Dr Albert Palazzo is a Senior Research Fellow at the Land Warfare Studies Centre. These views are his own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.
I disagree with Hugh White's response to my Interpreter post: East Timor is exactly the historical precedent that illustrates the risks of Defence's current budget trajectory. A non-war-fighting mission should not test the ADF's capabilities, as it was on the eve of the intervention. Such tasks should not require maximum effort in order to succeed. As austerity bites, the ADF may soon find itself in a similar state of unpreparedness and it will not take very long to get there.
Hugh is correct in saying a political fix was in place before the ADF left Australia's shores. The Indonesian Government and military (TNI) had agreed to the intervention and it is doubtful the Howard Government would have given the go-ahead if this was not the case.
But while a political fix may be comforting for those observing from the safety of Canberra, it does little for the troops who have to carry out the mission. In military affairs, allowance should always be made for friction; the best laid plans can be ruined by poor decisions, either deliberate or accidental. There were plenty of opportunities for a shooting war to break out, which both the TNI and the ADF had to work hard to avoid.
In the afterglow of success it is all too easy to forget the difficulties the ADF experienced in the lead-up to the intervention, particularly in the area of logistics. Could the intervention have taken place without the hire of HMAS Jervis Bay? Or the hasty remediation of all manner of deficiencies, including basic kit such as flak jackets that the ADF borrowed from the US? Once the operation commenced it was the quiet support of the US that held the operation together with critical communications and lift support.
As I've detailed elsewhere (in Anzac's Dirty Dozen), the operation's logistics were barely sustainable for a non-warfighting operation and stretched Army logistic troops to breaking point. The operation would have collapsed completely if the supply chain had needed to bring forward ammunition replenishment or treat large numbers of wounded.
Why does this matter? Why is it important that we remember that East Timor was a 'near run thing'? Because it is very likely that operations of a similar nature will occur again, namely peacekeeping/stabilisation in the region in the shadow of possible war. I would prefer to have an ADF that is ready for both.
Photo LAC Oliver Carter/ADF.