The two squads of Australian soldiers from BG Cannan trod carefully and quietly through the brush- and tree-clad terrain. Their automatic weapons held at the ready and with heavy packs on their backs, they ascended a slope as they sought any sign of the enemy.
Nearing the top of a ridge, writes Gordon Arthur, they stumbled across a hessian-lined observation post once occupied by the enemy. Any hostile soldiers had long since gone from the OP, but these ‘Diggers’ of Battle Group Cannan decided to adopt the site as their own so they could survey the rolling wooded countryside for signs of enemy forces. This was just one task assigned to BG Cannan during Exercise TALISMAN SABER, a large-scale wargame featuring 33,000 personnel, predominantly from Australia and the USA, which was held in July 2017 in and around Australia.
C&S was invited to spend several days embedded with BG Cannan during this exercise and what made the formation particularly interesting was that 97% of its members were from the Australian Army Reserve. During the embed, the author met male and female soldiers from all walks of life: teachers, paramedics, policemen, a tax official, a Woolworths cashier, university students, the currently unemployed and even a piano tuner.
The Battle Group
BG Cannan comprises two Army Reserve brigades: the 11th Brigade from Queensland and the 13th Brigade in Western Australia, both of which belong to the 2nd Division. The battle group is named after Major General James Harold Cannan, commander of the 11th Brigade during WWI, a unit that fought in the battles of Messines, Broodseinde and the Hundred Days Offensive. Cannan would eventually rise to become the Australian Army’s quartermaster general in WWII.
Lieutenant Colonel Mark Smith, a police sergeant in civilian life, had taken 12 months leave to command the battle group during the readying year that culminated in certification during Exercise TALISMAN SABER. He noted that it was the culmination of 18 months of lead-up training: “Specifically for our battle group, our task is to protect command-and-control and logistics elements. These are largely in the rear area where the enemy will attack to disrupt those functions to make it harder to fight on the forward lines. So our task is to deter those attacks and to dissuade the enemy by protecting those softer targets.”
The colonel highlighted the importance of support from families and employers to achieve training such as that achieved during TALISMAN SABER. Reservists also have a lot to contribute to the Army: “I think the key is institutional diversity…There is a tremendous reservoir among the Reserves, and one of the challenges of the Army is to capture those latent skills better.”
Lieutenant Colonel Smith added, “We focus our training on certain things – rear-area security, convoy protection, fighting patrols, observation posts, the tasks that you’re seeing us do here – we have specialised training in those areas. So our battle group would not be good at a parachute jump or an amphibious assault because we have made a conscious decision about scarce training time to focus on being really good at a few things, or many things, but not trying to do everything.”The 11th Brigade’s headquarters is co-located in Townsville and Brisbane. Constituent units dotted around Queensland include: 25/49 Battalion, Royal Queensland Regiment (RQR); 9 RQR; 31/42 RQR; Queensland University Regiment; 11 Engineer Regiment; 11 Combat Service Support Battalion; 12/16 Hunter River Lancers, 5/11 Light Battery and 141 Signals Squadron.
The 13th Brigade, meanwhile, is headquartered in Perth, with units located across Western Australia. Originally formed in 1916, its component units are: the 11th/28th Battalion, Royal Western Australia Regiment (RWAR); 16 RWAR ; Western Australia University Regiment; 13 Field Squadron; A Squadron, 10 Light Horse Regiment; 13 Combat Service Support Battalion; 109 Signal Squadron; and 3 Light Battery.
The 11th and 13th Brigades are coupled with the Townsville-based 3rd Brigade, one of three active-duty multi-role combat brigades of Forces Command. Exercise TALISMAN SABER, and Exercise HAMEL that was nested within it, were critical in certifying these units as the Ready Force within the Australian Army’s three-year force generation cycle. BG Cannan is now thus a deployable force element that can act as a reinforcing battle group for the 3rd Brigade for the next year. Thus it must be ready to deploy wherever it is required at the individual or collective level.
The name of Army Reserve was officially adopted in 1980, although of course the formation had existed for decades before that. The latest figures list 17,064 active Reservists and 12,496 standby Reservists, these categories simply referring to the level of training obligation. In the latter half of the 20th century, the focus was on the Regular Army and there was debate about the role of the Reserves. Indeed, the Reserves were often dismissed as mere weekend warriors.
However, over the past 15 years or so, with continuous operational deployments to places such as Timor-Leste (East Timor), the Solomon Islands, Afghanistan and Iraq, the Reserve has proved its worth and usefulness. The Reserves formed the nucleus of some peacekeeping missions, for example, and many individual specialists have filled Regular Army positions on overseas deployments.The role and structure of the Army Reserve were reformed under Plan Beersheba, a reorganisation plan of the Australian Army announced on 12th December 2011. One core strand of the plan is to achieve greater integration of the Regular Army and Reserve component, making it the most important structural change for the Reserves in decades.
The BG Cannan commander made this observation about the changes: “The Army Reserve has changed over the last 15-20 years…The last five years has seen a real capability revolution where the Reserves are reinforcing combat brigades. We’re doing the same training, working closely with the 3rd Brigade in my case, using the same equipment, the same armoured vehicles, enhanced rifles, thermal and night sights and body armour so that we can operate as a habitual partner with the 3rd Brigade.”
Lieutenant Colonel Smith explained, “Absolutely, Plan Beersheba is on the right track. The longer answer is that it has given a purpose for the Army Reserve and it has created a capability revolution. With the Reserve of old – and certainly before my time – there was the Dad’s Army mentality, the weekend warriors one weekend a month. But this is not an amateur hobbyist group. This is a part-time professional force that trains and gets certified on the same certification exercise as the Regular Army does.”
The aim is, by about 2022, to have grown the capability such that a Reserve battle group can take up the full mantle of a manoeuvre battle group if required. At the company, combat team, battalion and battle group level, work is thus being done to improve the tactical and technical proficiency to allow this to happen.
© Gordon Arthur 2017
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