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From Desert Storm to East Timor

by Alan Ryan
21 December 2016

In late 1999 Australia assumed leadership of a significant regional military coalition operation in East Timor with the support of the international community. In the aftermath of the Cold War, ‘one– off' coalition operations to enforce peace and restore stability are the most common cause of overseas deployments by any military force. Whether for low-level military support operations or warfighting, it is extremely unlikely that any legitimate military operation overseas will be unilaterally mounted by any member of the international community. In the contemporary strategic environment, it is likely that Australia will only conduct combat operations overseas as part of a coalition force.

This monograph examines the implications of the changed global and regional security paradigm for Australia. It argues that, as coalitions are the norm, the Australian Defence Force must be configured to participate in coalition operations, and that regional engagement and operational planning must proceed on that assumption. Considering the lessons of recent coalition operations from the 1990–91 Gulf War to the East Timor deployment, it is suggested that countries are more willing than ever before to contribute to military operations for reasons other than the defence of their vital interests. The broader range of political motivations that cause countries to join coalitions are in direct conflict with the fundamental principles of military operations. Selection and maintenance of the aim, economy of effort, cooperation, flexibility, administration and the American principle of unity of command are all compromised, to varying extents, in multinational operational partnerships.

Coalition operations are a particular concern for land forces. Unlike those of platform-based forces, coalition land commanders require a higher level of command authority when conducting operations that involve multinational forces than do their counterparts in the navy or air force. Modular command principles are most easily applied to the deployment of platformbased weapon systems, but ad hoc coalition ground forces pose a greater challenge. Despite the temptation to utilise only stand-off weapon systems in coalition operations, the experiences of the Gulf, Kosovo and East Timor have demonstrated the need for an appropriate, conventional ground-force capability.

There is no wishing coalitions away on the grounds of operational tidiness. The broad-based, multinational operation mounted at short notice to deal with matters of common international concern reflects a ‘new age' of international political morality. At the political level and all levels of command, those that participate in coalition operations need to be aware of the characteristics of these operations and the constraints that are placed on their forces' freedom of action. In particular, countries in the diverse environment of the Asia-Pacific region need to foster relationships that will allow them to work together successfully.

An awareness of the strengths as well as the weaknesses of coalition operations needs to be made the basis of strategic planning. To do this successfully, countries that expect to make contributions to multinational forces need to design their forces accordingly, produce commanders with cross-cultural skills, participate in combined training programs and develop shared doctrine.

As an Asia-Pacific country with strong supra-regional relationships, Australia is in a unique position to help create coalition forces. The role that it has accepted in East Timor provides Australia with an excellent opportunity to enhance regional relationships and develop a positive security community in the region. However, the influence that coalition members exert is a function of their military capabilities. If Australia is to sustain the position of leadership that it has assumed, it must fully absorb the lessons of recent coalition operations and increase its level of military preparedness. Most importantly, Australia must further develop its ability to sustain land operations if it expects to shape the regional security environment.

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Last updated
21 December 2016
Army: Courage. Initiative. Respect. Teamwork.
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