Companion to East Timor - The meaning of Operation Spitfire

The meaning of Operation Spitfire

It must be emphasized that the Howard government had planned all along to evacuate foreign witnesses, not send in a peacekeeping force. The evacuation plan (Operation Spitfire) involved nothing more than a military escort from the UN compound to Dili airport, and then a one-way trip out of East Timor. Unimpeded by foreign witnesses, the TNI would reverse the results of the ballot and retain East Timor.

The following examples will demonstrate how the Australian plan worked in tandem with the Indonesian one. For reasons of space, only a few examples are provided. Many more exist. Indeed, the Post Operations Report demonstrates in detail how the original plan was to evacuate foreign witnesses, not to deploy troops.

Feeding the troops1

Australian troops were originally not supposed to spend more than a few hours in East Timor. They were to fly in, pick up foreigners and selected East Timorese, and fly out. No plans had therefore been made to provide them with the fresh food required for a sustained deployment. Once it became clear that public outrage had forced the government to execute a peace enforcement operation, ADF logisticians scrambled to provide the force with fresh food. On the morning of Monday 20 September 1999, when Australian troops were already landing in Dili, a senior soldier named Tony Feeney received a phone call at his workplace in Singleton, NSW. Feeney was the Senior Inspector Foodstuffs for the army, with 17 years experience in logistics. He was told that he was required to fly to Darwin on Friday 24 September to organise the catering arrangements for the troops, who were deploying without fresh food. An hour later, he received another phone call, telling him he would have to leave as early as Wednesday 22 September. Less than an hour later, he received another phone call, telling him he would have to leave the very next day, Tuesday 21 September. A few minutes later, he received one more phone call, telling him he would have to leave that afternoon. A car was arriving to pick him up. He was go to Sydney and fly from there to Darwin. He was to stay in Darwin until he organised the fresh food supplies for the entire contingent, which had thousands of soldiers. Clearly, planners were scrambling to accomplish the new mission. Feeney farewelled his wife and his boss, and packed as best he could. He arrived in Darwin on Tuesday morning. Once in Darwin, he went directly to the Joint Logistics Unit, where he found a spare office and got himself a phone line. He immediately began negotiating with suppliers for fresh food supplies. The unit that normally dealt with local suppliers had already left for Darwin in the mad dash, so there was no specialist military logistician at the port of Darwin who could set up the contracts required for such a large operation.

Feeney obtained fresh produce (fruit, vegetables and bread) from Darwin-based grocers and bakeries, and the rest from suppliers in Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. A supplier known as Albatross Marine had a standing offer with the Department of Defence in the Northern Territory. Due to the severe time constraints, Feeney was never able to put the contract through the normal tendering process. Instead, he and his team made amendments to the pre-existing standing offer and sent it to the relevant authorities at the Darwin Naval Base to get it signed. But the whole operation – peacekeeping rather than evacuation – was so unexpected that Albatross Marine didn't have the finances required to buy what was needed. It joined forces with a West Australian-based company called Sealanes, which had enough money. Sealanes and Albatross Marine set up a new company, called Albatross Timor, for the specific purpose of fulfilling the forces' requirements. The situation was so rushed that no contracts were signed in order to formalise arrangements. No contracts would be signed until four weeks after the deliveries began. The Royal Australian Navy vessel that was supposed to transport the rations was unable to do so, because it too was hurrying to fulfil other aspects of the peacekeeping mission. The rations were therefore dispatched on a merchant vessel that could carry containers. It was not until 23 days after the troops first landed that the first ship carrying fresh food left Darwin.

The point here is not that the mission was larger than planned, or that there were unexpected things that planners had to cope with. Such a scenario would be unremarkable, because unexpected things occur in all military operations. Rather, the point is that the plan was never to send in a peacekeeping force at all. It was to evacuate observers so that the Indonesian troops could act without witnesses. The experience of numerous participants confirms this.

Combat Engineers

The 3rd Combat Engineer Regiment's planning for Operation Warden began on Saturday 11 September 1999 – only when the Auckland APEC meeting was occurring and nationwide protests had scared the Howard government. The Commanding Officer of this unit issued orders to prepare for deployment to East Timor only on Monday 13 September 1999. The Regiment's senior soldier Kevin Vann later recalled that even at this late stage, there was no Executive Order from Brigade Headquarters for the Regiment to deploy.

Flak jackets and transport ships

The Australian Defence Force, not expecting a peacekeeping force, had to borrow 4000 flak jackets from the United States. In addition, the head of the military's Support Command, Major General Mueller, testified before the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade that the demand for items that weren't in its catalogue had 'been very, very significant' and 'led to a very significant surge in local procurement activity, initially in Darwin and subsequently amongst procurement officers at the Defence National Storage and Distribution Centre in Sydney.' According to Mueller, there was also 'some central procurement action surge on the part of the Army Equipment Management Agency.' The military's troop transport ships, the 8450 tonne Manoora and Kanimbla would have been able to transport troops and heavy vehicles, but these were not refitted in time and so were not operational until the year after.


That the original plan had nothing to do with peacekeeping was confirmed when military logisticians later reviewed the operation. Lieutenant-Colonel Susan Smith wrote that 'the ADF effectively went into East Timor without the benefit of a military doctrine explaining how coalition operations would be performed. There was no apparent template for operations in concert with regional nations despite decades worth of regional engagement.' The Chief of the Defence Force himself acknowledged 'that a gap existed in Australia's doctrinal thinking.' According to Lieutenant-Colonel Smith, this situation arose because the Australian military has always 'remained firmly focused on operations with great powers and traditional allies.'

The Performance Audit

When the Australian National Audit Office later conducted a performance audit into the management of the deployment, it concluded that the Department of Defence 'could not provide evidence that formal planning for [a multilateral operation] began until later in 1999.' The 'nature and size of the ADF involvement in East Timor were not known until shortly before deployment.' This is because the ADF had not been provided by the government with any strategic requirement to be able to form or lead an international peace-keeping coalition force. According to information submitted by the Department of Defence to the Audit Office, 'the actual nature and size of the military operations to be undertaken were not clear until shortly before deployment. The number, size and force capability to be provided, and the support required, by the non-Australian troop contributing nations were not known until after the deployment had started.'

The Post Operations Report

On return, INTERFET conducted a Post Operations Report that described the problems encountered by military planners: there was 'almost a reverse planning sequence where the tactical and operational levels were forced to plan with limited strategic guidance.' In the final week before the deployment, 'the strategic circumstances were such that the execution date was uncertain and continually delayed'. The 'logistic effort … was limited by the lack of specialist equipment, particularly container handling, water purification and distribution equipment, and mobile refrigeration.'

The Vice Chief of the Defence Force, Air Marshal Doug Riding, was dispatched on an emergency trip through South East Asia from 14 to 18 September to solicit troop contributions from regional forces. A study later found that this trip 'occurred in a vacuum.' The UN Security Council met in the evening and early morning of 14-15 September 1999 and Riding was in Malaysia when the relevant Security Council Resolution was agreed to. Thus, 'it was not at all clear what form the command structure of INTERFET would take.' More strategic guidance was not forthcoming until as late as 17 September (only three days before troops went in), when the interdepartmental East Timor Policy Group was established in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet in order to develop whole-of-government responses to the crisis.

The Australian National Audit Office acknowledged the government's decision, announced by the then Minister of Defence on 11 March 1999, to raise another Brigade to 28 days' operational readiness. It is worth pointing out, however, that this Brigade was an already existing formation, not a new Brigade. It was raised because elections were scheduled throughout Indonesia in June that year, and there was a possibility of Australian and other nationals needing to be evacuated in case of unmanageable electoral violence. The Post Operations Report puts this in perspective: a consequence of the move to 28 days notice saw 80 new riflemen being posted to one of the major units in the Brigade. This resulted in 'deficiencies [which] profoundly affected [our] readiness and ultimately our capability on deployment'. It 'gave commanders little confidence in [these] soldier's abilities.' In fact, when the unit deployed to East Timor, these soldiers were withdrawn to the rear echelon and not used. In the hasty atmosphere preceding Operation Warden, this unit 'was offered new .50 cal machine guns in mid September but declined due to lack of training time, confidence in the weapon system, etc.'

Language training

The Post Operations Report concluded that, for some of the major units, no language training packages 'were made available through the system for possible operations in East Timor at any stage during 1999'. To the contrary – 'there was an active policy of suppressing access to information … This policy militated against having colloquial linguists and a culturally aware [unit] for deployment as part of INTERFET.'

As easy as it gets

As it turned out, of course, the militia were little more than a creation of the Indonesian military. They were no match for a professional fighting force. The numerous post-operations reports make it clear that, while the dangers were very real, particularly to the East Timorese, they could be dealt with decisively once an international peacekeeping force was sent in without opposition from the Indonesian military. For example, according to the military logistician Lieutenant-Colonel Susan Smith, the 'risks attendant on this concept of operation would have been magnified if the East Timorese militia had mounted any serious opposition to INTERFET. As it turned out …the logistic system was not tested by a tempo of operations that called for high levels of ammunition usage or other combat supplies.' Smith notes that 'the rump of the ADF's deployable logistic capability had difficulty meeting the Army's requirements.' The problem was coped with by 'stripping other parts of the ADF to meet the deficiencies: a short-term option that was available because the tempo of operation permitted the situation to be managed in this way.'

As the Chief of the Defence Force confirmed, the force 'was not presented with the stresses and demands of sustained combat.' Such opposition as it faced was overcome rapidly: 'The first Aitarak militia member was detained on the first night of the INTERFET deployment. By the next morning there were three and by the end of D+1 there were 16 with numbers increasing daily.' The official assessment of Brigadier J. Wilkinson in his Presentation to the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade was that, in some respects, for an overseas war-like logistic support operation, the logistics support to the ADF's deployments to East Timor was 'as easy as it gets.'

These brief examples reinforce the point made earlier – the Howard government's plan (Operation Spitfire) worked in tandem with the Indonesian military's operations. Australia removed foreign witnesses, ensuring that the TNI could ethnically cleanse the population, create new facts on the ground, and retain the territory within Indonesia.

1This section relies mainly on interviews with Tony Feeney, formerly of the Australian Army, Troy Furness of Albatross Sealanes and other relevant personnel.