Exercise Control as a Civilian

Civilian agency participation in military exercises has increased over the last ten years. This is a welcome development as exercises provide a platform to strengthen Australian whole of government crisis prevention, preparedness and response capability.

Royal Australian Air Force team walking towards Globemaster aircraft


Civilian agency participation in military exercises has increased over the last ten years. This is a welcome development as exercises provide a platform to strengthen Australian whole of government crisis prevention, preparedness and response capability.

Military exercises are not only a tool for the Australian Defence Force (ADF) to develop capability. For civilian agencies such as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), Australian Federal Police (AFP), and the Department of Home Affairs, exercises offer a valuable opportunity to develop the skills to respond to a range of conflict, humanitarian and consular crises. Civilian agencies not only participate in military exercises, but also contribute to the design and control of exercises to train the ADF and their own staff. This essay aims to explain the civilian role in exercise design, development and execution.

Why Civilian Agencies?

For civilian agencies participation has two main aims. One aim is to ensure the ADF understands the capabilities, processes, roles and authority of civilian agencies in a crisis and stabilization situations. In this case civilian agencies are a training tool for the ADF.  The other aim is for civilian agencies build the capacity of their own officers through responding to a crisis scenario as part of a whole-of-government effort. In this case civilian agencies are part of the training audience and not just a training tool. The type of exercise, number of civilian participants, and degree of experience of the civilian participants will shift the primary aim of the exercise closer to one of these two.   

Exercise Background Design

In an exercise you are in the White, Blue, Red or Green team. The White Team or Exercise Control (Excon) designs the exercise scenario, creates challenges for the participants, ensures the safety of Blue participants, and shapes how the exercise progresses.  Blue are participants or the training audience in the exercise representing Australia or a coalition that Australia is part of. The Green Team are participants playing the local actors from the host country or region where the scenario is set. Lastly, the Red Team is the enemy who are fighting Blue.

The White Team begins are involved in the entire duration of planning the exercise through to post execution evaluation. The duration of this varies depending on the exercise, however most are in 12-24 month cycles.

The basic parameters of the exercise are based on training objectives for the ADF. These are numerous and could include for example an objective for the Amphibious Task Group to gain certification for a beach landing or for the Special Operations Command to undertake a hostage rescue mission. Within this construct, civilian agencies may have their own objectives such as evacuating a group of Australians before a conflict breaks out or delivering humanitarian aid to survivors of an earthquake with the support of the ADF.

The exercise scenario is developed over a series of planning conferences in the 12-24 month Joint Exercise Life Cycle (JELC). Typically this consists of an Initial Planning Conference (IPC), Mid-Planning Conference (MPC), Final Planning Conference (FPC), Master Scenario Events List (MESL) Conference and the exercise itself. The planning conferences and the MESL Conference are each usually held over 3-5 days. This represents a substantial commitment of time and energy. In Australia they are often held at Gallipoli Barracks in Brisbane and if a joint exercise with the US, at the K. Mark Takai Pacific Warfighting Centre on Ford Island in Honolulu, which obviously incurs travel costs.

Although the commitment is significant, the opportunity for civilian agencies to shape the exercise to achieve their own training objectives and inform the ADF of the important roles that civilian agencies play in the lead up to, during, and after conflict is invaluable. Civilian officers can also gain an understanding of how the military functions, military strategic thinking, and whole-of-government crisis response. It is also a good opportunity to build networks with ADF and other civilian government counterparts, which can be extremely useful in a real-world response.

One of the aims of the planning conferences is to draft the road-to-crisis (or conflict) (RTC) document or series of documents. Civilian agencies also contribute to the road-to-crisis document, which provides the historical background to the start of the exercise. This may be supplemented with exercise intelligence reporting. Sometimes the RTC documents are drip released by the White Team to the Blue Team over three stages up to six months before the start of the exercise. Blue then use these to start planning their response to developments. Additionally, the ADF develops maps showing points such as movement of forces, geographical features, key infrastructure and main population centres. A scenario is based on actual or fictitious stakeholders, politics, world events and geography, or a combination of both.

Exercise Injects

Another aim of the planning conference is to draft exercise injects. These are developments in the scenario as it unfolds and bits of information that inform the Blue Team’s decision making. The injects are developed at the MESL Conference and dynamically during exercise execution. Injects are drip fed to the participants over the course of the exercise not beforehand. For example, an inject from a civilian agency could be a diplomatic cable from Canberra reporting regional political developments, an email from AFP Canberra giving directions to AFP in the field, reporting on meetings and negotiations, or analysis the way the conflict is being handled by the UN Security Council. Other injects could be media reports, emails, telephone calls, a video on YouTube, announcements from the United Nations, statements from the host or enemy government, or ministerial media statements.

The road-to-crisis document and the injects are used to shape the direction of the exercise and ensure that the training objectives of the participants are met. They should be plausible in the real world but can be enhanced by the White Team to test the Blue Team. The injects should be drafted in advance at the MESL Conference ideally for the first three days of the exercise. Even then they may have to be adjusted before release depending on Blue’s decisions. After the initial injects they are drafted dynamically  by the White Team in response to how the exercise develops and the decisions of the Blue Team.

The types of civilian injects that can be inserted by civilian agencies working in the White Team to challenge the Blue ADF and civilians are multitude. There could reporting, analysis or directives about:

  • A riot possibly supported by the enemy;
  • An outflow of displaced people fleeing the crisis;
  • A humanitarian crisis through the outbreak of disease;
  • An exchange of economic sanctions and the breakdown of trade;
  • Social media campaigns using bots by the enemy;
  • Political power plays at the United Nations;
  • Geneva Convention violations committed;
  • Threats or damage to World Heritage sites and environmentally sensitive areas;
  • Threatening or violent action by enemy grey forces;
  • Corrupt local officials manipulating the situation for their own benefit;
  • Protests for and against the conflict locally and in Australia;
  • Assassinations;
  • Third party countries switching allegiances;
  • Soft diplomacy tussles;
  • Demarches by a group of likeminded countries against enemy;
  • Human rights abuses including sexual violence;
  • Kidnappings and demands for ransom;
  • Cyber-attacks;
  • Threats by enemy political leaders;
  • Requests to meet from friendly or enemy representatives;
  • Australian military or civilians attacked and killed;
  • Piracy by criminal elements taking advantage of the breakdown in law and order;
  • Terrorist attacks;
  • Parallel crisis in other parts of the world drawing away Australia’s attention; and,
  • Domestic political developments that shape government decision making.

In the White Team you can insert these types of injects to provide logistical challenges, and moral, reputational, and operational dilemmas. Often civilian and military participants will have different priorities and understanding of authority and international law creating tensions and robust discussion among the Blue Team. The White Team can also aim to stretch the resources of the Blue Team. The participants have limited time and resources and must make decisions in a high-pressure, high-stakes environment that simulates a real-world crisis. For example, in the build up to a possible battle at sea, the White Team may insert a refugee boat with 150 people onboard that is beginning to sink and is requesting help by radio near an Australian navy vessel. The refugees are also live streaming their predicament on Facebook catching the eye of the Australian media.  The 1958 Geneva Convention on the High Seas imposes an express obligation upon States to render aid to persons in distress at sea as follows: “Every State shall require the master of a ship sailing under its flag, in so far as he can do so without serious danger to the ship, the crew or the passengers”. Given that tensions are rising in the area it could be that going off course and rescuing the refugees places the ship in danger. However, if the refugee sinks it will be a humanitarian tragedy and Australia’s reputation domestically and internationally could be damaged. Even if they do rescue the refugees, they would be pressed to be able to look after them and may be required logistically and legally to bring them ashore promptly thereby taking the vessel out of the battle area. As you can imagine this type of scenario creates debate in the Blue Team about what is a priority.

Injects can also be used to keep the Blue Team on track to meet its training objectives. For example if the Blue Team decided to ignore Geneva Convention violations by the enemy, a diplomatic cable from headquarters (White Team) could be sent tasking it to find out more information, protect the site and record evidence. This will stretch the ADF who may want to keep marching forward to fight the enemy. Members of the civilian White Team can play a range of stakeholders from agency headquarters and the Prime Minister to the General Secretary of the UN, media, or civil society representatives. Basically they can be anyone in the world who is not Blue or Red.   

Lastly experienced members of the White Team participate in a series of Ramp Up events prior to the exercise that aim to ensure the Blue Team  understand the scenario, have planned well, and to build relationships.

The Work Environment

For large exercises there can be hundreds of people in White and thousands in Blue. Working in White requires close coordination among all the working groups and between civilians and military. The road-to-crisis documents are made up of contributions from the various working groups. The ADF must collate and edit the contributions in a way that timings align, the developments are not contradictory, and everyone aware of what is expected.

The whole White Team will often work in a large room so the different working groups can easily communicate. During the development of the injects and throughout the exercise, there are “sync” meetings where a facilitator runs through each inject that is upcoming in chronological order to ensure that everyone understands how the crisis will unfold and ensure consistency in the story. For example, if the civilian White Team wants to inject a storyline about an Australian family being kidnapped by terrorists for ransom to exercise the consular colleagues in Blue, they will need to coordinate with several working groups in White before this type of insertion such as the Special Operations Command and the Cyber working groups. This is because the Special Operations Blue Team may be expected to rescue the family and the Cyber Blue Team may have to try to locate the source of communications from the terrorists. If these actions do not align with their exercise training objectives, it may derail the exercise and cause knock-on effects that decrease its value. In this case, the inter-agency civilian working group may have to drop the inject or negotiate a compromise whereby the exercise stays on track and everyone’s training objectives are met.

In the exercise execution there are also a number of participants who called “trusted blue” who go between White and Blue to convey messages and ensure the Blue Team stay on general track to achieve their objectives. Sometimes Blue’s decisions can take them off-track and away from objectives. Trusted participants bring Blue back in line.

Getting to Exercise Control

To work in the White Team as a civilian it is recommended that you play in Blue first. This gives you a good understanding of how the Blue Team works and will enable you to better how to create realistic but challenging scenarios for Blue. Participating in an exercise in Blue is rewarding and a great learning opportunity in itself. As a civilian, you’ll have a range of new experiences from riding in a helicopter, spending time on a Navy vessel, designing a non-combatant evacuation, partnering with five-eyes colleagues, and working with ADF special operations command, engineers and intelligence.

Working in Blue will also give you the experience of working with the ADF with its unique “language”, structures, planning and implementation processes. Blue will also give you a deeper understanding of civilian agency roles. Even if you know what your own agency does, working in Blue with other civilian agencies builds whole-of-government understanding.

Good communication skills, creativity, and a sound of understanding of the ADF, whole-of-government processes, individual agency roles, and Australia’s broad strategic objectives are all needed to work in the White Team.


A robust White Team that includes both military and civilian members is key for all Blue participants to achieve their training objectives, bolster response capability and strengthen whole-of-government understanding. Being a civilian in the White Team allows you to shape how that happens and is a rewarding experience.