Talking to the chiefs: David Johnston (part 2)

For the ADF, the goal of carrying out truly ‘joint’ operations must embrace not just the army, navy and air force, but also key non-military agencies and allied forces.

The head of the ADF’s Joint Operations Command, Vice Admiral David Johnston, tells The Strategist that in the past the Australian forces were at times more accomplished at working with allied military forces than with their own government agencies. ‘That’s been a key observation for us’, Johnston says. ‘As comfortable as we are in the Middle East with all the coalitions, we had to be as comfortable working with our own agencies back in Australia.’

Johnston says that for a country the size of Australia, coalition operations come very naturally.

‘In many scenarios we know we will have to work with other partners and we need to be ready. It’s part of our DNA, a very embedded part of the way we think and work. Our communications systems, this headquarters and our placement of people around the world reinforce that function powerfully for us.’

It’s always been important for the services to work together and they’d always done that to varying degrees, says Johnston. Campaigns now don’t involve just the military, he says, and departments and organisations such as DFAT, the AFP and intelligence agencies are represented at the Joint Operations Command headquarters, or HQJOC, near Bungendore. ‘We’ve evolved to knowing whole of government’s important. We’ve got to have DFAT officials or AFP officers with security clearances to get in here. They’ve got to learn our language so that we’re able to communicate and understand each other.’

Johnston says a great strength of HQJOC is its links to the military headquarters of friendly nations. It has liaison officers embedded in US Central Command in Florida, which leads US operations in the Middle East, and Pacific Command in Hawaii. ‘On a daily basis we communicate with various elements of these headquarters on what they might be doing and what we might be doing in the region.’

Because the ADF doesn’t have the massive scale of the US forces, each ADF service on operations has to work closely with the others. ‘Our navy doesn’t have its own protective screen of aircraft as the US Navy does, so our air force has to be involved. In terms of amphibious forces, the navy doesn’t have marines so it works with the army. We knew that was the case for the tactical forces, but we needed to be sure the operating headquarters which sat over them was equally joint’, he says.

‘We’ve tried to ensure we have an integrated headquarters that can employ the breadth of ADF capabilities in a very cohesive manner.’ With some ‘growing pains’, the navy, army and air force were given the confidence to hand over the personnel they’d trained to another commander to employ.

‘They need to be sure we can employ their people well within the boundaries of their training and certification and demonstrate at the strategic level that we are competent at delivering the military oversight and planning of operations that’s required.’

Emerging capabilities have brought new challenges, and the commissioning of the navy’s two giant landing ships is a good example of how HQJOC has had to evolve to mount an amphibious capability and deploy it, says Johnston.

The whole, he says, has proven to be much stronger than the sum of the individual services. That applies, too, to the use of cyber capabilities alongside more traditional weapons such as bombs. ‘Changing capabilities that may threaten us, or which we might employ, mean the headquarters needs to change the way we work.’

To better prepare and certify the ADF for joint operations, Johnston has been appointed its ‘joint collective training authority’ responsible for ensuring that units from different services can work effectively together.

This afternoon he’ll be leading a comprehensive ‘after-action review’ of a domestic counter-terrorism training exercise.  ‘After every operation or exercise, we pull it apart to see if we could have done better’, he says. ‘We review our operations in the Middle East with the same focus.’

HQJOC is a very robust learning environment. Exercises like Talisman Sabre are massive dress rehearsals for the real thing and put great pressure on JOC personnel whose goal is to make them as lifelike as possible. ‘It’s easy to forget that you’re in a scenario because you get very consumed by the demands of what we’re facing and how we’re going to work our way through it’, Johnston says. ‘Everyone knows it’s not real, but it feels pretty real when you’re trying to keep track of all the elements we bring to a complex scenario.’

An actual operation can begin at any moment. Choreographed by the headquarters, it will start with the gathering of intelligence and surveillance of an area. That might involve intelligence agencies and manned and unmanned aircraft, such as the P8 Poseidon or the Global Hawk, and lead up to deployment of a force.

When Fiji was hit by a cyclone, RAAF Orion patrol aircraft were sent to survey the damage so assessments could be made of where help was most needed. RAAF C-17 transport aircraft brought urgent supplies and carried army helicopters to distribute the relief material and an army HQ to coordinate. One of the navy’s two massive landing ships followed up.

The sort of urgent planning that went into Operation Fiji Assist could be applied to a military operation. ‘The environment might be different and the outcome could be different, but the approach is consistent whether you’re doing a humanitarian activity or one that’s more combat oriented’, says Johnston.

He notes that in the Gulf War of 1990–91, the ADF went into an environment of great uncertainty and threat. ‘We’ve been in different theatres ever since then and we’ve been learning all the way.’ That includes Iraq and Afghanistan and regional operations.

The level of activity at the moment is as high as Johnston has ever seen it. ‘We have a very demanding Middle East environment and an uncertain region in which we’re operating, which means our span is particularly large.’

A good example of the ADF’s ability to operate independently is the self-contained air task group fighting the Islamic State terror group in Iraq. The RAAF force includes Hornet or Super Hornet strike jets, a tanker to refuel them and a Wedgetail command-and-control aircraft to coordinate operations, along with ground crews to maintain and arm them.

‘But as important is how we got it there’, says Johnston. ‘In the past we couldn’t have gone without somebody helping. In 2014 we used our own C-17s, our tankers did the in-flight refuelling, we had our own search and rescue watch coverage over them as they moved. Now we’ve got the national resources to do it without having to go to others. We can do it faster and in a self-contained manner. Militarily, that gives Australia and its government many options and increases self-reliance.’