Securing Northern Australia: A Case For The Regional Force Surveillance Units

10 April 2020
Caption: A patrol commander of the Pilbara Regiment engaged in surveillance operations on West Lewis Island in the Dampier Archipelago off Australia’s remote North West coastline. © WA DEFENCE REVIEW June 2017.

Key Points:

  • Based on the rising array of conventional and unconventional challenges across the Indo-Pacific region, there is a growing case to expand regular army to strength to enhance the security of northern Australia. 
  • This is particularly apparent for the Regional Force Surveillance Units which play an integral role in support of Operation Resolute and Border Force.
  • Similarly, by meaningfully expanding the number of regular personnel in each of the three RFSUs the army can further engage remote Indigenous populations who could have more access to vocational training and career advancement opportunities through the RFSUs. 

There used to be a larger Army presence in Western Australia. It was never on the scale of Holsworthy Barracks in Sydney, Enoggera Barracks in Brisbane or Lavarack Barracks in Townsville. For a long-time it was known as the Fifth Military District, or 5MD for those who remember, and was a state-based entity with little regard for combat power or operational relevance. A series of capability, structure, function and basing decisions have seen the numbers steadily decline over several decades with a gradual and corresponding increase resulting in the three combat brigade structure that enables the ‘readying’, ‘ready’ and ‘reset’ model in use today. 

21st Century Australian Army

Throughout this, the Australian Army laydown has been one of evolution from a managed and administered collection of random elements to one of a combat force with assigned logistics under command.  A single master plan did not exist, nor was one executed. Formations, brigades, groups and units within the ADF are distributed, and sometimes relocated, throughout Australia based on a variety of often competing considerations. 

Although strategic thinking and common sense would suggest that national security considerations are the primary frame of reference for decision-making, this is rarely the case. Often proximity to established population centres with full infrastructure in terms of housing, schools, employment opportunities, energy, communication, health services, transportation and other life support essentials take precedence; combined sometimes with a tolerable level of political negotiation and trade–offs to accommodate a marginal seat. 

Secondary to many of these considerations is available field training areas for those requiring manoeuvre, live firing and other exercise environments. Noticeably absent from these decision–making factors is any threat–based consideration. The strategic warning timeframes for the defence of Australia and other existential threats are sufficiently long to provide for full mobilisation and deployment to the area of need or vulnerability. ADF assets are, therefore, unlikely to be located as an overt strategic deterrence. 

Notwithstanding the remote possibility of a state–on–state conflict the world has become a far more uncertain and volatile place where national security concerns can originate from the most unlikely sources. As a case in point the downing of MH17 in Ukraine and the subsequent deployment of Australian Federal Police and other specialists to secure what was a crime scene tested the diplomacy and responsiveness of several nations in ways that were not anticipated nor rehearsed. 

Transnational Threats To Northern Australia

For instance, one such threat source that provides a strong case for a more robust army presence in WA is the movement, often in 500kg consignments, of methamphetamine through international waters to the immediate North West of Australia, its landing on remote beaches between Broome and Geraldton, collection by distribution networks and arrival in the drug markets of each capital city. The sophistication of these activities has exceeded the capacity and capability of law enforcement professionals.

Deeper army involvement to counter this drug trafficking was codified in Chief of Army’s Directive 01/2017 that stated the revised role of the Regional Force Surveillance Units (RFSUs), which has been referred to as the Regional Force Surveillance Group since October 2018, was to provide direct support to Border Force in a permissive environment and as clandestine surveillance. The three RFSUs: Pilbara Regiment in Karratha; NORFORCE in Darwin and the 51st Far North Queensland Regiment in Cairns are all reserve units with minimal regular Army manning and all operational elements deployed into the field must be drawn from the reservists.

As reserve units the three RFSUs will never be able to reliably and repeatedly deploy at short notice sufficiently skilled numbers to satisfy Border Force requirements. The simple task of manning an Operation Resolute rotation is a major undertaking requiring augmentation from all three units. If the Chief of Army Directive is to deliver an operational outcome for Border Force, then it is reasonable to consider the reassignment of these units as regular forces. 

The 51st Far North Queensland Regiment could have an habitual relationship with Border Force for Operation Resolute in the Gulf region, the Pilbara Regiment could continue to operate on the WA coastline south of Broome in a detection and reporting role, and NORFORCE could assume responsibility for the coastline in between. Further, the Aboriginal aspirations of the units could be further strengthened as soldiers and officers recruited locally could serve extended periods and advance through the ranks without a requirement to post every two or three years. 

Under current arrangements the regular army staff in each of the units is rotated in and out of units based in the eastern states, and have only a brief experience of direct support to Border Force in a permissive environment: clearly a different set of operational considerations.   


*This article is an updated version of the original submission which was first published in the inaugural WA DEFENCE REVIEW 2018 Annual Publication and can be viewed online here: https://wadefencereview.com.au/publication/

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are that of the author’s only, and do not necessarily represent the views of WA DEFENCE REVIEW.

About Guy Duczynski

Guy DuczynskiGuy Duczynski served nearly 41 years with the Special Air Service Regiment and Special Operations Command. He was a patrol commander in a free fall troop, deployed with TAG West, and served as a liaison officer to US SOCOMD in Afghanistan. He retired from full-time service in 2018 and is now the strategic defence advisor to Edith Cowan University.