06 Jan 2020
Bold decision puts ADF specialists to work
By Paul Barnes
Australia is in the middle of a protracted climate catastrophe that is harming our environmental and national security. The area of burnt land, the extent of environmental and property loss and human suffering is unprecedented in recent memory.
Unprecedented circumstances call for bold decisions. It was good to see the activation of additional, weighty Australian Defence Force capabilities and equipment on Saturday. But it was also heartening to see some of the deeper, specialist capacities of the ADF reserve brought into the disaster effort, such as military engineers, health, psychology and communications specialists.
With telecommunications cut across the firegrounds, the reserve's portable communications infrastructure and network experts will be invaluable. Reserve engineers will be able to aid councils in sizing up damage and triaging repairs. Public and environmental health specialists will bring their expertise with waste management to the devastated regions while reserve psychologists will be able to support local health services.
As the chief of the Australian Army Lieutenant-General Rick Burr said, this is the first time in Australia’s history that the ADF reserve brigades have been "called out", that is. mobilised on Australian soil. They will bring the skills they practise in civilian life and apply them under army discipline to take the load off local and state agencies fighting fires and meeting humanitarian needs.
The legislative authority to do this has been in place since soon after Federation. Section 28 of the Defence Act (1903) allows the Governor‐General to approve a call-out of the reserves for continuous full-time service to assist commonwealth, state, territory or foreign government authorities and other agencies in situations involving Australia’s national security or affecting Australian wider defence interests. But there has never been a disaster of a scale big enough to motivate Australian governments to engage the complex protocols that allow it.
The closest historical parallel is the response to Cyclone Tracy in December 1974, which involved the National Disasters Organisation, the RAN, RAAF, Army, Northern Territory police service and airlines.
Importantly, the legislative context of the reserve force activation is to support community activities. There is no authority in the constitution or the Defence Act for the Commonwealth to take control of a significant national emergency response. The ADF will not lead state responses or be involved in specialised emergency responses where they have no training or certification to act.
The ADF has been acutely aware that it could be called upon to provide extended assistance in the event of significant disasters. Section 3.6 of the 2016 Defence White Paper states: "Our interest in a secure, resilient Australia also means an Australia resilient to unexpected shocks, whether natural or man-made, and strong enough to recover quickly when the unexpected happens."
This is not unusual internationally. In the US, activating the reserve components of US military capability such as the National Guard and the Coast Guard in support to natural disasters is common.
A critical issue in Australia will, of course, be how professional state response agencies effectively integrate the efforts of the ADF reserve forces into their activities. It may be a learning curve for all.
There are range of specific issues that the ADF will want to address in its thinking and internal reviews after this emergency is over. These would include possible changes to defence and national command arrangements that make it more agile in response to climate-related operations domestically, in the Pacific and south-east Asia.
Identifying ways to improve planning, capability development and force structure in response to natural disasters and extreme weather scenarios will also be important. It may lead to changes in defence procurement policies to identify dual-use technologies and capabilities suitable for traditional ADF functions and homeland disasters.
According to The New York Times, a chalkboard sign placed recently outside the bookshop in the NSW village of Cobargo reads "Post-Apocalyptic Fiction has been moved to Current Affairs". Like the rest of us, the ADF will have to get used to the new normal these fires have thrust upon the country.