Optimizing Cooperation

Optimizing Cooperation

Indo-Pacific nations need to build a region where working together and sharing information are the norm

Maj. Gen. Jake Ellwood/Australian Army


“We live in an era of increasing competition where the rules-based international order is coming under increasing pressure. In the face of this, we have an opportunity: If we posture to harness our innate potential, we stand to increase our collective prosperity,” according to our chief of Army’s future framing concept, Accelerated Warfare.

Optimizing our theater for cooperation is a vital topic because of the risks and opportunities that exist in a world more connected than ever and changing at an accelerating pace.

As the commander of the Australian Army’s 1st Division, I am responsible to our chief of Army for force preparation and certification of Army personnel and units for known and contingency operations. I am also the responsible lead for planning and commanding all Army international engagement in Southeast Asia and the Southwest Pacific, a new role that the chief assigned to me in November 2018. Concurrently, I have a joint responsibility to our chief of joint operations to provide the Australian Defence Force’s (ADF’s) Deployable Joint Force headquarters. In this role, I am responsible for generating minor or major joint task forces (JTFs) at home or abroad.

Maj. Gen. Jake Ellwood, commander, 1st Division, center, salutes during a parade for Australian forces deploying to Taji Military Complex, 20 kilometers north of Baghdad, after training at Gallipoli Barracks, Brisbane, in April 2019.

Most recently, these responsibilities have been exercised supporting a major international sporting event, the Commonwealth Games, conducted in Queensland, and several international political activities, supporting the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation in Papua New Guinea and elections in the Solomon Islands.

All of these were highly successful, which is a testament to the great work of my staff and the assigned units and personnel.

In July 2019, my headquarters commanded a multinational JTF during Exercise Talisman Sabre. The JTF is composed of 33,000 Soldiers, Sailors and Aviators, 250 aircraft and 50 ships. Talisman Sabre is a biannual combined and joint training activity that highlights the significant and credible warfighting capabilities of the ADF in conjunction with its allies and partners.

The chief of joint operations assigned an additional role to my headquarters in January 2019: to plan and command all Australian joint enhanced regional engagement activities within the Southwest Pacific. Hopefully, we will stimulate discussion on how to optimize a shared vision for cooperation. This is an important aspiration if we are to help mitigate the risks posed by the challenges we all face within our region and exploit the opportunities.

Mounting Threats

Some may question whether the need for cooperation is greater now than it has been historically. Several factors suggest that it is. Consideration of our threats is a good first step to understand why.

An Australian Army section commander delivers orders to his Soldiers during a live-fire drill in 2019 as part of a trilateral exercise, known as Southern Jackaroo, with Japan Ground Self-Defense Force Soldiers and U.S. Marines.

Let’s consider as an example the threat posed by insurgencies in the Philippines. Historically, the majority of these were isolated organizationally, geographically and culturally. While at various times they have, and continue to, present an ongoing threat, the insurgents were locally motivated and radicalized, locally trained, and they operated locally. Evidence shows this is no longer the case. Rather, they now appear as increasingly well-connected organizations with links to regional and global actors. These transnational actors, who are more often than not nonstate aligned, help motivate, resource, inform, train and equip these local groups. Malign actors are now “setting their theater” to undermine nation states, freed by technology and modern interconnectivity from the encumbrance of obstacles of the past such as geography, national borders or even cultural differences. New forms of connectivity have accelerated the influence and reach of radical ideologies, transforming hitherto local problems into international ones.

There is abundant evidence that violent extremists, aided by the accessibility of new communications technologies, are cooperating across previously unimaginable distances and political, social and cultural barriers. A related concern is the transnational criminal activity that often goes hand in glove with the permeable borders of an increasingly interconnected world.

The illegal international trade in weapons and narcotics, people smuggling, money laundering and theft of intellectual property, whether done in support of violent extremism organizations or purely organized crime cartels, all erode the national sovereignty of our states and, more broadly, the amity and security of the Indo-Pacific region. 

Not only nonstate actors but also state actors in the Indo-Pacific region are threatening the established order that has brought record development and prosperity to billions across the region.

States are also acting in other ways that are probably not in the best collective interests of the countries of Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. For example, the application of pressure to the point of coercion, to suit another nation’s regional desires at the expense of international norms, is something we must, as a collective, resist. A nation’s sovereignty, democracy and freedoms within an international architecture cannot be purchased at any price. As individual states, this may be difficult to guarantee; as a cooperative collective, anything is possible.

Australian Army and Armed Forces of the Philippines Soldiers disembark a U.S. Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey aircraft during a simulated assault drill for exercise Carabaroo in June 2019 at the Shoalwater Bay Training Area in Queensland, Australia.

Beyond malign state and nonstate actors, other threats give cause for concern. Whether you are a believer in climate change or not, the increase in extreme weather events, combined with the other ongoing effects of rising sea levels, desertification and the acidification of our oceans that science is reporting will increasingly affect the region.

Moreover, the other natural phenomena that have long characterized life in much of the Indo-Pacific — typhoons, earthquakes and related tsunamis — cannot be forgotten. Magnifying the levels of catastrophe associated with these events is the large and ongoing growth of population within the region. Some experts suggest this population growth multiplies the effects of such natural events tenfold.

Irrespective of the origin of the threat — nonstate, state or environmental — we in the Indo-Pacific cannot ignore the risks they pose to stability, security and prosperity. Responding to such events can be far more agile and effective within a framework where cooperation is already the norm and optimized in its application. While affected nations invariably do outstanding work in responding to such events, many hands from friends abroad lighten the load that affected nations must carry.


Seven of the world’s 10 largest armies, nine of the world’s top 10 megacities and three of the world’s top economies exist within our region. It is hard to come up with any conclusion other than the resources available and the potential that exists for cooperation are almost boundless. While noting that every nation will have different policy and resource thresholds for cooperation, optimized cooperation, even in part, will undoubtedly allow great gains. Where nations coexist, with so much to gain but also so much to lose, cooperation is the obvious path. Cooperation is, in my mind, the most powerful way to maintain a prosperous region where sovereignty is guaranteed and international rules and norms are protected, no matter where the threats to these unassailable principles emanate from. The key is understanding how we can set our theater to optimize cooperation, posture to collectively protect ourselves from malign influences and actors and be resilient in the face of strategic shocks. Identification and adoption of such a path will also help us to enhance our strategic freedom for a globalized economy, helping to shore up a future that is certain and prosperous.

A Papua New Guinea Defence Force Soldier participates in March 2019 in the Australian Defence Force’s premier service weapons shooting competition, conducted annually in Puckapunyal, Victoria.

Potential Pathways

I have established why it is in our interests to seek a region where cooperation is the norm. The difficult part can be understanding how we, in the military, can play a part in setting the conditions for success. In addressing this, I will focus closely on the ADF — the force I know best — and the changes it might make in moving toward this collective effort.

When I look at our previous efforts to foster security cooperation across the region, it is fair to say they have always been well-intentioned but sometimes lacked focus and consistency. Our high operational tempo in the Middle East over the past couple of decades often meant there was physically less ability to remain actively involved with our regional partners to the degree we wished. Where we were involved, our engagement was more out of habit than focused, which reduced its effectiveness and impact.

One of the biggest hurdles to optimizing cooperation is the development of personal relationships. People-to-people ties are a proven accelerant to creating trust and understanding. In an ADF context, there were limited habitual relationships between key leaders. A few of our very senior leaders had maintained a close focus, but it was organizationally sporadic.

This meant the development of meaningful relationships was difficult. As we know, relationships are only built at the speed of trust, and trust takes time. This leads to a significant question: How do we set the conditions for optimized cooperation at a people-to-people level? Primarily we achieve it by building relations over time.

Key Engagements

Key leader engagement (KLE) is the first step. KLE is vital because it gives leaders an opportunity to understand where shared interests exist and how to pursue these interests. I decided to invest time in meeting with my counterparts in the region. It is always comforting to discover how many shared issues we have. We all look at them from different angles. Combining these different perspectives provides us all with a far better chance of addressing them. My recent interactions with friends from Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Malaysia and Timor-Leste have all helped me understand the issues I am facing more deeply and to consider perspectives from different foxholes.

Another ever-growing opportunity is our enhanced ability to communicate, and not just in person but across vast expanses of geography. The tyranny of distance is no longer an inhibitor to communicate with our friends and neighbors. Mobile phones, unified communications, video teleconferencing, FaceTime, instant messaging, WhatsApp — are all available in the toolbox to ensure we need not only communicate in times of crisis or at times formally set by our staff.

I have made it a priority to keep in contact with my counterparts via informal means, outside of set times in a set program. This is important if we are to develop authentic relationships, built on trust, over time. Skillful application of interpreters, where necessary, and used in conjunction with these new and ever improving methods of communications, also mean that language differences need no longer be such a barrier. In time, we may find that even the availability of interpreters is no longer an impediment to constant contact with colleagues when using new communication systems. Technologies such as “instant interpreter” are undoubtedly closer than we think as artificial intelligence grows in capability. I suspect time zones will remain an issue we will have to compete with, but a little less sleep is a small price to pay for a theater set for optimized cooperation!

A U.S. Marine Corps amphibious assault vehicle hits the beach after disembarking from the Royal Australian Navy’s amphibious ship HMAS Adelaide during the 2018 Rim of the Pacific exercise.

A U.S. Marine Corps amphibious assault vehicle hits the beach after disembarking from the Royal Australian Navy’s amphibious ship HMAS Adelaide during the 2018 Rim of the Pacific exercise.

Information Sharing

Some will say that a pervasive but necessary block to deeper relations is security. Australia, like every other nation, has different levels of classification for sovereign information. Naturally, information that is highly sensitive is restricted to those who need to know. We have different information we can share with different partners at different times. Nevertheless, we also know this is a limitation that all militaries face. It is not something to be frustrated by, nor is it something that we, as partners should be mistrustful of — it is merely a fact. At the same time, it is something that commanders should always keep a weather eye on. Much of it is a matter of personal judgment, and like any organization, we have individuals who are overly cautious and others who are perhaps cavalier. There is a sweet spot in making sure that our partners and friends receive the information they need, when they need it, in a format that does not put either nation in a difficult position and still ensures their interests are supported and protected.

I am constantly asking my team how we can alter systems and information to protect our security, but also allow us to enable our partners to gain advantage from timely information. It is not a simple issue and is one that will never be fully “solved.” However, it is an issue that needs constant attention by commanders at the appropriate level. If we share right up to the point of discomfort, but not beyond, it is a real sign of commitment to cooperation.

Another important part of enhancing cooperation is actually working together, living together – and winning together. Bilateral and multilateral training events provide a fantastic way to achieve this enhanced level of cooperation. In an Australian context, this was historically difficult due to our previously limited strategic transport options. With our newly acquired multiple purpose amphibious assault ships (LHD) and enhanced airlift capabilities, a new horizon has presented where it is far easier to travel to our partners to undertake such training, or if needed, help them come to Australia. This is a significant opportunity, allowing us to think beyond exercising at home by ourselves, and it allows us to achieve much more with our friends and neighbors.

One of the significant challenges we find in the ADF, not unlike all the nations I have interacted with, is our ability to manage tempo. Known operations, contingency force commitments, an active exercise schedule and a busy international engagement program all place demands on the force. We cannot do more, but I believe we can achieve more within the current tempo. Fusing an exercise, which historically we have conducted domestically, with our regional neighbors in a joint construct and with whole-of-government participation is the way of the future.

For example, historically, we have trained our amphibious forces in the conduct of humanitarian operations from an LHD on a domestic activity. Why don’t we conduct such a humanitarian aid and disaster relief exercise offshore with our partners in a region that is prone to natural disasters? All the while undertaking some concurrent capacity building with local communities while there with our other Australian government agencies and partners? We would achieve joint and whole-of-government training outcomes and enhance our interoperability. This in turn will increase responsiveness with our regional partners for short notice missions and will help build capacity in regions that have been affected by disaster. Making such events the norm instead of the exception would transform the theory of setting our theater for optimized cooperation into practice.

Developing deeper relations does not need to start and finish with strictly military-related activities. Again, with enhanced strategic lift come broader opportunities to engage in activities that foster strong relations that transform into deeper levels of trust over time. These types of activities go beyond business transactions and move into a more personal space.

Activities such as sports, music and other cultural and social activities can all play a vital role in encouraging stronger bonds. In 2018, the chief of the Defence Force asked whether I would — or perhaps it would be more accurate to say he asked me whether I could — participate in the Lombok Marathon. It was organized by the Indonesian military to encourage growth in tourism in the wake of a significant natural disaster. I jumped at the opportunity to see the Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI) at their very best. They were dedicated to supporting their community, and their community was deeply grateful. I also had a chance to speak firsthand to the wonderful men and women of the Reconstruction Task Force who were doing amazing work. While the activity was not military in nature, it had a profound effect on me, and I think the TNI appreciated Australians having a team run in this sporting event as a sign of respect and support.

Similarly, our musicians have played overseas at numerous events, like the Good Friday services in Tonga. These are arguably more meaningful to both our personnel and the nations we visit because it develops a personal connection, which often can be stronger than the professional one, but at the very least significantly enhance it. If we can somehow develop deep professional and personal relationships, our shared appreciation, understanding and trust for one another will necessarily grow. This can only lead one way — to enhanced cooperation.

Working with allies, partners and friends

Optimizing the theater for cooperation will help us all mitigate threats, capitalize on opportunities and most importantly, it will help develop people-to-people relations — which is the key ingredient to success. In an Australian context, we can achieve this by exploiting our enhanced communications capabilities, strategic mobility and seeking to achieve a more collaborative approach to combined activity planning, not only focused on our militaries but also across the whole of our governments. If we do this, we will have set firm foundations for a prosperous region where nation states are free to exercise their rights within an environment where international rules and norms are respected.

Our profession is most certainly a team sport, and history tells us our shared interests are best realized when we work together. Cooperation means that none of us will need to face challenges in an increasingly important and increasingly demanding Indo-Pacific region on our own.