NORFORCE can be counted as one of the Australian Army’s most unique assets, remaining at the forefront of securing Australia’s rugged, inhospitable, and porous northern coastline, better known as the ‘Top End’, Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe and Mitchell Sutton report in the upcoming issue of our sister magazine SAFETY & SECURITY INTERNATIONAL (S&SI).
A Zodiac from NORFORCE’s Kimberley Squadron cruises the mangroves in the northwestern coastal region of Western Australia during Exercise OCEAN WHISPER on 21 March 2010.
(Photo: Department of Defence/Commonwealth of Australia)
A Catalyst for SecurityThe North-West Mobile Force (NORFORCE) provides an unorthodox solution to the enduring strategic issues posed by northern Australia’s vast geography, sparse population, and lack of infrastructure. The unit patrols a staggering 1.8 million sq.km area in Australia’s desolate north, which constitutes 24% of the continent’s total landmass. The unit’s Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Matt Campbell, claims that his area of operations is the world’s largest allocated zone for a single Army battalion. “The unit’s role is to contribute to Australia’s national surveillance plan through a land component. We provide the eyes and ears, early warning and land surveillance, and reconnaissance of the north of Australia”, he said.
Although disbanded after WWII, when the Japanese military threatened Australia’s northern shores, three different units were raised for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) duties in NORFORCE’s current area of operations: the Darwin Mobile Force (“Bandy’s Boys”) in 1939; the Northern Territory Special Reconnaissance Unit in 1941; and the 2/1st North Australia Observation Unit in 1942 (nicknamed the “Nackaroos” or “Curtin’s Cowboys”). That said, many Nackaroos were subsequently transferred to frontline units that served in New Guinea, now Papua New Guinea, and deployed extensively in combat.
NORFORCE today is also salient for another reason: 40% of its ethnic composition is composed of Indigenous-Australians, who are intrinsic to its efficacy as a unit. Although in its current form, NORFORCE was raised in 1981 as one of the Australian Army’s three Regional Force Surveillance Units (RFSUs), the idea of utilising small units that tap into the intimate knowledge of local Indigenous-Australians to undertake joint patrols has an enduring heritage. Referring to the long-standing heritage of NORFORCE, Colonel Campbell pointed out; “Our unit was initiated in response to the threat of Japanese incursion to Australia in World War II. The idea was that Indigenous people would be congregated and employed to protect their country [tribal areas], as well as organised as an information network.” Although the concept appears obsolescent when compared to the far more complex needs of the present-day Australian Defence Force, the Colonel sees much continuity with his predecessors. “The essential background, motivation, and purpose of the unit has remained largely unchanged since 1942”, he said.
As Australia’s policy of Forward Defence in Southeast Asia was rapidly unpicked by the Nixon Doctrine and the altered regional circumstances during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the focus of defence planning shifted towards military self-reliance: the so-called ‘Defence of Australia’ doctrine. With the need to defend the Australian continent thus established, and the near absence of defence facilities in the northern part of the country a veritable embarrassment, the focus of defence planning pivoted once again to fostering a long-range ISR and patrol capability in Australia’s northern recesses. Not long after, in 1981, the Darwin-based 7th Independent Rifle Company, an Army Reserve unit, was reconstituted into NORFORCE, Australia’s first Regional Force Surveillance Unit. In years to follow, two other RFSUs based on the NORFORCE model would also be founded: the Pilbara Regiment in mid-Western Australia and the 51st Battalion, Far North Queensland Regiment (FNQR).
Despite the transfer of the regular Army’s multirole 1st Brigade to Darwin between 1992 and 2000, NORFORCE has retained its patrol and ISR role. “Since 1981, the unit’s role and tasks have remained fairly consistent”, noted the Colonel. “The 1st Brigade has significant influence in Darwin, whereas our strength lies in our regional locations where there is a limited Army presence.”
Meaning of the MissionIn its present day incarnation, NORFORCE is of similar size to its wartime predecessors, with a core cadre of 70 regulars coordinating about 440 reservists. Its force structure is organised into four surveillance squadrons, with each responsible for operations in a different region, namely, Darwin, Arnhem and Centre in the Northern Territory, and Kimberly in Western Australia. An additional operational support squadron and training squadron are based at Darwin’s Larrakeyah Barracks, NORFORCE’s regimental headquarters. Across its area of operations, NORFORCE operates out of 15 regional depots, with some acting as manned barracks and others as unmanned staging posts.
Much of the territory that is patrolled remains untamed and unforgiving wilderness, and troops are often compelled to operate vast distances away from any civilian settlements and military infrastructure. “What makes our task more difficult is the limited availability of medical and health support for these activities, and of course the heat, and the challenging flora and fauna. This is before we even consider Border Protection Command threats”, said Colonel Campbell. “Just the environment itself is very challenging and harsh.” As well as the dangers of dehydration in summer and flooding in wet season months, dangerous wildlife is also a continual hazard. “The key threat here is crocodiles and other dangerous animals, and that’s a real concern for us”, he said. “It’s a regular occurrence for our patrols to be stalked by saltwater crocodiles in those areas, and they mitigate this by practicing solid safety procedures such as moving their locations frequently. They’re also equipped with service weapons and ammunition, which can be utilised to mitigate that threat if required.”
To meet this challenge, NORFORCE remains the only unit in the Australian Army that regularly teaches bush survival skills and the ability to live off the land. “It’s an important aspect of our training; exposing our soldiers to austere environments and the fact they need to have confidence in themselves and their teammates”, the Colonel explained.
The basic component of the RFSU is the ‘Patrolman’, a Reserve employment category exclusive to NORFORCE and its sister units, which comprise around 70% of each RFSU’s total strength. “The Patrolman is the core of the capability in NORFORCE: a specialist in surveillance and reconnaissance in austere environments”, Colonel Campbell said.
Eschewing conventional infantry combat in favour of an ISR/light scout role, the soldiers of NORFORCE “remain undetected and provide information to a joint task force level to inform their surveillance and reconnaissance plan.” Complimenting Patrolmen are Combat Support Operators, who were recently introduced to bolster historically undermanned positions in administration, logistics, catering, and transport.
In order to fulfil the Patrolmen’s niche role, troops operate in mutually supporting six man surveillance patrols to provide ongoing surveillance of threats set by the joint military-civil Border Protection Command. These range far beyond the more traditional combat and Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief (HADR) tasks allotted to most Australian Army Reserve units.
“The key threats that NORFORCE is employed to deal with relate to maintenance of sovereignty and border protection; you’ll see things such as illegal fishing, fishing within fish enclosure lines”, he noted. “There’s also the requirement to observe unattended airstrips for potential drug smuggling, and a number of other tasks such as reporting environmental damage from biohazard threats, chemicals, and other materials.”
Using intelligence from the Border Protection Command and Headquarters Northern Command (NORCOM), multiple clandestine patrols are dispatched to areas of likely activity for periods between seven to 14 days. “Our task is to remain undetected, so what that means is we operate and move largely by night, or by periods where it’s anticipated that the people we’re trying to observe aren’t able to detect us”, Colonel Campbell said. “We will take significant quantities of supplies and cache them in an area that restricts the need for resupply during the period we are on task, and we also utilise such assets as Customs over-flights, and so on, to observe other areas and confirm these areas are ‘clear’ before moving to occupy our locations.”
Once illegal activity has been located and reported by the field patrols to NORFORCE Headquarters and other command elements, civilian agencies then interdict the perpetrators. “We are essentially a queuing function for other government agencies to interdict, whether that’s parks and wildlife, Northern Territory Police, Customs and Border Protection or other ADF [Australian Defence Force] assets”, he explained. “In this regard, the benefit of the RFSUs is that they complement the air and maritime components of not only Air Force and Navy, but also border protection assets that just can’t do some of the jobs that we do.”
The unit’s training cycle is a reflection of both its traditional border protection role, and the utility of RFSU squadrons as light scout forces within larger task groups. In any year, two squadrons will be devoted to conducting surveillance tasks under Operation RESOLUTE, the ADF’s contribution to the Australian Government’s border protection regime. These two squadrons train alongside the Customs and Border Protection Service, Northern Territory Police, and Headquarters NORCOM in a multi-agency environment; building up skills until they are ready to participate in the operation.
The other two squadrons focus on developing their foundational skills in a range of environments and threat levels outside of their usual experience in order to participate in an Army-level exercise, such as HAMEL or TALISMAN SABRE. In the context of these larger, multi-brigade operations, NORFORCE provides a “screening effect, surveillance and reconnaissance, that informs a joint task force Headquarters, providing decision support to decide where they manoeuvre their combat forces”.
Secondary BenefitsActing as a force multiplier for the patrols are the Indigenous inhabitants of the region, who provide reports of suspicious activity in their communities and also act as a pool of recruits. Around 40% of NORFORCE is made up of Indigenous soldiers, compared with 40-50% in its sister unit the 51st Battalion, Far North Queensland Regiment, and 1.7% in the wider Australian Army. “Our Indigenous soldiers bring with them an enhanced understanding of their own environment because they live there”, explained Colonel Campbell. “In this regard, our Indigenous soldiers are best equipped to notice changes in their environment, as well as provide those invaluable connections to the local people.”
In order to build relations with the Indigenous population within its area of operations, NORFORCE runs a number of community engagement and Indigenous development programmes. In fact, NORFORCE acts as the Army’s chief delivery agency for its Defence Indigenous Development Programme, which takes 30 Indigenous Australians from remote communities on a five month live-in military and general training course. Whilst not all who undertake the programme go on to join the Australian Army, it has been extremely useful in building community trust in areas where suspicion of government and police is often high. “We find that for the individuals that don’t decide to take on regular defence service, they go back into their community and the word spreads”, the Colonel affirmed. “They get that higher level of confidence, leadership and education, and are more competitive for jobs in their community. We see many people coming to NORFORCE to be engaged in that kind of training.”
Recruiting and Educational NeedsMany indigenous recruits must be waivered in under the RSFU List scheme due to often lower levels of health, fitness, and education standards, as well as cultural concerns about leaving their native territory, but Colonel Campbell believes that they possess outstanding qualities for their challenging task. “So far, these guys have brought no significant concerns for us”, he said. “I think the issues that they bring with them are certainly well surpassed by the standard in their ability to provide services such as tracking, survival, and links into communities that assist us in gaining information, and also accessing to areas that people outside of NORFORCE would find difficult.”
To get around some of these acknowledged limitations, modified training programmes are developed in-house by NORFORCE’s training squadron. Practical demonstrations of competence and verbal tests are substituted for the written tests used in the wider Army, though Indigenous recruits entering via general Reserve entry undergo the same training as regular Reservists.
Force OptimisationIn order to operate effectively under such challenging conditions, NORFORCE relies on equipment different to that of a regular Reserve battalion, and has recently modernised its transport and communications capability. “Our environment is characterised by challenging terrain, the requirement for advanced and long-distance communications skills, and self-sufficiency”, explained Colonel Campbell. “Because of this, our equipment needs to be robust, not overly complicated, and able to be maintained internal to the unit because of our dislocation from significant support networks.” The basic vehicles NORFORCE’s land component utilise are its 56 new Mercedes-Benz G Wagons, the majority of which are surveillance and reconnaissance models, with a smaller number of specialist ambulance, communications, and command variants. Replacing the venerable Land Rover 110s, these new vehicles provide the force with excellent range, comfort, and capability.
With coastal and brown water maritime activities also part of the unit’s remit, and the majority of illegal fishing and exploitation of natural resources offenses occurring in estuarine areas, NORFORCE also makes heavy use of small watercraft. “The backbone of our equipment has been watercraft such as the Zodiac with outboard motors, and tinnies for water operations”, he said. NORFORCE’s fleet of larger, charter boat-sized Regional Patrol Craft has been increased from one to four, providing a high-speed insertion capability and enhanced casualty transfer.
Communications equipment has also been subject to recent modernisation. In the past year, the unit has switched to a new radio system devised by telecommunications giant Harris Corporation, similar to those the unit previously loaned from the 1st Commando Regiment. “There has been a need for high frequency radios to meet the challenges of the distances between patrols and their headquarters, as communication really is a core capability need in our unit.”
Another element of modernisation has been the effort to integrate the RSFUs into the Army’s Plan Beersheba structural and force generation reorganization. Whilst Beersheba is focused on reforming the core combat capability of the Army by creating composite, multirole combat brigades with potential amphibious capacity, NORFORCE and its sister units will have valuable expertise to contribute. Whilst at the moment, the Colonel indicates that “any support that the RFSUs provide to Plan Beersheba would be of a domestic surveillance and reconnaissance and information/community engagement nature”; the RFSUs potentially have wider uses. He added: “I think the RFSUs now need to look at how they can better compliment Beersheba with the capabilities that we provide. An example of this is our ability to reconnoiter beach landing sites and provide ISR for the amphibious ready element, in exercises and training. I think there are a number of domestic training opportunities that we could be involved in a meaningful way.”
Cooperation with the wider Army has also extended into joint training, exercises, and domestic deployments with Special Forces units, especially the reservists of the 1st Commando Regiment. The two units have deployed together for mutual gain on Operation RESOLUTE and share similar operational patrol structures. In this exchange, NORFORCE personnel receive valuable training from Afghanistan veterans, and the chance to utilise the improved first aid and superior communications equipment of the Commandos, whilst the Special Forces “gain maximum benefit from us by rehearsing their indigenous capacity building via training our guys to operate with them.”
CooperationAs well as liaising with domestic civilian agencies and the wider Army, NORFORCE has also been prominent in Australia’s international defence diplomacy. The longest and most fruitful relationship has been with the Canadian Defence Force’s Canadian Rangers; a force with a large Inuit component that performs similar tasks in Canada’s wild arctic north. “There are some really good links there between NORFORCE and the 4th Canadian Ranger Patrol Group, and we’re looking at doing some exchanges with them soon”, confirmed Colonel Campbell. “Like NORFORCE soldiers, they are the masters of their location and can be relied upon to survive, communicate, and…provide an understanding of changes within their environment. I think there’s a lot to learn from them.”
More regionally significant has been the unit’s historical engagement with the Forças de Defesa de Timor Leste. With NORFORCE having provided administrative and training support to the Defence Cooperation Programme with East Timor’s exchange scheme in the past, the Colonel sees the potential for an increased exchange of expertise between the two forces. “I think one way to progress that relationship is through the reinvigoration of training teams and attendance on unit courses”, he said. “Like NORFORCE, their small team operations are a strength. I think there would be a lot to learn between both organisations.”
The most high-profile example of NORFORCE’s use in defence diplomacy came in 2014, with Exercise KOWARI. Utilising the relatively innocuous pretext of a two-week survival exercise in the Northern Territory, Australia, the United States, and China were brought together for the first time in a land-based trilateral military exercise.
Though the Defence of Australia concept has long been abandoned, the idea of a reservist patrol force is still of enormous utility to the ADF and Customs and Border Protection. As Colonel Campbell emphasised, the modernisation programme has ensured the ongoing relevance of the force. “We are in a much better place now to be able to conduct our tasks with equipment that is more reliable which is latest in technology, and, more importantly, that can be better utilised to compliment other government agencies and capabilities within Army.”
With border protection an ongoing concern in Australia, and the north remaining underpopulated and largely underdeveloped, NORFORCE is likely to remain a valuable part of Australia’s military and border protection matrix into the foreseeable future.
By Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe and Mitchell Sutton
Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe is a security analyst, defence writer, and consultant. He is also a Research Fellow at the US Perth Asia Centre, University of Western Australia, and a non-resident Fellow at the National Security Institute, University of Canberra.
Mitchell Sutton is a Perth-based security analyst, defence writer, and consultant.