Afghan feedback crucial to overseas military assistance, says head of Oz anti-mine project

By on 09/01/2017
Brigadier John Shanahan

The Australian military officer who led an award-winning project to equip Afghan security forces with anti-mine radio jamming kit has emphasised the crucial importance of giving local frontline troops a key role in the equipment’s design and development.

Brigadier John Shanahan, whose team recently won the ‘Innovative Solutions’ prize in Australia’s Public Sector Innovation Awards, told Global Government Forum that Afghan forces have had equipment worth “billions of dollars thrown at them” by other NATO members, but often don’t use introduced technology “because they don’t understand it and they don’t trust it.”

Shanahan was asked to provide Afghan troops with handheld radio-jamming equipment to help counter the threat from ‘IEDs’: Improvised Explosive Devices, planted by roads and often detonated remotely via radio signals. The ‘Redwing’ project was only successful, he told Global Government Forum, because his team “didn’t just give them something and said: ‘Here’s something wonderful’, but said: ‘Here’s what we think would work, have a play with it and then come back with your requirements and we will then adapt it’.”

The brigadier’s team first presented the Afghan National Army with a prototype, inviting feedback and suggestions for change, then acted on the Afghan’s feedback to make multiple changes – including providing different types of battery and carrying pouches, and producing instructions in various dialects.

The end result was a product which “they understood, trusted and then deployed it to where it was needed,” Shanahan said, adding that though this extended development process “slowed things down, it made a really big difference.” Some 150,000 of the systems are now in use by Afghan security forces.

As well as working across international boundaries, Shanahan added, his team also had to forge new partnerships with Australian government bodies and suppliers. A prototype was developed by the Defence Science and Technology (DST) Group, part of the Department of Defence. And after a final system had been agreed with the Afghans, the Australian Military Sales Office (AMSO) worked with the Redwing team to manage a procurement process involving five different suppliers. The project took just 18 months from inception to delivery, and was completed well within budget.

“There were some frictions along the way because a bunch of organisations which didn’t normally work together found themselves working together against a very challenging timeline in an environment they weren’t normally in,” Shanahan said. “So engagement was key. We had to be bold; got on the phone, talked to people, held a lot of meetings”.

“Redwing was a truly collaborative project, with AMSO and DST Group working closely with the chosen industry partners to deliver a life-saving product,” he concluded.

The Public Sector Innovation Awards are run by the Institute of Public Administration Australia’s ACT division, and the Public Sector Innovation Network.

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About Winnie Agbonlahor

Winnie is news editor of Global Government Forum. She previously reported for Civil Service World - the trade magazine for senior UK government officials. Originally from Germany, Winnie first came to the UK in 2006 to study a BA in Journalism & Russian at the University of Sheffield. She is bilingual in English and German, and, after spending an academic year abroad in Russia and reporting for the Moscow Times, Winnie also speaks Russian fluently.

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