His Excellency General the Hon David Hurley AC DSC (Retd), Governor-General of Australia
The 30th anniversary of Australia’s contribution to the United Nations operations in Somalia, Operations SOLACE and IGUANA, was both celebrated and commemorated in April this year. Where have those 30 years gone! Rather than re-writing a history of OP SOLACE, I thought it of more benefit to provide a few insights from the unit command perspective with some additional comments on the preparation of the Battalion Group.
In 1992 Somalia was in crisis, suffering from a devastating famine and inter-clan warfare. The United Nations made the decision to intervene and a number of operations were conducted from 1992 to 1995. Australia deployed a battalion group consisting of 1 RAR and elements from B Sqn 3/4 Cav Regt, 4 Fd Regt, 3 CER, 3 BASB and a CI detachment to Somalia from December 1992 to May 1993. The battalion group was allocated operational responsibility for what was known as a Humanitarian Relief Sector (HRS) that was centred on the town of Baidoa in southern central Somalia. The HRS was approximately three times the size of the ACT and had a population of about 200,000.
The Battalion Group’s mission was to provide security for the delivery of humanitarian aid. To fulfil that mission the battalion group conducted four main tasks: security of the Baidoa airfield base, security patrols within Baidoa town, security patrols throughout the HRS and the escort of NGO food delivery convoys. The Rifle and Support companies rotated through each of the tasks on a nine-day cycle. At the conclusion of the tour the HRS was secure, food deliveries had occurred as requested by the NGOs and the local population was returning to its normal lifestyle patterns. Tragically we lost LCPL Shannon McAliney in a weapon handling incident.
1 RAR was the on-line battalion for much of 1992. The Battalion’s training focus during 1992 was on participation in EX KANGAROO 92 and the development of tactics and procedures for the conduct of Non-combatant Evacuation Operations (NEO). NEO was a new type of operation and developing tactics and procedures at the formation and battalion level consumed much of the year’s training time. This training proved to be serendipitous when the Battalion deployed to Somalia as it provided the platform for our security operations.
The Australian Government’s decision to deploy a battalion group to Somalia came as a major surprise. Planning in higher headquarters was conducted in a very ‘close hold’ manner, to the extent that 1 RAR personnel, less the ready rifle company, were sent on annual leave a week before I was informed that the Battalion would be deploying. A not uncommon experience when the need for secrecy at the political level clashes with the military’s need for preparation time.
I was able to recall the Battalion in reasonable order but assembling the attached sub-units, some which were not usual affiliated organisations, presented some challenges. In addition, we experienced a slow response from the ADF logistics chain that hampered the full equipment preparation of the Battalion Group before troops began deploying. The Battalion Group was deployed by sea (HMAS ships TOBRUK and JERVIS BAY) and air (C130 and Qantas) to Mogadishu. TOBRUK remained on station throughout the Battalion group’s deployment.
Prior to deployment a range of preparatory activities were conducted: intelligence briefings, including talks by Australian NGOs who had worked in Somalia; ROE and OFOF training using scenario-based training for the first time; weapon handling and live firing practices; family briefings and so on.
I have chosen four subjects from my experience in Somalia that I believe all commanders should ponder as they grow their abilities and capacity.
‘Loneliness of Command’
The ‘Loneliness of Command’ is often spoken about and let me assure you that it is not a cliché. As a commander you will experience it. It is the pressure that comes from being the final decision maker, the person that all look to for guidance and direction in the most difficult circumstances. At times it will have an almost physical, tangible quality — you can touch it. The commander’s job is not to simply survive that experience. Your job is to be successful in achieving your mission and looking after your soldiers. You need to build an inner core, an understanding of self that will enable you to be successful. Be it a faith, a philosophy of life, a worldview: you will learn to know what holds you in place in those difficult times. I recommend strongly that you take every leadership opportunity in your early days to help you identify and build your core.
Never underestimate the combined value of professional education and training and the insights they provide. In Somalia we were able to adapt our training lessons and exercises for NEO to implement our security task. We adapted our force structure and tactics with little difficulty. Be prepared to innovate and don’t try to make the problem in front of you fit into our doctrine — be pragmatic. Solve the problem in front of you. It’s a great Australian trait. Towards the latter part of our deployment we did engage in some ‘mission creep’, but I would argue that the re-building of the local police and judicial capabilities sat within our mission of providing a secure environment.
We often talk jokingly about the ‘Six Ps’, but they have had validity for as long as I can remember. All that preparatory activity — equipment checks, health checks, fitness tests, deployment tests — year in, year out, is worth every minute. When done properly it will save you headaches later on. It’s like muscle memory in athletes — it will help concentrate your thinking on the essentials and not on peripherals. I offer this view from experience. We weren’t as ready as we could have been and had to play a catch-up game. Don’t fall into the same situation.
All commanders know that their time is valuable and finite. Learning how to best use your time is an important skill. Building a good team around you is part of the solution, identifying your key tasks and sticking to them is another. In my case in Somalia my time had to be divided between running the battalion, managing the NGOs whose presence in the HRS and confidence in us was mission critical, and trying to be a quasi provincial governor. I could not have achieved much in any of these tasks if not for a competent headquarters team and sub-unit commanders who could operate semi-autonomously. As well as undertaking your tasks, you need to eat and sleep — looking after yourself cannot be neglected.
When I look back over our operation, I can say with confidence that we achieved our mission. We certainly weren’t perfect by any means, but we were adaptive, resilient and persistent in trying to get the job done. For that I give full credit to every soldier and officer who deployed. They worked hard in novel and difficult conditions. Well done on being awarded the Meritorious Unit Citation.