Defence chief says ADF retains warfighting focus while supporting bushfire and pandemic responses
30 May 2020|

In late October, the Australian Defence Force carried out a trial to assess its ability to help should a natural disaster strike a state or territory.

Thirty men and women, reservists from the three services, were called out to assist with background work on the bushfires that had struck Queensland.

ADF chief Angus Campbell says the ‘compulsory legal direction’ of a small number of reservists over 10 days was intended to test how the defence force could help the civil authorities in a crisis.

‘No one in Defence anticipated that the bushfires would build to the scale that they did and we were doing what seemed at the time to be sensible contingency planning’, General Campbell says.

But within weeks, fires were raging in Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia. ‘We learned a great deal about the administrative processes to get our people into full-time service, and to give them the awareness and briefings to get them positioned to contribute, in this case to a bushfire incident’, Campbell says.

That meant getting the teams together, integrating them into a command-and-control arrangement with full- and part-time ADF personnel working in Queensland, carrying out the activities they were assigned to and demobilising them seamlessly at the end.

‘Our planning told us we should do that so that we can present a range of options to government. In the backs of our minds was the possibility that we might need to mount a large-scale response at short notice if we were asked by the government to contribute in an emergency’, Campbell says.

On 4 January, the reserve callout process, authorised by Governor-General David Hurley on the recommendation of Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, was activated and 2,500 reservists joined 5,500 full-time personnel.

Between early September and late March, 8,200 ADF members helped in the response to the bushfires. They were joined by military contingents from New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Japan, Fiji, Singapore, Indonesia, Canada and the US. The military contribution included the amphibious vessels, HMAS Choules and HMAS Adelaide, the training ship MV Sycamore, 26 helicopters, including some from New Zealand and Singapore, and 41 other aircraft, including those from Canada, Japan and New Zealand.

A command structure designed for combat proved adaptable to the civil emergency. The foreign troops were integrated into taskforces in NSW and Victoria, and a combined taskforce dealt with SA and Tasmania. These were led by reserve army brigade headquarters.

‘The military was always in support of, and assisting, the lead civil agencies’, Campbell says.

‘We were never a lead agency and we never sought to be. It’s not our function. Our job is to help others in this case. And so, whether it was the state and territory police, bushfire services, or the state emergency services, our people connected into all of those elements and offered the capabilities and the scale that the ADF can bring.’

Campbell stresses that the brunt of the battle against the fires was borne by thousands of volunteer firefighters. ‘They were the lead element of this entire endeavour’, he says.

As the crisis deepened, word quickly spread about what the ADF could do and the calls for help escalated. Thousands of tonnes of material carried around the country included 13,000 tonnes of fodder, 73,000 tonnes of fuel and 1,200 tonnes of additional air cargo.

The ADF helped clear fallen and teetering trees along 4,850 kilometres of roads, repaired 1,280 kilometres of fencing, cut 240 kilometres of fire breaks and produced 10 million litres of drinking water on Kangaroo Island in SA and near Bega in NSW.

Ships and aircraft evacuated around 1,700 people from isolated communities. ADF cooks prepared 77,000 meals and bases from Brisbane to Adelaide were opened to those who’d escaped the fires.

‘People stayed on our bases from a night or two to a week or 10 days, whatever time they needed to get themselves into a position to get back to a stable life’, Campbell says. The ADF learned a great deal about building taskforces in liaison with state and territory representatives and their agencies, and about working with international partners.

‘To have, for example, PNG and Fiji assisting us was deeply appreciated. They lifted the morale of the communities with their own sense of community, the Fijians’ evening singalongs, their hard work and the commitment they showed to a nation which is part of their Pacific family as much as we’re part of theirs.

‘It was a great international effort. It was not what we expected to be doing over Christmas and the New Year, but everywhere I went, sailors, soldiers and airmen and -women did their best in large measure because this was about home and helping Australians. It was very, very impressive.’

It was pointed out by some commentators that most of the ADF is not trained to fight fires, but there’s much more to be done in an emergency of this scale than pointing a hose at flames. It was a huge logistical effort sustaining the firefighters, says Campbell.

‘We saw police and emergency services working day and night, the volunteers and full-time firefighters protecting their communities, local people pulling together under mayors, business enterprises working to help.’

Campbell says the feeling of working with the community was palpable, as when wildlife officers at the Mogo Zoo on the NSW south coast protected their charges. Some took them home, others stayed with the large animals.

The ADF is watching the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements, also known as the bushfire royal commission, to see what recommendations emerge that will help it plan for future events.

Campbell says it’s right that people asked questions about the ADF’s involvement in the crisis but he’s confident that it retained the warfighting capability that is its unique contribution.

‘We’re a defence force and our mission is to defend Australia and its interests. Those interests are not always and exclusively offshore but that’s principally what we’re designed for, and for the worst-case circumstance of combat operations.

‘Our assets are there to assist the nation and we haven’t used any of those assets to the point where I’d be concerned for our inability to sustain their maintenance, the remediation, the development of our mechanical capabilities. But when your country is in extraordinary need as it has been both for the bushfires and for Covid-19, no part of our nation’s capability stands idle, and nor should it.

‘I haven’t met anyone in the ADF who’s not proud of what they did, and who doesn’t appreciate that, yes, our primary function is the defence of Australia in times of conflict, but we can walk and chew gum on occasions’, Campbell says.

The ADF should be prepared for a range of possible challenges in a range of possible futures, climate change being just one of them, he says.

The bushfires had a geographic reality to them, even if they were at great scale, and they could be identified and mapped, says Campbell, but Covid-19 is a completely different kind of national emergency. ‘Without the right response mechanisms, you can’t see it, you don’t know where it is, you don’t know the rate at which it’s spreading and everybody is a candidate to be affected by it.’

Again, the ADF has been able to help at Commonwealth, state and territory levels, with about 2,200 of its men and women involved in planning responses, supervising travellers, tracing contacts of people who tested positive, assisting police with self-isolation compliance checks, and working with border force and police at ports and where movements were restricted within states. ADF craftsmen and -women helped rapidly repair and operate production lines in a company that produces face masks.

‘They’re supporting other agencies, they’re never leading. In the constitutional arrangements establishing our federation, the states and territories have primary carriage of managing emergencies and supporting communities. However, there is clearly a role for the Commonwealth as well’, says Campbell.

‘In circumstances where they’re overwhelmed or might need some of the ADF’s specialist capabilities, or other elements of Commonwealth capability, there are very well established mechanisms for Defence and other parts of the Commonwealth to assist.

‘Our primary warfighting function has not changed but we can help when the nation is burning.’