Dr Peter Dean is a Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU.
Hugh White, writing in response to Al Palazzo and Jeffrey Grey, has questioned the use of East Timor as an example of the limitations of the ADF to undertake operations at this time. In response I offer a quote from Dr Bob Breen's excellent 2008 work, Struggling for Self Reliance: Four case studies of Australian Regional Force Projection in the late 1980s and the 1990s.
Here Breen sums up his work and in particular reflects upon regional force projection, especially East Timor:
So, despite ending the 20th century with one of Australia's most strategically important and risky military force projections, the lessons were not applied again. Intuitively, one might have expected that a force-projecting island nation like Australia would have become increasingly proficient, having had opportunities for both rehearsal and practice for more than a century. The reverse was true – especially when allies were not in a position to help.
During the decade leading up to Operation Stabilise, the ADF was neither as proficient as it believed it was, nor as competent as it should have been. Operation Stabilise once again exposed historically persistent weaknesses in the enabling functions of force projection. Australia had depended on good luck and the resilience of junior leaders and small teams at tactical tipping points in 1942, on the Kokoda Track, and in 1966, at Long Tan in Vietnam, and had to do so again in the streets of Dili in 1999.