A military leader from Papua New Guinea will become the second-in-command of one of Australia’s combat brigades in a historic move designed to shore up military ties between the two nations.
It is the first time a foreign military officer has been appointed to such a senior role in the history of the Australian Army.
Lieutenant Colonel Boniface Aruma from the PNG Defence Force (PNGDF) will become deputy commander of 3rd Brigade in Townsville, Australia’s largest garrison city, from next year.
“For us back home, it’s a big deal … this is really a giant leap for us as an organisation,” Lieutenant Colonel Aruma said.
“t’s the most senior appointment that we have ever exported overseas.”
Lieutenant Colonel Aruma has served in PNG’s army for 27 years.
He studied in Australia, earning two master’s degrees in international relations and defence studies from Deakin and Australian National University.
He said the defence capabilities of both nations were set to benefit from his involvement in the high command at the Australian brigade.
“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,” Lieutenant Colonel Aruma said.
“We share the same values and the same idea and what we want our region to be like – safe, secure and stable”
The outgoing deputy commander of 3rd Brigade, Lieutenant Colonel Ken Golder, said Chief of the Australian Defence Force Angus Campbell approached his PNG counterpart Mark Goina last year to discuss the possibility of a military embed.
While troops from 3rd Brigade have long been involved in training exchanges with PNG, Lieutenant Colonel Golder said the appointment would foster a “tangible, person-to-person” relationship inside the headquarters.
“It was mutually agreeable and in fact, strengthened what we’ve been doing,” he said.
Lieutenant Colonel Aruma recently travelled to Canberra to complete ADF training to deepen his understanding of the local position.
“He’ll be intimately involved with the support and mentoring of the commanding officers of this brigade,” Lieutenant Colonel Golder said.
“He’s going to be influential in maintaining and strengthening the relationship not only with the PNGDF [Papua New Guinea Defence Force] but the Townsville community.”
Lieutenant Colonel Aruma said he hoped the move would pave the way for more Pacific Islands to strengthen their own defence with ADF support.
“This is one of the ways we can empower those smaller nations,2 he said.
“The PNGDF wants to be a credible partner in the region and I think this is the best way.2
Defence analyst John Coyne from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute said a foreign appointment to the role of deputy commander had been done before between allied partners.
Australian Major General Chris Smith is currently serving as the Deputy Commanding General for the U.S Army Pacific based in Hawaii, and senior Australian officers have been deputised under US commanders in wartime operations in the Middle East.
“We’ve never seen this with our Pacific family and our Pacific neighbours,” said Coyne, head of the Northern Australian Strategic Pacific Policy Centre.
“We’re going to get a greater appreciation of how the PNGDF undertake strategic planning, operational activities, and tactical activities.
“It sends a message of equalness in the relationship — not of any sort of paternalistic approach.”
This month, Townsville’s 3rd Combat Engineer Regiment completed a six-week deployment to upgrade Lombrum Naval Base and school classrooms on Manus Island on PNG’s northern reaches.
Coyne said the latest appointment signalled a cultural “reset2 in the ADF’s ongoing commitment to the region.
“Unfortunately, fighting two decades of wars against terrorism has meant that we’ve had a very big focus within the Middle East and in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq,” Coyne said.
“That has often come at the cost of our near neighbour relationships.”
It comes as Australia and PNG continue to hash out the details of a proposed bilateral security agreement that was meant to be finalised earlier this year but has hit several road bumps. PNG has already signed a defence deal with the U.S but is also being courted by the leaders of several other countries wanting similar pacts.