possible, their focus is on maintaining a high level of equipment and personnel readiness.  You never know when you’ll be ordered to deploy and you may have little to no time to prepare.  Initial intelligence suggested that once TG Dingo was established in Victoria, route reconnaissance and route clearance would be a major focus.  The Task Group had yet to organise how the contingent would be resupplied, so initial self-reliance was critical.  Maintenance of personnel and equipment to operate initially meant the Task Group had to bring some of everything.  Initial holdings of Class 1, 2, 3, 8 and 9 stores were loaded as space allowed, limited by vehicle and qualified driver availability.  Striving for continual readiness directly equated to our ability to deploy quickly and be self-reliant for longer.

Simplicity, Economy, Flexibility and Balance:  TG Dingo knew once in location support could be obtained or negotiated from logistic organisations in Victoria; 4 CSSB, JLU-South and ALTC.  As we were likely to deploy to semi-urban areas, Direct Unit Funding (DUF) would also be a convenient and realistic option.  Determining the quantity of equipment and stores the Task Group brought from Townsville was dependent on how large the Task Group footprint would be, how long the self-reliant period needed to be, and how flexible the Task Group desired to be to potentially relocate or provide a myriad of engineer functions.  To add complexity to the problem, TG Dingo was also required to provide considerable support the PNGDF engineers attached to us. Final load lists ensured TG Dingo was well prepared, for most likely support requirements, and somewhat prepared, for potential support requirements.

Sustainability:  TG Dingo’s separation from normal supply chains, and the urgency of the natural disaster situation, became its greatest freedom to sustain the force.  A combination of ad hoc requests to JLU-South and ALTC, quickly established supply chains to 4 CSSB, and frequent DUF enabled Logistics staff to be responsive with critical items and economical with in-service non-urgent demands.  This combined approach allowed TG Dingo to use just-in-time logistics to satisfy most demands and plan for future needs as the situation developed.

Integration:  This was to be the most important principle of logistics for the entire deployment.  TG Dingo’s mission was to support the local government’s bushfire response as well as enhance Army’s community reputation.  The contingent had to integrate, rather than interrupt, local operations and assist the community’s return to normalcy.  The Task Group achieved this by becoming part of the community rather than operating alongside it: 

  • Base of Operations: Rather than occupy a local sports-ground or show-grounds, denying locals from its use, TG Dingo rented 80% of the only caravan park in Omeo, Central Victoria.  By doing so funds were injected into the local economy, also facilitating continued use of community facilities and allowing residual capacity for the few continuing people in caravans travelling around the state.  For a large body of personnel, the site was a clever choice with power, water, washing, cooking and recreational facilities, already in place.
  • Resource Sharing: Resources of all natures were in high demand within the Victorian communities where operations were conducted.  Due to the scale of the bushfires, and the number of agencies working in the region, operational essentials were in high demand; particularly PPE, chainsaw equipment, tentage and plant machinery repair parts.  TG Dingo also brought a much-needed financial resource.  With most businesses in the disaster area closed, or dramatically affected by dwindling tourist numbers, it was important for Defence to share financial support.  DUF purchases were deliberately shared amongst local businesses to support as much of the community as possible.  Soldiers were also encouraged to spend their own money at a variety of establishments, rather than patronise one particular store.
  • Supporting partner agencies:  TG Dingo, with its array of skills and assets, was able to directly support external agencies struggling to keep up with demand for their services.  RAEME vehicle mechanics and fitters were regularly offered to state emergency groups to conduct ad hoc repairs and maintenance on vehicles, chainsaws and generators, to keep them operating.  Peripheral tasks such as these added capability to the combined government effort, as well as enhanced Army’s community reputation.

TG Dingo redeployed to Townsville after seven weeks of support to Operation Bushfire Assist.  At the start of the operation, deployment notice was short, task guidance was limited and operational support requirements were mostly unknown.  A culture of operational readiness within 3CER, collaborative planning by the Task Group command and logistics personnel, as well as a willingness to think outside the box to provide effective support, meant that TG Dingo was able to respond to a largely unknown situation.  To a casual observer the logistics ‘just happened’, all whilst providing support to local Victorian communities and enhancing Army’s community reputation.