Talking to the chiefs: Rick Burr (part 2)

The training and intelligence support the ADF provided to help Philippine forces drive the Islamic State terror group out of the city of Marawi demonstrated how Australia can back its regional allies, says the new chief of army, Lieutenant General Rick Burr.

General Burr tells The Strategist that the region boasts some of the fastest-growing economies in the world, bringing prosperity and better lives to billions of people. But, he warns, growing threats, including those presented by non-state actors, mean the demand for defence technology to safeguard the region’s prosperity and security has never been greater. Australia is strategically positioned to bridge the Pacific and Indian Oceans, he says.

‘The appearance of IS in our region was of great concern to everyone and the opportunity for us to work with the Philippines armed forces was obviously welcomed by them. We weren’t involved in any of the fighting in Marawi but we certainly gave what assistance we could in support,’ he said. A key role was the sort of training the ADF were able to give their counterparts in the Philippines.

Since then, the army has sent mobile training teams to help Philippine troops develop capabilities they need. That’s covered counter-IED techniques, urban operations, medical support and urban combat skills.

He believes that dynamic and responsive model is very effective. The teams run a course and then come home, or Filipino contingents are brought to Australia for training which they can pass on when they return.

‘I think it’s a very mature model, appropriate for the region. It’s a great opportunity for us to be able to work together, build strong partnerships in the region, generate a shared understanding of the problem, and work cooperatively to solve them.’

From Vietnam, every part of Australia’s military history has had a training team component to it, General Burr says. ‘It’s an enduring and recurring feature of our contribution to peace and stability in the region, and we are continually refining each approach to the particular circumstance at the time. So the Philippines model has been quite different from what we’ve done in Iraq, and appropriately so.

‘I think Australians are well regarded for their ability to interact, and to provide whatever tailored assistance is needed in a way that’s helpful to the requesting nation. The way we approach it is uniquely Australian, and we should be very proud of our approach.’

Are more such operations in the region likely and will Australia take part again?

They are, says General Burr. ‘And if we’re asked, I think that’s certainly something that provides options to government. But we already do a lot of engagement on any one day. We have people all around the region providing training teams, doing exercises and working together. I’ve recently been in East Timor where we have a fantastic cooperation program with the F-FDTL (Defence Forces of Timor-Leste). We deal with many countries as part of our defence cooperation program. We don’t make a big fuss of it. It’s very important for us all to have a strong, cooperative partnership approach to our region.’

General Burr’s record is formidable. Before his promotion to chief of army, he’d been deputy chief of army since January 2015. Before that, the Americans appointed him deputy commander of the US Army in the Pacific. He was the first foreign officer to hold such a position and he was no random selection. The Americans knew him well as a graduate, with distinction, of the US Marine Corps Command and Staff College and the USMC School of Advanced Warfighting.

General Burr says the opportunity to serve in a command role inside the US Army of the Pacific was quite unique and a real demonstration of trust and the maturity of the alliance.

For me, it was the ultimate diverse team. The strength and diversity, with different perspectives, different views, help make a team stronger. And I felt that adding other perspectives into the command chain, was very beneficial to the decision process. It was a wonderful opportunity to grow and to see the world through a different set of eyes, and highlighted to me the importance of partnerships and doing things together. In an ever-changing world, the more we can engage, understand each other, build a shared understanding, build on common ground, is vitally important.

His time at the US Marine Corps Command and Staff College with other international students was a wonderful learning opportunity which gave a young major the chance to see the world through American eyes. It had an unexpected bonus built in to it in the shape of the amphibious operations the marines excel at.

‘It was very helpful because here we are today with an amphibious capability which has grown quickly in its modern form. It’s advanced and we’ve got there quite quickly. I think what we have today is greatly appreciated by many countries in the region as a model to admire.’

While Australia is not looking at replicating the marines, the navy’s two giant landing vessels give it the ability to project forces and operate from the sea. ‘We are very clear about what the limits of that are and, by operating with the three services, we can, and have, generated quite a mature joint amphibious capability.’

That involves an embarked element of permanent army specialists to provide the core amphibious functions and a landing force as part of the army’s readiness system. ‘You can add and subtract from that core capability as you need to. For a defence force of our size, it’s a very versatile and capable force. As part of a broader suite of capabilities across our air, navy, and land forces, it’s enormously versatile, from humanitarian disaster relief through to security operations as it might be needed.’

General Burr commanded Australia’s special forces task group in Afghanistan in 2002 and Iraq in 2003. He then commanded all international special forces in Afghanistan in 2008. In 2007 he was seconded as a senior adviser to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

He says he can’t comment on the ongoing investigation into allegations against some special forces in Afghanistan. ‘We need to let it do its work and it will make its findings known to the CDF. It’s an independent investigation and that’s important. And, in terms of our special forces now, I have absolute confidence in them delivering the capabilities that we might ask of them at a moment’s notice, and they have my full confidence.’

So are the special forces deployable if they’re needed now?

‘Absolutely. We are.’