In 2019, Australia was rocked by bushfires of such ferocity and severity that ADF platforms often provided the only means of extracting stranded civilians from the shores of coastal towns – their homes razed and their livelihoods decimated. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic required such heavy human resource commitments to quarantine facilities that JTF 629 was charged with deploying ADF personnel in Australian towns and cities to support the enforcement of quarantine and lockdown mandates.

In 2021 and 2022, flooding has seen extensive deployment of ADF material and personnel to excavate the mud-covered remains of their fellow Australian’s homes. The message here is clear – when Australia called, the ADF answered. ADF operations don’t simply seek to ‘make noise’, but to render an effect in the information and physical domain.

Nearly four years of such domestic operations, however, may have the ADF asking one question – why? Commanders at all levels are continually faced with sentiments such as “this isn’t what I joined for” and “this isn’t a job for the military”, not just from their subordinates, but from the general public. The fact that soldiers, sailors, and aviators find themselves asking these question is not surprising, but in an organisation which requires what Simon Sinek refers to as a growth mindset, this perspective is inherently limiting.

To assuage these perceptions, a shift in thinking is paramount. This shift is a simple one and bears universal resonance with digital natives, analogue die-hards, and those who lie somewhere in the middle. Since 2019, the ADF has seen itself routinely and with intense regularity, exposed to the modern information operations environment. In essence, the ADF is now conducting a ‘reorg’ from nearly four consecutive years of exercising its capability to deploy in an environment characterised by actors seeking narrative domination, perception control, and information superiority.

Whether it be political, media-driven, or the ever-looming spectre of foreign bots finding penetration points on social media; domestic operations have presented the ADF, particularly its millennial and generation Z members, with an information onslaught. In addition to inoculating the ADF to future information battlespaces, domestic operations have also served to exercise, in a real time, the deployment of truly joint, whole-of-government task forces consisting of military, policing, health, and state services whilst also providing an introduction to the administrative readiness requirements for the individual soldier, sailor, and aviator.

Whilst this piece provides two key focus points for consideration, the reader is encouraged to consider the lessons they have learned across the last four years of Defence Aid to the Civil Community (DACC) and apply a growth mindset and an operational readiness lens to those experiences, so as to maximise the ADF’s future readiness.

DACC as an assurance opportunity for the information environment

“Through the adept use of social media, an organisation can openly and anonymously recruit supports, members and financiers, with limited risk to the organisation itself”
– Nicholas Shellcross, United States Air Force Institute of Technology

The imagery of army vehicles and AMCU-clad soldiers backlit by a burning national park was the real time ‘profile picture’ of the Australian Army in 2019 and 2020. Similarly, Australian citizens huddled on the beach and being extracted by Royal Australian Navy surface vessels was prolifically disseminated throughout the mainstream media. When the narrative was good the ADF were the heroes.

But that narrative saw a shift during the COVID-19 pandemic and 2021 flood responses. In an information environment characterised by widespread fear, ‘othering’, and the not-so-subtle injection of conspiracy-laden narratives around ‘nanny states’ and individual liberties, the ADF was periodically portrayed as the strong arm of a harsh regime – even if that telling could not have been further from the truth.

Similarly, members of the ADF deployed in support of flood recovery efforts often bore the brunt of local frustration at the whole-of-government response and were targeted by some media sources that once portrayed them so positively. What is the takeaway from this? Is it simply that mass media is fickle or people need an outlet to vent and that the ADF was in the right place at the wrong time? Simply put, the answer is no.

This narrative rollercoaster has presented the Joint force with nothing short of the perfect, low-harm introduction to the contemporary information environment. Whilst painful and potentially affronting to read, watch, or listen to; fundamentally, there was a zero-harm proposition for members of the ADF in their exposure to this environment. There was no local population to be swayed by an asymmetric threat into violence against peace-keeping forces and no cyber domain incursions to identify the families of deployed members for the purpose of targeted information effects. Fundamentally, the ADF received important lessons in narrative control and information domination.

The Joint Task Force Headquarters, with its Federal and State Government agency partners, endeavoured daily to wrangle a media with a bias for controversy and eye-catching headlines. The soldier, sailor, or aviator on the ground was required to tactfully and in as human a manner as possible, utilise crafted and standardised responses to what became routine media and public probing.

In a world where everyone is a journalist, there is no such thing as an innocuous engagement. This experience is entirely invaluable and has tragically not been highlighted enough for the value it carries. Sections, platoons, and task elements have an outstanding opportunity now – with the benefit of time and space for reflection – to conduct their individual after action reviews and refine their information environment tactics, techniques and procedures.

Exposure to the inordinately valuable public affairs officer now gives planners a well-defined asset to employ in support of future operations planning. Reinforcing this thesis is the work of NJ Shallcross from the United States Air Force Institute of Technology in his piece Social Media and Information Operations in the 21st Century, where he said:

“Ultimately, the role of all types of media, particularly social media, in conflict is what separates the wars of the 21st century from those of the past. Real time and near real time reporting have transformed warfare into an interactive spectator sport for regular citizens; thus, media has become an integral part of warfare and the modern battlefield”.

In short, the ADF as a complete entity can now effectively identify where it needs to focus on refining its approach to information operations and – with the targeted insertion of high value assets to planning – harden its personnel to the realities of modern, contested information environments.

DACC Operations provide a test of readiness

The above is a fairly self-evident statement, but the depth of the opportunity that the ADF has received is akin to the oft-used image of an iceberg. While obvious at face value, the actual impact of exposure to raising a deployed headquarters and the readiness dividend for individual members cannot be understated.

The complexity associated with raising not only a mixed-service headquarters, but a mixed service category and inter-agency headquarters provided commanders with an opportunity to test their future strategic constitution and teaming within a whole-of-government mission. The finding of friction points in language, the limits of authority and power, and – more importantly – identification of crossover points in organisational remit provided the ADF with a previously unseen opportunity to build standard operating procedures for modern operating environments.

It cannot be overstated that the next mission will not be limited to purely military operations. Elizabeth Troeder, of the United States Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, in a 2019 paper titled A Whole of Government Approach to Grey Zone Warfare, argues that:

“a whole of government approach is needed to deny the effects of grey zone warfare undertaken by U.S. adversaries and to secure American grey zone superiority – this approach is vital in order to protect the U.S. national security and American democracy”

It is thus evident that a whole-of-government approach is critical. Where this realisation must naturally lead, therefore, is to a refinement of the process by which that force’s headquarters is raised, stratified, and communicated with. The ADF’s commitment to DACC has laid a critical foundation for this, and the effort can and must be continued to capitalise on the successes experienced.

One such manner of consolidation is the normalisation of integrated, headquarters-level planning activities. Requiring little more than a space and an operating environment, bespoke teams can be built by problem set and the ADF’s future operating partners brought into the equation. Building on the foundation of lessons learned operationally, capability gaps can be addressed, inter-agency relationships built, and the robustness of the defence of Australia and its interests assured, like a combat brigade on a Talisman Sabre.

Nearly four years of disruption to traditional training has left many asking why. The answer to that questions is simple: to succeed in the next major conflict, we are required to be proficient in not just kinetic action, but information superiority. DACC has provided the ADF with a critical proving ground. It is crucial now more than ever that commanders shift the frame of reference and redefine DACC as a critical mission providing specific training for the future operating environment.