Brigadier Gary Hogan (Ret'd) has been Australia’s Defence Attaché in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Vietnam. He is a former Head of Army Intelligence and is Director National Security at KPMG Australia.

When it’s all boiled down to a fine reduction, Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB), the incoming government's military-led response to people smuggling by boat, is essentially a blend of just four complementary elements:

1. Legal and legislative

As the previous government found when its Malaysia Solution crashed, an overarching legal framework affording total clarity and allowing maximum agility is crucial. This is far more complex than relatively straightforward legislation, like excising Christmas Island from the Australian land mass.

Internally, agencies as diverse as Defence, AFP, Customs, DFAT, Attorney General’s, Immigration and ASIS will need to be legally controlled and directed in order for the right synergies to occur. Externally, international law, such as that governing safety of life at sea and the protocols which underpin our regional diplomacy and border management, will have to be crystal clear and fully aligned. Amending laws in order to head off High Court involvement could be problematic, depending on the composition of the Senate.

The importance of putting in place robust legal and legislative settings cuts across the entire OSB enterprise, from parliament right down to command relationships on the ground. Getting it right is mission-critical.

2. Intelligence and targeting

The expanse of ocean traversed by fragile boats off Australia’s northwest coast is vast; too vast for the monitoring resources available to Commander OSB. So timely, accurate and actionable intelligence is the second pillar crucial to operational success.

The coordination of information from a wide array of sources and agencies (civil and military, national and foreign, reliable and dubious) will challenge the intelligence cell of OSB headquarters. Existing constructs and processes in Border Protection Command and Joint Operations Command will need considerable enhancement.

Given the involvement of people-smuggling networks in our own communities, special dispensations will be required for intelligence collection within Australia. Information will be derived from sources as diverse as satellites, maritime patrol aircraft, paid coastwatchers, phone calls, asylum seeker debriefings and foreign law enforcement officials, all with their own caveats, strengths and shortcomings.

There will also be an important counter-intelligence dimension as OSB elements attempt to deny an adaptive adversary forewarning of the techniques and procedures used by Australian forces to intercept and turn back craft entering our sea-air territory illegally.

Putting the fragments of a 1000-piece jigsaw together while blindfolded would possibly be easier.

3. Coordination and operations

It is in this third essential element of the OSB enterprise where the right synchro-meshing of gears will need to be ensured. Coordinating a disparate range of departments, groups, personalities and skills will be challenging in itself. Achieving the required operational outcome will be something more again.

Some organisations will relinquish control of their resources to Commander OSB uneasily and possibly unwillingly. Choosing the right chief of staff, senior executives and functional heads with the right mindsets will be the first task of the new military commander – it may also be the most important.

Understanding the capabilities and limitations of technical resources, analysing options, critiquing courses of action, garnering support, implementing higher direction and executing decisions will be beyond the capacity of any individual. The operational headquarters staff will need to gel and gel quickly.

4. Regional engagement and diplomacy

The fourth pillar of success recognises that OSB cannot be conducted wholly in Australia, by Australia, for Australia. Effective engagement with regional government, security and law enforcement agencies will be a key element of the operation.

The appointment of a former general and senior military diplomat as OSB envoy sends a positive signal to the region. As counter-intuitive as it might be for Australians steeped in the Westminster system, the reality throughout our region (save in New Zealand and possibly Malaysia) is that armed forces play significant cultural, economic and political roles in their societies. Until now, military diplomacy has been an underutilised tool in advancing national objectives with our neighbours. OSB could place new demands on Australia’s Defence Attaché Corps.

The success of OSB will rest firmly on our ability to communicate, to impress, to influence and to persuade governments and leaders from countries of origin through countries of transit that OSB seeks to disrupt and eventually dismantle people smuggling networks.

The good news...

Thankfully for the new OSB team, much of the hard yakka is already being done by dedicated and talented professionals across a broad cross-section of departments, bureaucracies, agencies and units, both at home and regionally. Many elements of the four pillars of success are well understood and well advanced.

The central challenge for the OSB headquarters will be that of coordination and orchestration – for a variety of reasons, that element has been underdone until now. The decision to wrap a formal operational construct and command authority around this most vexing challenge for the new government is just the first step, but a critically important one.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.