Huge effort to bring army home

By Greg Ansley

Australian troops leaving Afghanistan will have equipment with them worth billions.

Surveillance reconnaissance vehicles have played a key part in the Australian effort in Afghanistan. Photo / AP
Surveillance reconnaissance vehicles have played a key part in the Australian effort in Afghanistan. Photo / AP

The Australian Army is about to find out that deciding to pull out of Afghanistan is one thing. Getting home is something else again.

When it does return, with other troops from East Timor and the Solomon Islands, the army will be without serious foreign commitments for the first time in 13 years, stretching resources as its budget is cut, and preparing for a vastly different future.

The Government is already planning to avoid the pit into which the army fell after the Vietnam War, but even with guarantees of no cuts in numbers and promises of huge amounts of new equipment it faces big changes in the way it operates.

First up will be the return from Afghanistan, due to be completed for all but Special Forces and advisory teams by late next year as the Afghan National Security Forces take over from international troops.

In Uruzgun Province, where Australian forces are centred, transition to Afghan control began in July and Prime Minister Julia Gillard told Parliament that the process was on track.

Most of the more than 1500 Australian troops should be gone by between April and October next year.

Each soldier will be bringing back kit worth almost A$30,000 ($38,250), including body armour, night vision glasses and weapons. That is only the start.

The army also needs to bring back ground-penetrating radar trucks and mine rollers used to clear improvised explosive devices, early warning systems, surveillance drones, trucks, armoured vehicles, helicopters and a mass of other equipment.

In all, about A$2.5 billion worth of equipment and supplies will be shipped home, including 350 vehicles, 1600 accommodation modules, 600 shipping containers and about 3500 computers.

While some will be flown to Australia aboard the air force's giant C-17 Globemasters and C130 Hercules, most will have to be hauled overland - probably through Pakistan - to be loaded aboard commercial ships.

"This is a massive logistical exercise in its own right," Defence Materiel Minister Jason Clare said. "Getting it out will require hundreds of personnel to go in. A planning team has been working on the task since the start of the year."

Clare told a land warfare conference in Melbourne that a bigger challenge was to ensure Australia did not make the same mistakes as it did after Vietnam, when the army was "hollowed out" and lost key skills and experience.

"We can't let that happen again," he said. "That's why despite the savings made in the budget we have made it clear there will be no reduction in personnel - in the army, navy or air force."

Defence planners are completing a white paper to set out Australia's emerging strategic future, heavily influenced by the rise of China and India, and likely demands in the immediate neighbourhood.

Clare said the Government was also working on strategies to keep its defence industry intact after projects ended to ensure skills and capabilities were available for planned acquisitions including a new submarine fleet and the army's A$10 billion Land 400 vehicle.

The Land 400 project - the biggest and most expensive yet planned for the army - will develop replacements for armoured combat vehicles.

But far more sweeping changes are planned, with plans to develop the army, air force and navy as a joint force in a complex, high-tech future in which it will be expected to act equally effectively in mountains, deserts and small Pacific states, often in coalitions and working with other government agencies.

A key change for the army will be the development of amphibious skills, similar to the United States Marines, based on the two aircraft carrier-sized ships now being built.

Homeward bound: the logistics of withdrawal

*As well as about 1500 soldiers, the army has to ship back A$2.8 billion ($3.6 billion) worth of equipment, including more than 2000 portable homes and containers, and 350 vehicles.
*Some will be flown home by the air force, but most will have to be shipped back to Australia aboard commercial vessels.
*With troops also returning from East Timor and the Solomons, the army will be without a big foreign commitment for the first time in 13 years.
*Planners are already working to ensure that the mistakes that gutted the army after Vietnam are not repeated.

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