The Papua New Guinea Defence Force is currently under review pending a Defence White Paper, but it is safe to say that its goals and objectives are enshrined in the Constitution and are unlikely to change. Defence protects PNG’s sovereignty against external threats. It assists PNG in fulfilling international obligations. It comes to the aid of civil authorities in civil emergencies and contributes to nation-building and to promoting national unity. So the Defence Force has both an external and an internal rationale.
There are, in 1995, about 5,200 in the Defence Force. It is one force consisting of Land, Maritime and Air Elements. There are two infantry battalions (of approximately 1,000 men each), one Engineering Battalion, a Preventive Medical Platoon and a Signal Squadron. The maritime element consists of a Patrol Boat Squadron, a Landing Craft Squadron, an Explosive Ordinance Disposal Unit and a small Riverine Operations Unit. The Air element includes Fixed Wing and Rotary Wing Flights and a Training Flight. In addition there are a number of support elements: Supply, Transport, Movements, Health Centres, Field Medical Section, Provost, Regional Engineer Units and Defence training institutions.
There is no doubt that the Defence Force is small in relation to the country but there is no immediate external threat at present. PNG is geographically located in one of the least troubled regions of the world. PNG is living in harmony with immediate neighbours on all three borders. But uncertainty still prevails. There is a need to be ready for anything. Perhaps PNGDF’s most successful incident in the international arena occurred in 1980 when PNG went to the aid of the legitimate government of Vanuatu in a peacekeeping operation.
“The training was such that they could hit rats and bandicoots at night if they moved”, boasted the Brigadier General in charge. The force, led by the then Colonel Tony Huai was formidable. Ninety-five combat-ready troops were dropped onto Santo airfield. In his report from Santo in 1980, Sean Dorney described the scene – “Led by Huai clutching an Israeli sub-machine gun, the men leapt out prepared for trouble. They were in full battle dress, armed with automatic rifles and heavier weapons. They had the dark visors of their battle helmets pulled down over their faces and fearsome-looking, long-bladed bush knives strapped to their waists. They secured the airport… With the arrival of the Papua New Guineans the British and French soldiers packed up and left, having picked up no honours but excellent suntans.” This deployment of soldiers from one Pacific island to another for the first time ever was significant. It marked the beginning of a new sense of cohesiveness among Melanesian countries.
The internal situation presents more of a problem for the Defence Force. The operation in Bougainville is uncomfortable. A small band of guerrillas has been able to tie up a large section of PNGDF. The Army’s activities have brought them into disrepute, with charges of human rights violations. The Defence force is recruited on a quota system so that all regions are represented. They do not like getting involved in partisan or regionalist arguments, but they have a duty to maintain law and order. They also have to help in times of national disaster such as volcanic eruptions.
The present Minister, Mathias Ijape, sees the future development of the Force in maintaining a highly mobile core force which is structured and strategically located throughout the country to meet low-level conflicts which may arise at short notice. “Despite the commonly recognised conventional roles of the Defence Forces, PNGDF must play a leading role in nation building” the Minister says. “Almost 80% of our people live in the mountains and rural areas with little or no access to developed infrastructures. I see PNG Defence Force with assistance from our neighbouring armed forces carrying out civic action tasks in future. Instead of keeping the soldiers in barracks, let’s send them out to the villages to build roads, set up water supplies, aid posts and schools. It would not diminish their military capability and it would be immensely helpful to the nation.”