Chapter 7. Conduct and Aftermath of Operation Lagoon

Table of Contents

Force Employment
End of the Conference

On Saturday 1 October 1994, after renewed pressure from inside the Government of Papua New Guinea (PNG) and from Australia for him to postpone the start date of the conference, PNG’s Prime Minister, Sir Julius Chan, appealed directly to Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating to insist that the Australian Defence Force (ADF) deploy the South Pacific Peace Keeping Force (SPPKF) prior to the start date of 10 October. Chan pointed out that the deployment time could be reduced if troops were moved by air rather than by sea. He called for a substantial advance party to be deployed to Arawa by 8 October to establish a presence. Keating contacted the Australian Defence Minister, Senator Robert Ray, soon after a conversation with Chan and told him to instruct the ADF to have the SPPKF on Bougainville before the peace conference started on 10 October.[1]

Confirmation that the peace conference would start on 10 October had a significant impact. Pre-deployment training stopped.[2] HMAS Tobruk had to be loaded with personnel and stores in less than 24 hours. At around this time, HMAS Tobruk’s ship’s army detachment staff assessed that there was too much stock on the wharf. The ship would be overloaded and possibly ‘bulk out’.[3] Captain Jim O’Hara’s only option was to load HMAS Success with the stores that would not fit aboard Tobruk. Unfortunately, both ships bulked out before all stores could be loaded. HMAS Tobruk was also 200 tonnes over its authorised weight limit. Commander John Wells advised O’Hara of the final weight only five hours before the vessel was due to sail. He and Wells spent the next hours calculating the risk in allowing her to sail on schedule.[4] Any delay would result in the SPPKF not getting on the ground in Bougainville in time to set up the peace conference venue and protect delegates. O’Hara analysed the weather forecasts for the voyage to Bougainville. Fortunately the weather was on the side of Operation Lagoon—calm conditions. O’Hara and Wells accepted the increased risk and HMAS Tobruk sailed on schedule.

While HMAS Tobruk and HMAS Success were at sea, the main body of the combined force flew out on 6 October in Australian and New Zealand C-130 Hercules transport aircraft. To satisfy Chan’s request, a 100-strong advance party flew directly to Buka Island airfield from Townsville to meet up with four Black Hawk helicopters and two Caribou transport aircraft that had been pre-positioned there to fly them to Arawa by 8 October. HMAS Tobruk arrived in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, on 7 October 1994. Brigadier Peter Abigail, his staff, the main force of the SPPKF and the ADF logistic support force were aboard by 2.00 a.m and HMAS Tobruk sailed from Honiara at 5.00 a.m. on 8 October. The previous 24 hours had been a tiring period for all personnel. The cramped conditions and the general excitement at finally being inbound to Bougainville were not conducive to catching up on lost sleep.[5]

HMAS Tobruk anchored in Arawa Bay at 5.30 a.m. on 9 October. This arrival, less than 24 hours before the start of the conference, meant that neutral zones had not been secured, the conference site was not set up and administrative support for the conference was not in place. Planners had assessed that it would take seven days to achieve these objectives. The 100-strong advance party had been working without rest since arriving the day before to secure the conference site and set up facilities, but there was still much to do.[6] Troops on HMAS Tobruk now had 12 hours to do what they could during the daylight hours of 9 October.

Just to add to the challenges facing Abigail and his headquarters,

when [HMAS] Tobruk berthed alongside Loloho Jetty, a combination of high hills surrounding the berth, the metal cranes, warehouses and ship ore loading facilities on and adjacent to the jetty resulted in the loss of both HF [High Frequency] and VHF [Very High Frequency] communications. Without SATCOM [satellite communications], HQ Combined Force would have had no strategic or tactical communications, other than UHF [Ultra High Frequency], for approximately 16 hours.[7]

The origins of these problems lay in disjointed planning. Like logistics, communications planning for Operation Lagoon had followed a divided approach; vertically between each level of command and horizontally between each Service. At the strategic level, the mechanism for joint planning, the Joint Communications Planning Group sponsored by the Director General of Joint Communications and Electronics, had not met. If it had, subsequent problems would have been reduced.[8] There would have been one point of contact for allocating and clearing frequencies with PNG authorities. As it was, the combined force depended on Inmarsat terminals to provide telephone, facsimile and data services back to Australia that were ‘subject to congestion due to the uncontrolled access to the overall system’.[9]

At the operational level, ‘there was poor information flow from all parties’, according to one navy report.[10] A Land Headquarters report noted some army and navy coordination problems that resulted in late arrangements for the distribution of cryptographic equipment and an unnecessarily large number of communications and cryptographic plans.[11] At the tactical level, Abigail’s senior communications officer, Major Bill Teece, was not appointed at the outset as the Chief Communications Officer to develop a joint communications plan and bid for additional equipment. This left each Service to make separate communications arrangements for Operation Lagoon.[12] Also at the tactical level, HMAS Tobruk had not received a substantial update ‘to its communications fit’ for two years and its HF receivers and transmitters continually broke down and took some time to repair.[13] Army signallers rigged army RAVEN tactical radios on HMAS Tobruk’s flag deck that enabled Abigail and his staff to communicate with Australian radio operators who were with SPPKF platoons, giving Abigail a good understanding of the progress of South Pacific contingents. There were persistent problems communicating between army RAVEN equipment and non-RAVEN equipment being operated by the navy and the air force.[14]

Force Employment

The consequences of putting the tactical level of command under pressure were now beginning to show on the ground and offshore in Bougainville. Communications capabilities were limited from the beginning. There had been no time to test the satellite communications (SATCOM) equipment that had been fitted to HMAS Tobruk. Communications managers had not anticipated the impact of the infrastructure around Loloho on communications. The crash in communications was a great source of frustration for General Peter Arnison who was trying to command Operation Lagoon from Victoria Barracks in Sydney.[15] It was during this time that three Bougainvillean gunmen opened fire on a PNG Water Board party. The gunmen fled after firing a volley of shots, leaving the workers unharmed. This was a hasty ‘hit and run’ attack—an unsettling start for the SPPKF’s first day in Arawa. The sound of shots, and then a noisy clearance operation by the PNG Defence Force (PNGDF), involving use of hand grenades and automatic fire, frightened several hundred Bougainvilleans in the vicinity, who had gathered for the conference, as well as the inhabitants of a nearby displaced persons camp. However, there appeared to be an immediate loss of confidence in the SPPKF. Word of the incident and PNGDF retaliation soon got around those who had already gathered for the conference, and over 600 Bougainvilleans in the camp who were normally protected by the PNGDF.[16]

The withdrawal of PNGDF troops from the outskirts of Arawa had also caused problems on the roads leading to the conference site at the Arawa High School. Locals began approaching members of the SPPKF with reports that groups of armed young men were intimidating and robbing people coming to the conference. Colonel Feto Tupou convened an emergency meeting of the Ceasefire Committee at the Arawa High School at 5.15 p.m. on 9 October to discuss these reports and the shooting incident. Mr Nick Peniai, a representative from the North Solomons Interim Authority, informed the meeting that the optimism present when delegates began arriving in Arawa had been replaced by fear. The robberies, intimidation, shooting incident and the ill-disciplined PNGDF response had lowered the morale of those gathered for the conference and the inhabitants of the Arawa displaced persons camp.[17]

These incidents put Tupou, Colonel Sevenaca Draunidalo and the SPPKF in an awkward situation. Criminal gangs had become emboldened by the PNGDF withdrawal. The displaced persons and the hundreds of delegates gathering in the Arawa area were at risk, especially at night. Peniai called for a curfew and regular patrols to ensure security. The Rules of Engagement (ROE) for Operation Lagoon permitted the questioning (but not detention) of persons behaving suspiciously. The ROE were silent about the confiscation of weapons in the neutral zones. There was also no provision for curfews or interventions to protect the lives and property of Bougainvilleans if they were assaulted or robbed. The expectation of ordinary Bougainvilleans was that the SPPKF was there to protect them during the conference. In reality, the SPPKF was not authorised to enforce full control over neutral zones or anywhere else in Bougainville. Peacekeepers were there to maintain a deterrent presence during the conference. The ROE of ‘presence’ would be insufficient to deter criminals from going about their business. The SPPKF may have had the right mission, but it did not have robust ROE to achieve it. The difficulty in controlling armed groups on the ground was emphasised on the day the conference opened when one of the Australian Sea King helicopters returned from a routine reconnaissance mission with two bullet holes in its tail section. O’Hara reported stirringly that, ‘this was the first occasion [that] the RAN [Royal Australian Navy] had incurred battle damage since the Vietnam War’.[18]

Later that day, one of Abigail’s attached intelligence officers informed him that the PNGDF had set an ambush, supported by Australian-supplied Claymore anti-personnel mines, on the main route into Arawa. Local PNGDF forces appeared to be using the conference as an opportunity for payback. Abigail told the local commander to abandon the ambush site and move his troops out of the area.[19] As dangers increased, ADF communications capabilities decreased. Communications between Arnison and Abigail and their staffs were breaking down or overloaded. Lieutenant Colonel Steve Ayling, a communications staff officer with Headquarters Australian Defence Force (HQ ADF), reported that the Inmarsat satellite, through which most communications were being sent, was overloaded and there was also congestion elsewhere in the Defence network.[20]

[1] Classified sources, 94 26303, Defence Archives, Queanbeyan.

[2] Major Chidgey concluded that, ‘The Force has had insufficient time to assimilate the training and other aspects of the concentration’. He went on to assess that the SPPKF was ill-prepared for its role and lacked the internal cohesion for contingents to work together effectively. Major Colin Chidgey, ‘RHC Post Activity Report—Op Lagoon’, RHC 611-1-23. Included in Land Headquarters, ‘Post Operation Support for Operation Lagoon’. Copy held by author.

[3] The term ‘bulk out’ is used to describe a situation when the volume of cargo cannot fit into the available storage space.

[4] Commodore Jim S. O’Hara, RAN in interview with author, 13 November 1996

[5] Major David L. Morrison in interview with author, 24 October 1997; and Lieutenant Colonel Ian K. Hughes in interview with author, 23 October 1997.

[6] Colonel Sevenaca Draunidalo established his Fijian Ground Force headquarters at Arawa with the Ni Vanuatu contingent providing close protection and a quick reaction force. The Fijians established seven checkpoints around the conference site, with two checkpoints on the main road into town.

[7] N.P. Middleton, ‘Post Operation Report—Operation Lagoon’, CM 4594, 2 December 1994, p. 3, 94-26834, Defence Archives, Queanbeyan.

[8] Major David Belham, ‘Operation Lagoon—Post Operation Report—Communications Aspects’, May 1995, p. 2, 94 26303, NAA, Sydney. Belham was Acting Deputy Director Communication Office, Joint Communications and Electronics Branch, HQ ADF.

[9] Belham, ‘Operation Lagoon—Post Operation Report—Communications Aspects’, May 1995, p. 2, 94 26303, NAA, Sydney.

[10] Warrant Officer RS K.J. Slavin, Op Lagoon—Quickrep, Minute to Chief of Staff, 24 October 1994. Copy held by author.

[11] Land Headquarters, ‘OP Lagoon—Post Operation Initial Report’, LHQ SIC E3J/I4S, OPS/PLANS 30618/94, 270609Z OCT94, p. 6, K98 18173, NAA, Sydney.

[12] Major William G. Teece, ‘Operation Lagoon—Communications Post Operation Report (POR)’, 28 October 1994, p. 3, 103 Signal Squadron, 94 26303, Defence Archives, Queanbeyan.

[13] Teece, ‘Operation Lagoon—Communications Post Operation Report (POR)’, 28 October 1994, p. 2. See also Land Headquarters, ‘OP Lagoon—Post Operation Initial Report’, p. 6.

[14] Teece, ‘Operation Lagoon—Communications Post Operation Report (POR)’, 28 October 1994, p. 3.

[15] The communication difficulties during Operation Lagoon prompted Arnison to commission a Joint Operations Room at Land Headquarters that was capable of worldwide communications and supported by secure automated command, control and intelligence systems. Staff at Land Headquarters told the author that Operation Lagoon exposed several shortfalls in the capabilities of Land Headquarters to command offshore operations. These were overcome under Arnison’s personal direction.

[16] Classified sources, 94 26303, Defence Archives, Queanbeyan.

[17] Colonel Feto Tupou, ‘BPC [Bougainville Peace Conference] Minutes of meeting held on 9 October 1994’. Copy held by author.

[18] O’Hara, ‘POR—Maritime Aspects’, p. 6.

[19] Brigadier Peter J. Abigail in interview with author, 18 March 1997. Also classified sources.

[20] Lieutenant Colonel Steve H. Ayling, ‘Brief to CDF’, HQ ADF Joint Communications and Electronics Branch, 10 October 1994, 94 26303, Defence Archives, Queanbeyan.