Army reservists are drawing on their combined civilian and military experience as embeds in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to support the whole-of-government response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the Pacific region.

Reservists form part of the Essential Services and Humanitarian Corridor for the Pacific and Timor-Leste team, which exists within the Office of the Pacific.

Created in response to COVID-19 – with countries of the Pacific and Timor-Leste closing their borders due to limited capacity to respond to the pandemic – the Corridor’s mission is to support the humanitarian side of pandemic-related changes in the region.

Lieutenant Colonel David Charlton, who normally serves as Commanding Officer of an Army Reserve Infantry Battalion, is a strategy adviser for service development with the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia and one of two reservists leveraging their dual skill-sets to support our Pacific neighbours during this time of crisis.

“DFAT is good at working out what effects they need to achieve. We can support with the planning and operational elements,” Lieutenant Colonel Charlton said. 

“We’re providing support developing protocols and policy using our subject-matter expertise with how they gather their information and disseminate it.

“We also provide a complementary link into other parts of government dealing with COVID-19 through other Defence Force embeds.”

The Corridor enables the transport of essential services and humanitarian supplies, including personnel, medical supplies and equipment for essential utilities.

It also provides a means for Pacific and Timorese nationals to return to their countries of origin, including through agreed quarantine arrangements for those transiting Australia.

“The Corridor plays an essential role in helping distribute humanitarian disaster relief,” Lieutenant Colonel Charlton said.

“This includes distributing materials on behalf of the WHO known as ‘gene expert’ to support local testing for COVID-19.” 

Captain Sean McGee, a Reservist Infantry Officer with CIMIC Group, has leaned heavily on his background in business consulting to support the Corridor initiative.

“Having a fresh set of eyes and combining a business consulting background with Army experience allows us to work with the team and help envisage what an end state could look like,” Captain McGee said.

DFAT is good at working out what effects they need to achieve. We can support with the planning and operational elements.

“This initial work led to us supporting them through an organisational restructure of the branch and changing how they operated on a daily basis.

“As a result, we split into three teams designed to have similar functions to Australian Defence Force (ADF) Operations, Intelligence and Plans cells. 

“With these teams in place we could start using some ADF processes, mapped to a DFAT context to assist with operational tempo.”

Due to the heavy role he played in the restructure and his civilian experience as a program director, Captain McGee was asked to fill the Director of Advice and Analysis position for the Corridor team.

“I’m in a position to shield the team from external noise so they can really get up to speed and start performing. I can buy them space to focus on their work. Once people see the team output, the benefit of these systems becomes clear to everyone,” Captain McGee said. 

Sandra Tam, Director for the Corridor at DFAT, has seen firsthand the benefit that dual-skilled ADF members can bring to a team.

“Policy is looking at what the Corridor is, what we are doing, what the strategy is that leads to building confidence to return to a new normal in the region, post-COVID,” Ms Tam said. 

“Our embedded defence colleagues bring unique experience and knowledge to support our efforts in the Pacific.

"It would be fantastic to keep this collaboration ongoing.”

Although the team is embedded as planners and are fulfilling a function, Captain McGee said they are also working to support the team with establishing systems and approaches so they can develop the needed capabilities themselves.

“It’s important to draw the distinction that even though we’re there providing a different lens on how to do things, DFAT is incredibly capable and is still working hard – if not harder – than anyone out there,” Captain McGee said.