Staff Functions

Senior Captain? 10 Reasons why you should apply for UNTSO

By Nicholas Barber November 3, 2020

Australia has a rich military history in the Levant. For most, the famous Battle of Beersheba and the Syria-Lebanon campaign come to mind. However, Australia has also contributed hundreds of military observers to the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO) under Operation PALADIN since 1956. UNTSO is the UN’s oldest peacekeeping mission and its mandate covers five countries: Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Syria and Lebanon.

This article provides 10 reasons why a senior Captain (CAPT) should apply for UNTSO. I caveat that this article is not representative of all deployments on UNTSO; rather, it represents general lessons drawn from my experience as a UN Military Observer (UNMO) in South Lebanon.

1.      A dynamic situation. UNTSO observers operate within one of the world’s most complicated environments. The ongoing crisis in southern Syria; tension between the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) and Hezbollah; and the Israel-Palestine conflict are but a handful of the forces in effect within the Area of Operations. These complex political and security issues exist amidst the worsening economic situation in Lebanon and Syria, and ongoing strategic competition in the Middle East. Most of all, the volatility of this mission is striking. Periods of calm can quickly erupt into violence. A clear distinction between peace and war can be difficult to apply in this region – and CAPTs can see first-hand the utility of analysing the situation through a spectrum of cooperation, competition and conflict.   


2.      The strategic-to-tactical link. There are few places in the world where the link between the strategic and tactical levels of war are as evident as in the Levant. Geopolitical hostility between the United States and Iran can influence the behaviour of villagers in the streets of Lebanon; or a denial of the UN’s freedom of movement can be raised at the highest levels of politico-military discussion. For many CAPTs, their career to date has been focused on the micro-detail – platoon and company operations. UNTSO not only provides the opportunity to understand the levels of war, but allows a CAPT to experience that interaction.


3.      Working with non-traditional partners. With 153 military observers from 27 contributing countries, UNTSO provides a unique chance to expand one’s professional network. To reduce the perception of bias, observers are not paired with individuals of the same nationality – which means Australians are rarely conducting operational duties with other Australians. Moreover, on average, Australia’s traditional ABCANZ allies constitute less than 10 percent of the UNTSO’s Military Pillar. The majority of UNTSO observers originate from Europe, particularly the Scandinavian countries. Interaction with military personnel from China, Russia and India also provides an opportunity to understand the background, culture and perspective of these rising powers.


4.      Learn to lead. The ADF rightly distinguishes between command and leadership – and in UNTSO, leadership is everything. Whether or not one is in a formal leadership position, an Australian CAPT is surrounded by a diverse group of officers, who are often older, more experienced within the UN and of a higher rank. As with any team, motivators differ between UNMOs. Achieving the mission requires positive energy, and it is often counterproductive to solely rely on command to generate effort. Rather, UNTSO refines an officer’s skills in the art of leadership. Consistent with ADF doctrinal definitions, the essence of leadership in UNTSO is influencing others across cultural, social and organisational chasms to willingly work towards a common goal. This timeless trait will be even more critical in the Australian Army as it further integrates with the joint force, industry and military partners in the future. 


5.      The Australian way is not the only way. There is underlying narrative in Australian Army culture that often links pragmatism, decisiveness and a bias for action to success. But the Australian way is not the only way. From my experience, military and civilian personnel of other nationalities present different solutions to problems. They present solutions characterised by patience and forecast as their decision methodologies are founded in different cultures, priorities and operational experiences. A foreign mentor can improve an Australian CAPT’s ability to identify, analyse and solve issues holistically.     


6.      Keep the peace; do not fight the war. Most Australian doctrine and training emphasises the primacy of warfighting. The emphasis on warfighting institutes an enemy-focused culture, and Army officers take pride in the ability to defeat the enemy’s centre of gravity. But a different mentality is required for peacekeeping. Impartiality is supreme – there is no enemy. Progress is not determined by operational metrics or kill-charts, nor is it defined through phases or objectives. Without distinguishable milestones, individuals can become susceptible to frustration and boredom. But peacekeeping requires patience, respect and a strategic perspective that prioritises long term stability over short term results. Coupled with their warfighting proficiency, an appreciation for effective peacekeeping enhances a CAPT’s capacity to respond to the scope of military challenges that may arise in an era of Accelerated Warfare.       


7.      Tolerance and resilience strategies. UNMOs experience challenges and frustrations as with any appointment. For Australian CAPTs, many of these hurdles are new: understanding UN processes; recognising the utility of peacekeeping; and overcoming social/cultural barriers. Combined with the 12-month duration of the deployment, issues can easily become overwhelming. But the long deployment also provides space to test and adjust tolerance and resilience strategies. Accepting additional responsibilities, finding mentors, planning and using leave entitlements, physical exercise, Professional Military Education, and social activities are just some of the methods that have proven successful for CAPTs in the past. CAPTs may also be better prepared for the mental and physical challenges they encounter during sub-unit command due to this experience. 


8.      Out-of-corps appointments. While all personnel initially fulfil a military observer function, UNMOs can later choose to fulfil other leadership or staff functions in the mission – which are not necessarily aligned to their Service or Corps background. This provides CAPTs a unique professional development opportunity. Hypothetically, RAAOC officers can plan and execute observer operations, while their combat arms colleagues can experience the trials of being the military personnel officer. Such a chance to broaden one’s profile into non-traditional areas without detriment rarely exists in Army’s career pathways.       


9.      Career discriminator. ADF appointments on UNTSO are competitive. But selection on UNTSO is a positive career discriminator for several reasons. First, UNTSO is distinguishable – unlike formed body deployments, only a few ADF personnel have served in UNTSO. Second, UNTSO is representational – and a successful deployment proves one’s capacity to appropriately represent the ADF abroad. Third, CAPTs are mostly autonomous, which demonstrates one’s capacity to work within intent and limited formal guidance.


10.      Generous pay and conditions. CAPTs on UNTSO receive generous pay and conditions. Additional ADF and UN allowances and leave entitlements generally mean that Australian UNMOs can enjoy their time off both inside and outside the mission area.


In this article, I have outlined 10 reasons why a senior CAPT should apply for UNTSO. I found UNTSO a rewarding opportunity to develop my leadership and communication skills, strategic perspective, problem solving abilities and conflict resolution. However, as with all deployments, these opportunities come at a cost – and a 12-month UNTSO deployment can cause strain on personal and professional relationships. But overall, I believe my experience on UNTSO has made me a better officer.

If UNTSO is of interest to you, I recommend you raise the prospects of UNTSO selection with your career advisor.



Nicholas Barber

Nicholas Barber is an Australian Army officer.

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.


Love the article and so true. I was Canadian Army and did 3 MILOB tours (Sierra Leone, Sudan, and UNTSO Syria), and garnered all the benefits you mentioned and more! Interrelations between cultures allowed me to progress towards defence diplomacy work on return from UNTSO. I do have some issue with your para 6. There are servere and specific issues with UNIFIL/UNTSO in Lebanon. You mention what does not signify progress, and to be patient; there comes a time when not following the UN mandate creates a stagnant mission. The mandate to disarm all non-Lebanese Army groups is more than ignored; it has provided a zone of impunity of action for Hezboallah. It is easy and non-threatening to call in an Israeli overflight violation, not so much to search out the arms cash illegelly stored in a school basement...

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