How ready is Australia for peacekeeping operations?
31 Jan 2020|

Australia has a proud history of engagement with the UN, including participating in and leading UN peace operations, from Cyprus in 1964 to East Timor in 1999. But peace operations have fallen off the Australian priority list over the past 20 years, and our experience gained in the early 2000s is beginning to look dated.

Many of those who had peace operations experience in the Australian Defence Force and the Australian Federal Police have now moved on in their careers. The nature of peace operations has also changed. UN peacekeeping missions today are much closer to war-fighting or counterterrorism operations than they were when Australia last led them.

In October last year, the prime minister announced an Australian co-deployment of peacekeepers to the Golan Heights. With this in mind, it seems reasonable to consider Australia’s readiness for future peace operations. If we intend to dust off our UN peace operations role, how well prepared are we? Based on discussions I had in mid-2019 with subject-matter experts from the AFP, the ADF, the government and the non-government sector, the answer is mixed.

Given Australia’s current focus on the Pacific, it’s most likely that that’s where an Australian contingent would be deployed if the need arose. Police networks are much more prevalent in the region than militaries, which means the AFP is more likely to be called on than the ADF to respond to a crisis.

Australia gained deep levels of experience in regional stabilisation missions such as RAMSI throughout the 2000s and was even considered a world leader in peace operations policing. In 2014, as a member of the UN Security Council, Australia secured the first-ever resolution focused on UN policing. Since then, however, our commitment to and specific capability for police peacekeeping appear to have quietly faded. The capability shortfall ranges from a lack of basic understanding of how the UN system works (for example, the effect of a Security Council mandate on the rules of engagement, and how the chain of command works in a UN mission) to a lack of specific UN-mandated predeployment training, which used to be, but is no longer, integrated into the ADF training continuum.

AFP readiness was dealt a significant blow when, in 2015, the agency’s International Deployment Group (IDG) underwent a substantial internal restructure. This group was a highly trained and specialised unit focused on the particular challenges of police peacekeeping that are distinct from the day-to-day work of the AFP (such as dealing with actors with access to weapons not readily available in Australia, multiagency cooperation and international mandates). Of course, internal restructuring is a consistent feature of government. At the time, the perception was that the role would no longer be required in an environment of limited AFP resources.

However, what was lost was the readiness to deploy quickly, as instruction in those essential and specialised skills was removed from AFP training. The AFP does maintain extensive community policing and mentoring networks across the region and it’s already well represented in the front lines of relevant institutions. But the reality is that any decision to pull people from those roles to contribute to a peace operation would be at the cost of existing tasks, and diverting resources from established functions to a new line of effort would require time and funding and interrupt other essential work.

To put it another way, the AFP doesn’t have built-in ‘fat’ as an organisation, and diverting officers to peacekeeping missions would take them away from anti-drug operations, airport security, institution-building, counterterrorism and other vital work in our region. If a crisis requiring peace operations policing arises, the mission will need to be ‘recruited to’, and AFP officers will need to undertake specific training before they can be deployed. The restructuring of the IDG is a significant blow to the operational readiness of the AFP for peace operations.

There also seems to be some confusion between the ADF and AFP about whole-of-government capabilities and readiness. For example, the status of the AFP’s IDG isn’t well known within the ADF. Unless the reality of the AFP’s readiness is accurately understood and taken into account by the ADF now, the viability of planning for a real-life crisis is at risk.

It was clear from my discussions with AFP and ADF members that there’s a unanimous political will to act if something happens in the region on the scale of events in Solomon Islands or Timor-Leste. What’s missing is the readiness to respond to such a crisis quickly. For example, peace-operation-specific skills aren’t integrated into large-scale military exercises such as Talisman Sabre, as they reportedly once were. The departmental resources required for AFP and civilian agency participation in military exercises are considerable and divert officers away from their day jobs.

So, while the scenarios practised in exercises, such as humanitarian disasters, stabilisation or peace operations, would undoubtedly have a strong police or civilian lead in real life, rehearsing with those key players is increasingly difficult because only militaries are resourced with planning as a central task. If the transition from war-fighting to peace operations—or from green to blue—isn’t practised sufficiently with Australia’s regional and strategic partners, we may be underprepared should a crisis arise.

What’s lacking in our current peace operations readiness is clear: there’s no whole-of-government policy. People working in this area see Australia as a frontrunner in regional training and leadership for peace operations, but it seems that view is based on our peace operations experience of 15 to 20 years ago and the ADF’s standing in the region as a professional, highly trained defence force.

The AFP and ADF need to work with government agencies in a more consistent and concerted fashion. Other components of planning­—such as policy and political enablers­—need to be brought into the conversation to ensure that operations, policy and planning across the whole of government are more consistent. A coordinated approach, including integrated and updated training and exercising, would ensure that Australia’s readiness is understood across the board and that accurate planning is based on today’s capabilities, not those of two decades ago.