Imagine you’re a cadet that’s just completed 12 months of training in how to be a commander in conventional operations. Now you’re expected to take your mind out of the jungles of Papua New Guinea and patrol the roads of the coastal city of Lae conducting Internal Stability Operations (ISO). You’re faced with operating in the physical terrain of hot tropical weather, significant rainfall, towering mountain ranges, large rivers, close jungle, complex urban infrastructure and the ever-present threat of Malaria and other mosquito vectored diseases. But it doesn’t stop there; you face the human terrain of a country struggling with unemployment, tribal feuds, illegal weapons trade, significant crime, and a population known for sudden cases of extreme violence. For the Senior Class of Defence and Correctional Services Cadets of the Joint Force Academy (JFA) in Lae, Papua New Guinea, this has been the reality.
The JFA cadets, like their brothers and sisters of first class at Royal Military College (RMC), have been undertaking their ISO package on their path to graduation. This package focused on the traditional control, reform, restore and assist functions of stability operations and saw the Cadets conduct tactical actions in and around the community of Lae. Close work was conducted with the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary (RPNGC) and the Papua New Guinea Correctional Services (PNGCS) with a number of combined serials used to enhance the interoperability of the forces.
This is not the first exposure the Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF) has had to the conduct of Stability Operations domestically or internationally. In 1980, 400 soldiers were sent to Vanuatu to put down a secessionist revolt and three years later the PNGDF was called out to aid the civil power in the capital of Port Moresby following a significant rise in the crime rate. Between 1989 to 1997, the PNGDF fought the secessionist Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) in the PNG province of North Solomon’s. More recently, they joined the ADF-led Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI), targeted West Papuan Separatists operations domestically, and in 2020 deployed 99 personnel to Australia in support of Op Bushfire Assist.
So how can the lessons from a light infantry platoon sized PNGDF unit help make the ADF’s junior commanders ready now and future ready? This article will address some of the enduring themes of the ISO exercise as lessons learned for junior commanders.
Lesson Learned 1: Terrain gets a vote in the urban environment
The exercise exposed the cadet commanders to Kilcullen’s mega trends of steadily growing population, urbanisation, coastal settlement, and increased connectedness. Their understanding of physical terrain was now being combined with the complexities of human terrain. For the cadets this was their first exposure to operating in and around the population.
Key infrastructure, routes and choke points now dominated their planning. To varying degrees of success, cadets reinforced the value of a quick map appreciation combined with developing local knowledge of the AO to shape their tactical appreciation and planning. For example, densely packed urban sprawl was identified as a limiting factor for vehicle access to key infrastructure. In turn, this led to pre-emption of enemy likely routes.
The cadets were encouraged to identify key areas of ‘flow’ that are essential to the functionality of the city. Areas responsible for the flow of people, as well as both legitimate and illicit goods in and out of the city, were identified as key routes and therefore became a focal point for operations.
For junior commanders operating in an urban environment, especially those dominated by peri-urban slums, value can be found conducting a deep analysis of the physical terrain of the city and how these key areas interact with the population. Once these areas are identified, operations can be planned to target and protect the population from the potential harmful flow of goods and people from these routes.
Lesson Learned 2: OPSEC
With high levels of unemployment in PNG and many other developing countries, military operations may draw crowds of varying sizes. For the JFA cadets, this became a daily occurrence and adjustments to security and OPSEC needed to be considered. All too often the enemy party would be able to observe large groups of civilians gathering around tactical actions such as VCPs and VAPs. This allowed the enemy party to either change their intended course of action or use civilian cover to enhance their planning. Conversely, for the cadets all too often the opportunity to gain useful intelligence on enemy operations such as ambush locations were missed by not engaging with the local population.
In ISO, civilian interactions can be a double-edged sword for both friendly and enemy operations. Junior leaders must consider the effects of the civil population on OPSEC and how that may affect the ability to achieve surprise. With the increasing connectedness of the developing world, it is essential to remember that everyone is a sensor and, with appropriate questioning, intelligence may be readily available for both friend and foe.
Lesson Learned 3: Force Protection and Posture
PNG provides an uncertain operating environment for civil and military operations. With opportunistic and violent crime being a serious consideration throughout PNG, it is essential for commanders to pay due diligence in orders, including 'actions on' civilian interactions. A balanced force posture became an important aspect of the activity. For the cadet commander on the ground, interactions with the local population were essential for understanding the operating environment. However, all too often opportunities were missed as an aggressive force posture on the ground intimidated bystanders and alienated the local population. This lead to missed opportunities for relationship and rapport development which is essential over protracted operations.
For commanders, the threats presented in ISO may be dynamic. The operating environment will often be a ‘hybrid threat’ that may consist of politically motivated insurgents, local criminal gangs, tribal warriors and international stakeholders. It is up to the commander’s discretion to raise or lower the force protection and posture of their forces. The use of a CIMIC detachment, or a dedicated civil liaison patrol member within the security framework of a platoon, may produce better results than a consistent level of heightened security.
Lesson Learned 4: Complexities of joint and interagency operations
Throughout the activity there were many joint and interagency operations conducted in which helicopter support was used. The cadets also conducted partnered operations with RPNGC and PNGCS elements. These joint and interagency scenarios were used to enhance the realism of the exercise and build mutual trust between organisations.
Airmobile operations were the first exposure to joint operations seen by the cadets. Civilian contractors are used by the PNGDF through the Defence Cooperation Program (DCP) to enable the conduct of air movements in support of both active operations and exercises. For cadets, it was invaluable exposure to the planning required for joint operations and enabled them to identify the opportunities, constraints and threats posed by the use of airmobile platforms.
When working with interagency partners, the commander on the ground worked diligently to conduct a variety of tactical tasks such as convoy escorts, VCPs and battlefield clearances. The use of collaboration during the planning phase, coupled with regular situation updates to stakeholders, ultimately enabled success at the tactical level. The timeliness for requests for short notice support by the cadets did remain an area of friction as a notice to move was rarely articulated by the external stakeholders. Communications also delayed the reaction time of police staff, as a common system for communications was not established early and civilian phones were often used in place of secure communications.
Working in joint and interagency environments is increasingly becoming the norm for junior commanders. The exercise demonstrated that trust and communications are paramount to success. Interoperability hinges on regular briefings, transparent SOPs, and clearly agreed methods of communications (preferably secure). For Australian junior leaders, operations such as Op Bushfire Assist should be used as key examples of understanding how to better develop briefing styles, refine SOPs and understand interoperability with joint enablers and interagency partners.
Lesson Learned 5: Key Leadership Engagement
A number of scenarios conducted throughout the exercise hinged on key leadership engagements. These scenarios were designed to test the cadets on their ‘soft skills’ and their ability to gain trust with local community leaders. The KLEs were a mixture of liaison and organisation with the RPNGC and PNGCS as well as role players. During the activity, role players used scripts with general themes of tribal government tensions, intelligence sharing, resource requests and training requirements for local government aligned militia. This placed pressures on the cadets to build trust early, understand their commander’s intent, and attempt to identify areas where mutual benefit could be achieved. All too often cadet commanders fell into the trap of offering resources and training they could not afford to provide within their limited resources and operational tempo. This increased the danger of a loss of rapport and often led to reprisals or key leader alignment with local ‘raskol’ gangs.
However, there were good examples of the use of soft skills, particularly the use of both emotional and cultural intelligence. Cadets established common ground early with personal experiences and rapport was often built with local leaders by initiating or finishing meetings with the use of a traditional customs such as a prayer or shared local drink.
Armed with a clear understanding of their commander’s intent, the resources available and their ‘soft skills’, the likelihood of success with key leadership engagement is significantly increased. It is important for junior commanders at the forefront of key leadership engagement to understand local customs and traditions; simple cultural gestures are easy ways to win trust early. The reprisals from a loss of rapport due to poor emotional, social or cultural intelligence may be significantly damaging to the commander’s intent and overall mission.
Lesson Learned 6: Train as you Operate
There is no doubt that the character of warfare is changing and hence the way we train should follow suit. The ISO Exercise recently conducted by senior class gives a significant insight into the kind of operations and core tasks that the PNGDF are currently conducting, from having to deal with both human and urban terrain to the complexities of working together with Other Government Agencies (OGA’s), Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) and individual stakeholders.
To date, the PNGDF has maintained a deployed force of roughly 400 personnel in the resource rich Highlands Region since the 2017 National Elections (NATEL 17). The force element’s tasks include: convoy escorts; conducting snap VCPs and cordon and search tasks to interdict movement of high powered weapons used in tribal conflicts; VAPs on key resource production infrastructure and (in some cases) disputed ballot boxes from NATEL 17; and key leadership engagement with local tribal leaders in maintaining peace between warring factions. This is a stark difference to how operations (mainly offensive and defensive) were conducted during the peak of the Bougainville Crisis.
The practical application of this ISO package was an integral insight into contemporary operations for the future junior leaders of the PNGDF. With plans for the PNGDF to be part of UN Peacekeeping Operations in the near future, exposure to such operations in a complex urban environment - including the unique and apparent issues that are part and parcel of it - will definitely be of much value and consideration. For ADF junior commanders, being ready now requires a good understanding of the contemporary operating environment and how an ADF solution can integrate into a likely joint, interagency response to emerging kinetic or non-kinetic threats to Australia’s national interests.
The ISO package was a key milestone for the Senior Class Cadets of the Joint Forces Academy as it marked the transition from field phases to their intensive tactics phase. The work conducted by the class to tackle the challenges of ISO has broadened their tactical and operational skills and allowed them to experience some of the realities of active operations in PNG. The lessons learnt from the exercise are not unique to PNG. For aspiring and current junior commanders, stability operations requires an acute knowledge of both physical and human terrain. In a world where cooperation, competition and conflict are blended into increasingly ‘crowded, coastal, and connected cities’ the skills learnt of this exercise will shape the future successes of the PNGDF.
This article was co-authored with Captain Jonathan Tegabwasa