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Army-police interoperability: Collective contributions to future land power

As we argued in an earlier post, if recent operations such as Anode, Sovereign Borders and the response to MH17 are any indication, Army and the Australian Federal Police (AFP) are likely to provide important collective contributions to land power into the future. While government policy may be pursued through the formation of joint agency headquarters with a continuance of relatively uninterrupted activities along existing departmental lines (e.g. Sovereign Borders), there are instances (e.g. Anode) in which a high degree of additional interagency cooperation is required – through initial campaign planning all the way down to individual tactical actions. Increased collaboration presents challenges; while some of these can be mitigated, organisational culture differences will be more difficult to overcome.

Six years ago, the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade inquiring into ‘Australia’s involvement in peacekeeping operations’ found that essential components of interoperability were the ability to transition between roles and security levels, share intelligence and assess threats, integrate strategies and tactics, command operations, and communicate in the field.

The committee pressed both organisations to treat this work as a ‘matter of urgency’, but how far have we come and have Army-AFP interoperability efforts kept pace with developments such as Plan Beersheba?

The realities of military and police working side-by-side are complex and the inherent cultural differences not easily overcome. Army cannot predict and plan for every future event and the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands experience demonstrates that short-notice deployments, planned in relative departmental isolation, may translate to operational and tactical uncertainties. Organisational differences in prosecuting operational activity are a substantial factor and are worth understanding.

Military operations are typically proactive and conducted as a unit or team. They are usually carefully considered, planned and controlled according to doctrine. Risk is mitigated through written orders and formal orders groups, stringent control measures and tactical guidance, strict tiered use of force criteria, established actions on and rehearsals – all underpinned by limits to soldier discretion within the framework of the ‘Commander's Intent’.

In comparison, police work is ordinarily highly reactive in nature and conducted individually or in pairs. Police follow broad strategic guidelines too, but the core community policing role revolves around response and individual discretion. When attending an incident individual police officers must make fast decisions, often under pressure, to effectively and appropriately address whatever incident they meet. While supported by training and experience, police must quickly consider a wide array of variables and choose the most suitable options (including use of force) depending on the situation. The time critical nature of these decisions means they are often made in isolation, without further reference to the chain of command.

The incompatibility of the respective approaches may be highlighted when considering control measures in a Solomon Islands-style scenario. A police patrol mentoring the local constabulary will typically respond directly to an armed robbery in progress wherever it may be without seeking higher permission, while Army elements tasked with providing embedded protection may be unable to cross set boundaries until authorised by higher authority. The discretionary powers – and so independence – vested in individual police are substantial and bridging the gap with Army can cause organisational and individual discomfort and requires a significant level of mutual understanding.

The risk of police operating in high threat environments without overmatch, or at least parity, against adversary weapons systems is also significant. The Afghanistan experience demonstrates that it is unpalatable to Government and AFP to place lightly armed police in high-threat environments without effective protection. Notwithstanding the AFP’s tactical operations capability, this is a comparatively small resource and most police are trained principally in less-than-lethal alternatives (the only lethal force option being the handgun), nor does the AFP possess a deployable military style counter-IED capability. Developing an appropriate solution signals degrading police freedom of action, additional force protection impost on Army, or training and equipping police to effectively protect themselves – a major training and equipment liability.

Sustainment, logistical arrangements, communications and equipment commonality are other considerations. While undoubtedly operating for longer hours than at home, police ‘work patterns’ differ considerably to the military and many police deployments are staffed through rotational shift work. Unless faced with a critical incident or development, police do not conduct, and are rarely equipped for, 24/7 operations in the military sense and require greater numbers to sustain a twenty-four hour community policing capability.

Further, the AFP do not have a thirty-six month force generation model like that of Plan Beersheba, nor does it rotate its deployable members through lengthy readying, ready and reset phases. Instead, police typically volunteer for deployment, address basic administrative requirements, and are assigned to roles. To train or deploy police in large numbers, especially at short notice, often means they are diverted from crime-fighting roles that then remain vacant. When the carefully structured force generation cycle and possible future operations are considered beside the resource competitive policing environment, it is questionable whether the AFP possesses the depth of resources to endure realistic high-tempo joint agency training or sustained operations alongside the ADF.

Logistic support for police conducting longer term offshore operations, while an apparently simple prospect, would likely also require substantial research. The AFP does not possess an integral military style supply chain. In the past, logistics on lower risk deployments has been contracted, with the cost of a similar arrangement in environments of heightened threat likely to sky-rocket. While there may be potential for AFP sustainment through the ADF logistics chain, such an arrangement would require considerable negotiation and added burden for Army planners and logisticians.

In addition to these considerations, there is the question of commonality in equipment, consumables and systems. For example AFP and Army communications and information-communication-technology platforms are not integrated, weapon systems are not common and the AFP often use specialist equipment, such as less-than-lethal munitions.

Despite some success in overcoming interoperability challenges, there have been relatively few opportunities for Army and AFP personnel to train together and deploy side-by-side under unified command across the spectrum of potential operations – including those envisaged under Plan Beersheba. As Army and AFP possess their own robust, sometimes collaborative planning and training mechanisms, perhaps questions such as joint sustainment, equipment commonality and communications might be quickly addressed. What may be more difficult to overcome are the cultural differences between the carefully controlled military approach and the reactive discretionary nature of community policing. Aligning these paradigms at the operational and tactical levels may well remain the most significant interoperability challenge. It is likely that joint agency undertakings with Army and AFP working closely together will continue into the foreseeable future; truly integrated and timely strategic and modernisation planning may assist in addressing some of these issues. 

Major Tim Dawe and Colonel David Connery are members of the Australian Army History Unit.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government. Further information.

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