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We are the Training Audience

What can the benefits of Train, Advise and Assist missions be for members of Army and the ADF?

Australian Army Sergeant Jasmine Johnston reads over Operation RENDER SAFE 14 safety messages with Bougainville Police Officers Simon Sireung and his wife Lynn, during a community engagement activity in the Torokina District.

Train, Advise and Assist (TAA) missions have been a major component of Australian Defence Force (ADF) and Army operations since the end of the Second World War. Defence undertakes these missions, as directed by government and its ministers, to aid, train and develop the forces of Australia’s partner nations. Although these partner forces are the focus of training, it is wrong to characterise these TAA missions as benefiting only our partners. TAA missions also provide vital opportunities for learning and development for our own soldiers which complement our warfighting mission in a number of areas. These opportunities include personal and collective learning, cultural and linguistic awareness, observational and decision-making skills, and humility and self-awareness. All of these skills, honed and refined in unfamiliar environments, can significantly complement our ability to learn and adapt as warfighters, even if we are not undertaking combat operations. As history shows, the ability to learn and adapt in warfare, whether individually or as a collective, is one of the most powerful tools to contribute to mission success, and TAA missions are an excellent classroom to develop these skills.

It is folly for a trainer engaged in a TAA mission to approach it with the expectation that he or she will only teach. Their trainees, who live and operate in very different environments than we are familiar with, always have different, innovative and effective ways to identify and solve problems. While visiting the Solomon Islands in 2022, I vividly recall visiting and speaking with the Explosive Ordnance Personnel (EOD) of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF) as we assisted them in the development of new skills and techniques to increase the capability of their teams. I was particularly struck by the magnitude and expertise of their knowledge in niche areas of EOD, such as search, identification and removal of World War Two era unexploded ordnance from underneath built up terrain, techniques the Australian Army has not used since the 1940’s and 50’s. We, their trainers, have expertise in areas based on our current mission and threat: for example, guided weapons, improvised explosive devices, and chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defence. Thirty minutes of conversation and interaction, however, demonstrated that we could learn significantly from the knowledge and experiences of our Solomon Islands counterparts. The members of 20 EOD Sqn and 6 ESR, who have trained and worked with the RSIPF EOD teams in recent years, have all increased their professional knowledge throughout their training missions.

TAA missions also provide trainers an excellent opportunity to exercise their powers of observation. For example, it is not unusual for participants in a TAA mission to be briefed on the training needs and content for training, only to arrive and discover that the actual need is different. This was my own experience with the Iraqi Army’s Ranger Battalion while supporting Task Group Taji III in 2016. My engagements with the Iraqi leadership gave me what I thought was an understanding of their training needs and how my team and I could best meet them. Almost immediately, however, my NCOs and I began to recognise and identify deficiencies in tactics, organisation and leadership based on early observations in training which precipitated a number of changes to our training plan. As training progressed over the following five months, our powers of observation grew as well, which in turn improved our ability to modify training to be more effective. While the need for observation is acute across every aspect of our duties as soldiers, TAA missions challenge our ability and increase our capacity by giving us new and difficult situations outside of our comfort zone, a characteristic which is inevitably true of combat as well.

TAA also gives the rare opportunity to learn and be aware of unfamiliar cultures and languages and to practice the patience required to operate in these new surroundings. A soldier who knows how to meet, interact, communicate and operate with foreign forces is a soldier who has learned how to put his or her powers of observation to use to bridge the cultural divide. These skills are even more vital if our trainees become allies in future land combat operations. I saw this again in Iraq – the best trainers and communicators were not the former recruit instructors or the most tactically proficient or experienced combat veterans. The most effective trainer was the one who put the most effort into learning Arabic phrases, who sang ‘Waltzing Matilda’ to his trainees, and got them to share their Iraqi culture with him. The rapport he built with those soldiers, and their resulting mutual respect, enabled him to train more effectively than his peers and to practice leadership in unexpected and rewarding ways.

The Australian Army has not been at war since 2014. In an era when we are not participating in combat operations, TAA missions provide our men and women with some of the very few opportunities to experience an environment that may approximate the conditions of combat. Demanding TAA missions, particularly those that focus on warfighting, present management, adaptation, logistics and leadership challenges that can develop skills which are equally useful to soldiers and commanders in wartime. As the number of experienced combat veterans decreases across Army, TAA missions become some of the best ways for our soldiers to develop these skills.

The final and most important skill to learn in a TAA mission is humility. As mentioned earlier, the trainer who demonstrates overconfidence or displays a dismissive attitude towards learning and self-improvement will not be an effective trainer. One only needs to look at the experience of the training missions in Vietnam and Afghanistan to see that an army that goes into a mission with the attitude of ‘we know exactly what needs to be done here’ – in other words to be too proud to learn and to listen – will fail at its mission. Hubris is a common denominator in failed TAA missions and this failure can have extreme consequences in both life and resources, even for the most powerful militaries in the world. The mindset of humility is difficult to train in Australia (familiar environments tend to reinforce a familiar way of doing things) but the opportunity to train foreign forces in foreign lands provides that challenge. Humility also does not come naturally to men and women taught to tackle problems confidently and to act decisively. It requires new and alien situations, with active encouragement by commanders and leaders, to teach our soldiers how to set aside their pride and to seek opportunities to learn and adapt during their work. The leader and soldier who is humble enough to realise that he or she does not necessarily know the best answer is the leader or soldier who is going to learn and achieve mission success.

The threat of great power conflict is increasing. The training audiences of today may be our allies in the next conflict. Some may be our enemies. Our ability to learn about them, learn from them, appreciate their language and culture, and realise that we ourselves must improve, will start us on the journey of learning and adaptation we will need in combat. Even if a major war does not eventuate, proxy wars are possible as great powers jostle to gain influence across the globe. The first Cold War was a prime example. Indeed, the conflicts of the last century were the birthplace of the original TAA missions. It is not unreasonable to expect they will occur again and that Australia and our allies will contribute. We are doing so right now as part of our support for Ukraine.

History demonstrates repeatedly that the ability to learn and adapt during combat is a significant contributor to mission success. The army that learns and adapts faster has the edge over its enemy. The army that does not realise that it needs to learn and adapt, fails in its mission, whether in training or in combat. While we should always strive to be proficient as warfighters, we must also grasp the unique opportunities afforded us by TAA missions and improve ourselves, which will increase our own effectiveness in training and our readiness for land combat. The recent Defence Strategic Review reinforces the need for future TAA missions as well: our partnerships with regional nations and forces will increase due to rapidly changing strategic circumstances. We must not waste the opportunity to better, not only our partners, but also ourselves.

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.

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