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Army Disaster relief

Defence forces can play a broader role in disaster management

By Anthony Bergin and David Temmpleman

When natural disasters occur, the community expects the nation’s full resources to be mobilised to the extent necessary to save lives and property. That’s why Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, a former senior army reservist, is considering an unprecedented compulsory call-out of part-time reserves to help combat bushfire emergencies amid the infernos facing NSW and Queensland.

Disaster response is primarily the responsibility of the states and territories. But each year there are many instances when local military commanders help in local life-threatening situations. Typically, immediate assistance is provided by military personnel on full-time service. Reservists may participate after they have been mobilised but this can take several days.

The Defence Force will maintain its military lines of command and control, rather than come under civilian leadership. Defence forces can contribute an array of capabilities in communications, power generation, lift and mobility air evacuation, and fuel and water transport. They add numbers whether it be removing fallen trees or tarping damaged roofs.

The military role in domestic disaster assistance is viewed by Defence as secondary to its priority role of war fighting and other international tasks. This isn’t the expectation of the public: the community considers that one of the key tasks of our armed forces is to contribute to disaster-­relief operations in Australia. And a military presence provides a calming effect in stricken communities.

Defence assistance to domestic disasters isn’t allocated a budget. There are no specific natural disaster-dedicated forces or assets. Personnel and equipment used in these tasks are sourced from any relevant and available unit.

...Defence is likely to be used more frequently in the future...

But Defence is likely to be used more frequently in the future to ­assist in domestic counter-disaster tasks. With climate change there will be larger and more frequent extreme weather events and an ­increased vulnerability of growing populations in coastal and bushfire-prone areas. And trends indicate that, per capita, there will be fewer volunteers and, on average, they are getting older.

To prepare for the increased demand on, and expectations for the use of, Defence in disaster management, the Morrison government should make it clear that domestic disaster assistance is a core military activity. This will ­ensure this priority flows through the Defence organisation.

Defence’s role in contributing to Australian disaster management will give greater emphasis to dual-use capabilities and may ­require some extra elements being maintained to provide better coverage. It will likely involve modifying existing military procedures, logistics and training. Any changes should be developed in such a way that they cause minimal disruption to Defence’s total capabilities and complement the work of state emergency services.

Defence and civil emergency management organisations, under the co-ordination of the Department of Home Affairs, should work together to facilitate the ­development of these capabilities to accelerate the evolution of the states’ next-generation disaster management systems.

But Defence has finite res­ources and any domestic disaster role may reduce its preparedness to ­deploy to assist in other emergencies overseas (although the skills gained may assist in international disaster response missions).

There is a possibility that as the quality of military disaster assistance improves, the pressure on the states to continually upgrade their own responses may lessen.

We would want to be careful that a greater use of paid reservists doesn’t undermine the important role of our wonderful 200,000 professional fire and emergency services volunteers.

To prevent any dependency mentality developing, civil authorities need a realistic understanding of the contribution Defence can make, including the inability to pre-position high-readiness forces and equipment for long periods in anticipation of natural disasters. Such units aren’t evenly distributed around the country. Some places will enjoy a faster and larger military response than others.

And it is clear we need longer-term access to larger aerial tankers in a fleet that could be jointly ­operated under the National Aer­ial Firefighting Centre and Defence. NAFC oversees a mix of 130 contracted aircraft, mainly small rotary and fixed-wing, supplemented by six leased water-bombers from overseas.

The effectiveness of water-bombers was demonstrated last week when the NSW Rural Fire Service deployed a highly man­oeuvrable C130Q to disperse about 10,000 litres of fire retardant to rapidly neutralise the South Turramurra bushfire. The US Air Force has recently contracted to install retardant delivery systems for seven C130H models being transferred from the US Coast Guard to the US Forest Service.

These systems apply an easily removable aerial delivery system, requiring minor electronic modifications to the aircraft. With our ­almost year-round bushfire threats, we must take steps to have access to dedicated water-bombers that could be co-ordinated and resourced through Defence and Home Affairs.

Originally published by: The Australian on 19 Nov 2019