The New Zealand reconnaissance party arrived at Buka on 20 November 1997. An enthusiastic crowd of Bougainvilleans gave Colonel Clive Lilley and his team a warm welcome. Joske’s group arrived soon after and they joined a nearby reception function guided by the New Zealand defence attaché, Wing Commander Athol Forrest. Lilley’s priority was to move his engineer troop commander and group of engineers across the Buka Passage, a body of water separating the northern and southern islands of Bougainville, and then to drive south. His objectives were to report back on the viability of the route to Arawa and then to proceed to Arawa so as to begin negotiations and preparations for opening the nearby port at Loloho and the airfield at Kieta.[51] Initially, Joske thought that Lilley was moving too quickly. The group could afford to wait until the next day to settle in and issue comprehensive orders before crossing the Buka Passage and heading south. Lilley pointed out that he had issued his orders in New Zealand before departure. Joske could decide to accompany his engineers down the road or be left behind. Joske and his group joined the New Zealanders and crossed the Buka Passage later that afternoon.[52] For his part, Forrest hired a helicopter for Lilley, who flew out for Arawa late that afternoon to begin negotiations with the BRA and local authorities for accommodation and facilities for the TMG. Diplomatically and militarily, the ADF appeared to be flatfooted.

The NZDF and the ADF had differing views on what this phase of Operation Bel Isi was supposed to achieve. Connolly and his staff had a traditional sequential view of reconnaissance. Joske and his group would return to Australia and report back before the advance party and the main body of troops departed. The New Zealanders envisaged their reconnaissance group, acting more like an advance party, reporting back en route and opening up a forward headquarters at Arawa, the port at Loloho and the Kieta airfield in preparation for the imminent arrival of ships and aircraft carrying troops and matériel. Lilley’s group also engaged and reassured Bougainvillean leaders and the populace about the TMG mission. Australian planners had not anticipated this political task. Joske had neither linguistic nor public relations support, while Lilley had several interpreters in his team. With hindsight, neither the NZDF nor the ADF had fully anticipated the political requirements. The arrival of the first elements of the TMG was significant, but could not be exploited because Lilley had to fly south as soon as possible to prepare the way for the remainder of the TMG. During their journey south, that began from the other side of the Buka Passage early on 20 November, Joske had to disappoint most villages on the way that had organised welcoming ceremonies for them—a culturally clumsy start for the TMG.[53]

The 170-kilometre journey south to Arawa took 11 hours because of the need to cross several rivers and damaged bridges, and to collect engineer information along the way.[54] For Connolly and his staff at HQ AST, this was an anxious period. They were unable to communicate with Joske and his group, who had taken their satellite communications with them on the drive south. This Inmarsat equipment, the same type that had been fitted to HMAS Tobruk for Operation Lagoon, could not operate from moving vehicles. Lilley left a rear link signals detachment at Buka to communicate with HQ TMG in New Zealand and to maintain tactical-level communications with his group during the potentially dangerous journey south. Much to his reported chagrin, Connolly and his staff had to use this New Zealand link to ascertain movements and progress.[55]

In the following days, Rogers spent a frustrating time trying to obtain information from HQ AST on the composition of the TMG and what stocks and equipment were about to be loaded on HMAS Tobruk. He needed to know how much accommodation and working space was required at Loloho, and whether there were sufficient tents, camp stores and other items being loaded on HMAS Tobruk to satisfy requirements. Rogers was not receiving any information from logistic planners at HQ LSF (in both Randwick and Land Headquarters), who were responsible for loading HMAS Tobruk. He commented in his diary that there appeared to be no combined planning with the New Zealanders, ineffective coordination of logistic preparations at HQ AST and no understanding among HQ AST staff of the need for him to influence what was being loaded. He wondered why he was on a reconnaissance if his information was not being used to inform logistic preparations. He knew what conditions were like on the ground and what resources would be needed to clean up Loloho port and get logistics operating efficiently.[56] For their parts, Connolly and his staff were not responsible for force preparation. They may have been seized by the fate of Joske and his reconnaissance group in Bougainville and less interested in the fate of matériel being assembled on wharves and loaded at Woolloomooloo—the navy’s fleet base on Sydney Harbour.

Rogers’ other observation at the time was that Connolly’s staff were micro-managing and minimising the numbers of army personnel. However, there was no similar examination of maritime or aircrew numbers. The navy and the air force could decide on the numbers needed to support an operation but the ‘army was given a number and told to get on with it’.[57] Rogers wondered why higher levels of command caused so much disruption and disappointment among army personnel who had trained together and wanted to deploy together on operations. Staff officers had directed him to downsize his logistic support elements at short notice and form ad hoc organisations that had neither trained nor worked together. None of these decisions were made with the benefit of reconnaissance. Now that he needed more personnel to clean up the wharf area at Loloho and help set up logistic support facilities and accommodation areas, staff advised him no further personnel were available, even on a temporary basis. The figures for the TMG appeared to have been decided on or rounded off by senior officers and their staffs without the benefit of an analysis of the roles and tasks of HQ TMG and Rogers’ logistic support team, or reconnaissance.[58]

Connolly’s staff issued an operation order for Operation Bel Isi just after midnight on 20 November 1997. This was the first formal guidance since 11 November. It gave five days warning for the dispatch of an advance party and nine days for a main body of troops. Staff at Land Headquarters had warned Colonel Jeff Wilkinson, Commander LSF, and his staff earlier in November about the forthcoming deployment. Soon after receiving the operation order from HQ AST, Hickling’s staff nominated HQ LSF as the mounting headquarters for Operation Bel Isi. Aside from assembling, training and administering personnel using his Deployed Forces Support Unit, Wilkinson’s major challenge was to concentrate stocks, vehicles and equipment at Woolloomooloo and load HMAS Tobruk. He and his staff had to meet these practical challenges in less than 10 days. On 23 November, an advance party arrived in Randwick for three days pre-deployment training and administration. On the afternoon of 26 November, after the advance party flew out to Bougainville from Richmond, the main body of troops arrived. Concurrently, Wilkinson’s staff organised the concentration of heavy engineering equipment, a number of Land Cruisers, Land Rovers and heavy vehicles as well as tonnes of equipment and stocks at Woolloomooloo.

Birks and Connolly signed a combined operation plan on 27 November—too late to influence specific force preparation or deployment. HMAS Tobruk sailed on 29 November 1997.[59] They foreshadowed that the TMG would transition into another organisation after Leaders’ Talks were to be held on or about 31 January 1998. The PNG Government and representatives from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Vanuatu signed an agreement for their contribution to the TMG on 5 December 1997. By that time, advance parties of the TMG had arrived in Bougainville, and the main bodies of troops were either in the air or at sea heading for Bougainville.[60]

Once again, the ADF appeared to have effectively and efficiently planned, prepared and deployed force elements on time and in good order at short notice. The timely sequence of events beginning after the joint statement by Downer and McLachlan on 17 November justified this perception of Australian military force projection. Within 48 hours, a reconnaissance group left Australia. An advance party flew out on 24 November, and the main body on 30 November 1997. Based on these outcomes, Operation Bel Isi was an example of a synchronised diplomatic and military effort that confirmed extant arrangements and justified the introduction of COMAST and HQ AST into the ADF chain of command for operations. In reality, the New Zealanders had shown the way and unknowingly driven the ADF decision cycle. Formal processes for Australian military force projection had been too slow. It had been ad hoc arrangements between internal coalitions of willing staff at the tactical level within the ADF and NZDF, as well as the PNG Section at DFAT that had delivered these impressive results.

[51] Colonel Clive W. Lilley, Interview with author, 25 October 1998.

[52] Colonel Steve K. Joske, Commander’s diary entry, 20 November 1998. Copy held by author.

[53] Diary entry, Rogers, 20 November 1997.

[54] Diary entry, Rogers, 20 November 1997.

[55] Major John G. Howard in interview with author, 10 February 1998. Howard, a NZDF Special Forces officer, was a member of Lilley’s reconnaissance party and then operations officer for Monitoring Team Buin.

[56] Diary entry, Rogers, 24 November 1998.

[57] Diary entry, Rogers, 27 November 1998.

[58] The author monitored issues related to numbers for Operation Bel Isi soon after the Resources Group submitted their report on 6 November, nominating a 150-person structure. There was no logistician in the group to point out that this was unworkable. Subsequently, after exhaustive analysis, the bare minimum was assessed by staff in both New Zealand and Australia as 264 personnel. The final cap figure issued by HQAST was 250, suggesting that the 264 figure had been arbitrarily rounded off.

[59] Major General Alan L. Birks and Major General Jim M. Connolly, ‘Combined AS/NZ Operational Plan Operation BEL ISI’, HQNZDF 03130/PNG/1, 27 November 1997. Copy held by author.

[60] ‘Agreement between PNG, Australia, Fiji, New Zealand and Vanuatu Concerning the Neutral Truce Monitoring Group for Bougainville’, signed in Port Moresby, 5 December 1997. Copy held by author.