Separated by only 150 kilometers of the Torres Strait — once a land bridge connecting them — Australia and Papua New Guinea (PNG) drew closer in October 2023 with the historic appointment of a PNG Defence Force (PNGDF) officer to a senior leadership role in the Australian Army.
Lt. Col. Boniface Aruma, a 27-year veteran, will become deputy commander of the Australian Army’s 3rd Brigade in Townsville, Queensland, in January 2024.
“I think it is the next evolution of the relationship between the Papua New Guinea Defence Force and 3rd Brigade,” Australian Army Brig. David McCammon, 3rd Brigade commander, told FORUM. “We have had a long-standing relationship for a few decades now, and this is the final step in bringing us closer together as a force that continually operates together in the near region.”
Aruma has “an enormous amount of experience in the PNGDF, and he has been on exchange here numerous times,” McCammon said. “He brings the ability to look at a situation with a different set of eyes and see opportunities that we may not see in that space.”
Aruma, who earned master’s degrees in international relations and defense studies in Australia, recently completed Australian Defence Force (ADF) training in Canberra to prepare for his new role.
“For us back home, it’s a big deal … this is really a giant leap for us as an organization,” he told Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC) News. “It’s the most senior appointment that we have ever exported overseas.”
The ADF recently announced that hundreds of troops will be relocated to Townsville, which also will become home to armored vehicles, and attack and medium-lift aviation as part of the Australian Army’s restructuring. The coastal city is about 1,000 kilometers south of PNG’s capital, Port Moresby.
“You now have someone from the Pacific region who sits here, who has a little bit more understanding of how the dynamics work back home,” Aruma said. “We share the same values and the same idea [of] what we want our region to be like — safe, secure and stable.”
The two forces conduct bilateral exercises, including Puk Puk and the Olgeta Warrior series, and the PNGDF in 2023 participated for the first time in the Australia-United States biennial exercise Talisman Sabre, which included nearly 35,000 troops from more than a dozen allied and partner nations.
In November 2023, Australia presented the PNGDF with two new PAC 750 light transport aircraft and is helping refurbish its Air Transport Wing in Port Moresby, the Australian Defence Department said.
The nations also are negotiating a security treaty that would expand defense cooperation. PNG and the U.S. signed a similar agreement in mid-2023 to enhance interoperability between their forces, particularly in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
Aruma’s appointment is “a testament to the deepening collaboration between PNG and Australia in defense and security matters,” as well as a “clear demonstration of the Pacific spirit, where neighboring nations collaborate to enhance their collective defense capabilities,” PNG Deputy Prime Minister John Rosso said in a statement.
“PNG recognizes the importance of maintaining strong, strategic partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region,” he said. “We are committed to working closely with our Australian counterparts to promote peace, security and prosperity in the Pacific region.”
Aruma said his appointment could encourage other Pacific nations to bolster their defense capabilities with ADF support. “This is one of the ways we can empower those smaller nations,” he told ABC News. “The PNGDF wants to be a credible partner in the region, and I think this is the best way.”