Australian higher command in the Vietnam War

Author/s (editor/s):

David Horner

Publication year:


Publication type:

Policy paper

Canberra Papers on Strategy and Defence No. 40

The Vietnam War presented the Australian higher commanders with a variety of new challenges. In Canberra, the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee found himself responsible for the operations of the joint force in Vietnam but without the authority to excercise command. The government was keen to maintain an Australian military presence Vietnam but appeared to lack interest in how those troops were to be employed so long as there were not excessive casualties and costs were kept to a minimum. The higher military echelons in Canberra seemed unwilling to examine ways in which Australia could gain full value from the efforts of her soldiers. This lack of direction underlined the organisational weaknesses of the Defence group of departments.

The lack of direction in Canberra contrasted with the expertise shown by the 1st Australian Task Force in Phuoc Tuy Province. But the comander of the Task Force lacked a clear directive and was operationally under the control of the American commander of II Field Force. While the Commander, Australian Force Vietnam did not have operational command of the Task Force he remained responsible for their safety and could not escape that responsibility if anything had gone wrong. Remarkably, in the most politically sensitive war in Australian history, the Commander, Australian Force Vietnam received very little direction from Canberra. It was a unique command - one which had very much in common with the command of the Australian Imperial Force in the First and Second World Wars, but one which provided a range of new considerations. The Vietnam War left a lasting impression on the shape of Australia's military forces, and not the least of these was to be on command structures as was to be shown by the changes in the command of the Australian Defence Force in the following fifteen years. 

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