SYDNEY, Australia -- Warrant Officer Class One Craig Egan of the Australian Defense Force deals easily with American noncommissioned officers (NCO) -- they speak the same language, they go through many of the same schools, and they belong to militaries that have the same philosophy on the use of NCOs.
“That’s rare,” Egan said during an interview here. “Many countries do not empower the contributions of NCOs, and they are missing a significant opportunity to gain initiative and maintain agility on the battlefield.”
Egan is the command warrant officer for Australia’s Joint Operations Command based in Canberra -- meaning his appointment is the most-senior joint enlisted position in the Australian military. He presents enlisted members’ perspectives to the chief of joint operations, who commands all Defense Force personnel deployed on operations across the globe. He was in Australia’s largest city to meet with U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. John W. Troxell, the senior enlisted advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“The core belief of both militaries is that NCOs understand commanders’ intent and act within their authority to accomplish their missions,” Egan said.
It comes down to trust and education, he said. Australian and American NCOs are the backbones of their respective services. They are responsible to their commanders for the hands-on training and day-to-day leadership that service members receive. At the foundation level, they are responsible for enforcing standards and ensuring discipline. With increased rank and responsibilities, they are the eyes and ears of commanders while advocating enlisted perspectives and influencing early planning to assist decision making.
And they are trusted to do their jobs.
Different From Other Militaries
This culture does not sit naturally in all militaries around the world. In many military establishments, particularly the enlisted force with a conscript background, NCOs are simply those farther along in their terms. They are trained to act within a far more limited scope as determined by their officers, and this has a direct influence on how they develop as leaders in their own right.
In some other countries, enlisted personnel do not have the education to be NCOs -- the educated in those countries become officers. This structure may have some initial utility if a doctrine is based on ‘the massing of troops,’ Egan said, but is vulnerable when dealing with the complexity of the modern battlefield, which demands increasing levels of initiative in the small teams typically led by NCOs.
History shows that NCOs in authoritarian states tend not to be trusted to exercise initiative. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, the countries of Eastern and Central Europe reformed their militaries to emulate the enlisted forces of the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia.
The United States and Australia have fought shoulder to shoulder since World War I. Australian and U.S. service members fought through some of the toughest campaigns of World War II and in Korea. Australian troops fought alongside U.S. military members in Vietnam and Desert Storm, and they have been part of ongoing operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
And the two nations’ militaries have been and continue to be interoperable. The difference between the two nations is more in scale than in philosophy. “We’re a small, extremely capable and well-trained military. We can stand beside our U.S. peers on equal status,” Egan said. “We’re proud, and with humility, pretty good at what we do.”
The entire Australian military has about 58,200 active-duty personnel, 40,000 reservists and 20,000 defense civilians. The United States has a military establishment of around 3 million.
“It’s the sense of scale the United States brings, the ability to project force and bring in all the enablers around an operation,” Egan said.
Learning From Each Other
The Australian military has its own ways of doing things, Egan said. It mirrors that country’s experiences in the region, in operations outside the area and its military history. U.S. and Australian service members learn from each other in military schools, in exercises and in actual operations. “The levels of collaboration, cooperation and mateship are exceptional,” Egan said.
Egan used the biennial Exercise Talisman Sabre as an example where the two militaries learn from each other. “Talisman Sabre is a classic example of the U.S. bringing a larger force and a larger dimensions,” he said. The most-recent Talisman Sabre had 33,000 service members participating -- most from the United States.
“We cannot replicate with the amount of troops the amount of equipment, maritime platforms, the long-reach and the volume of [strategic] airlift that the United States has got,” Egan said. “Flying troops all the way from Alaska and parachuting them into the Shoalwater Bay Training Area -- that’s a phenomenal effort. That scale allows us to test our higher levels of command, control, communications, planning and integration both practically and synthetically.”
Egan’s story with Americans began in 1983 in Northern Australia at the Jungle Training Center in Tully as part of Exercise Tropic Lightning with the U.S. 25th Infantry Division. This was followed in 1989 as a junior NCO, when he trained with Australian, British, Canadian and American soldiers at an exercise at Fort Ord, California. “We were exposed to U.S. Marine amphibious operations, combat techniques in urban environments and more,” he said. “We were exposed to interoperability among those four nations.”
Increasing Levels of Responsibility
An Army sapper, Egan has served in increasing levels of responsibility. In 2004, he was selected as the Australian representative at the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy at Fort Bliss, Texas. After graduating with Class 55, he stayed on as a faculty advisor. The nine-month course exposed him not only to the U.S. Army, but also to other U.S. military services and representatives from 39 other nations.
“The [U.S. Army Sergeants Major] Academy provided me the professional military education opportunity to lift my thinking above the tactical level and consider the operational and strategic implications. It made me a better senior enlisted leader,” Egan said.
In 2015, Egan attended the Keystone Course at the National Defense University and was the first Australian to participate in the field study package. “I was the senior enlisted leader to the Australian Deployable Joint Force Headquarters at the time; Keystone gave me affirmation of my role and responsibilities in a Joint Interagency environment,” he said. In 2017, Egan was invited once again to Keystone, this time as the second-ever International Senior Fellow.
Egan said he grew professionally and personally from these experiences. “I’ll say this: my nation’s own training got me to the level where I could integrate seamlessly and credibly,” he added. “[The Australian training] gave me the foundations. This is a small military, and it has exceptionally top-quality training. The [Australian] military puts NCOs in challenging jobs and expects initiative from its people.
“It’s the same as the American military,” Egan said.
The training helps ensure that NCOs “can positively interact with everyone,” from the most junior to the most senior in rank, he said.
Another mark of the U.S. and Australian military, Egan said, is that NCOs aren’t afraid to ask questions of the most-senior ranking members.
“It’s respectful, of course, but they can get the word directly,” he said. “Our enlisted forces know what’s important and what to ask their leaders; they understand these questions, or constructive inputs, can lead to better decisions. Critically, our leaders and commanders are willing to listen. You don’t see that in all militaries.”