Defence minister’s strategic reassessment must take fires and floods into account
11 Feb 2020|

A long time ago—back in September 2019—Defence Minister Linda Reynolds announced that the government was reviewing Australia’s defence strategy and capabilities. This was because the 2016 defence white paper underestimated the speed at which major trends would change. ‘Indeed’, she went on to say, ‘the world itself has changed more quickly than we assessed in 2016 and so too [have] the consequential challenges. These challenges operate simultaneously in a dynamic, and quite unpredictable mix.’

Reynolds set out the drivers of the white paper analysis: the US–China relationship, challenges to the rules-based global order, terrorism, state fragility, military modernisation, and ‘the emergence of new, and complex, non-geographic threats in the space and cyber domains’. Reassuringly, she noted, the white paper’s analysis of those trends still held.

Well, that was then. Since September, Australia has experienced large natural disasters—bushfires and now floods. Some of our neighbours have also been affected—parts of Indonesia suffered major flooding in December and January.

We also have what looks to be a global pandemic in the form of the novel coronavirus that originated in China. However the outbreak develops, it won’t be the last global or regional health issue that disrupts trade, travel and societies and stretches the standing capacity of health departments and immigration and border agencies, as well as port and airport operators. Australian military bases and people have already been involved, and it’s likely there’s more to come.

In light of these events, and through the minister’s review, the government is giving the defence organisation an opportunity to be more imaginative about its roles and structures to meet emerging national and regional challenges.

Australia’s bushfires have been of such scale and intensity that they have destroyed regional towns, forced events like the evacuation of 4,000 people from the beaches of Mallacoota in Victoria, and cloaked Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and parts of regional Australia in thick smoke for days at a time over a period of months now.

The work of volunteer and full-time firefighters has been extraordinary. Yet the scale of the recovery effort and the work required to support the firefighters and evacuate traumatised Australians led Prime Minister Scott Morrison not just to deploy the Australian Defence Force’s ships, planes and helicopters, but also to take the step of making a compulsory call-out of some 3,000 reservists. And they have done valued work that has had a visible and very positive effect for many Australians.

The 2019–20 fire season is probably a nasty foretaste of the kind of crises that a drier and hotter Australia will face in this decade and into the future. And the floods in Java and now here at home show it’s not just fires and it won’t just be Australia responding to large-scale disasters in the region. Some countries in the region will probably both want and expect help from partners like Australia, and will help Australia in turn as we experience our own crises—as Fiji, Indonesia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, France, Canada and the US did during our bushfire crisis.

Still, Reynolds was right: all the things she set out in September as driving the government’s defence strategy and capability plans remain relevant, and the rise of Chinese power and US–China strategic competition remain central. There’s no stepping away from building the ADF’s warfighting capabilities given such a fraught regional security environment.

However, the ADF’s core warfighting roles have been added to in important ways by recent events and crises. And the impacts go beyond Australia itself, because these events demonstrate broad trends and rolling issues that must be factored into the government’s and Defence’s thinking.

Whatever Defence’s internal plans might say about core and non-core missions, when the prime minister is managing a national crisis or looking for what Australia can do to assist friends and partners in times of crisis, getting Defence involved is an attractive option. That’s because it’s an organisation that has well-trained men and women and capable systems and equipment that can be sent places at short notice and make a tangible, positive difference. They can also work in ways that support other forces or civilian organisations like firefighting authorities and state or foreign governments.

All of this should add up to a deeper, more probing review and rethink of government and defence plans than seems to have been in mind back in September.

At the time, that review might been thought of as a way of adjusting the $200 billion investment program to shift timings and budgets around to make it all fit more smoothly, add minor new items and deal with the fact that the ADF is just too small to operate the force envisaged in the white paper. The review could also have quietly reset the ‘strategic defence objectives’ to recognise the government’s prioritisation of the Pacific and perhaps have even raised a similar priority to begin a new Southeast Asian ‘step up’. It would have been a great ‘good housekeeping’ opportunity.

Now, though, if the role of Defence in disaster mitigation and response is thought of from first principles, as it should be, more will need to change than would have been likely even a year ago. Morrison’s actions, his National Press Club speech and the proposed royal commission all indicate this is what he wants.

The prime minister and Indonesian President Joko Widodo clearly see our two nations working together to reduce the risk of worsening natural disasters in our region as a key part of our future relationship. That’s why they announced an Indonesia–Australia partnership in disaster risk management yesterday during Jokowi’s state visit.

The scale, frequency and intensity of future natural disasters will probably make it impracticable to rely on the longstanding approach of using the ADF and its warfighting equipment flexibly and at short notice.

Recognising that involves changing how Defence trains and equips its people, notably the reserves, and it means planning for big assets like ships and aircraft to be dual-use for both conflict and disaster response and recovery tasks. Some bespoke firefighting, rescue and recovery systems will also be needed, and careful thought will need to be given to what will be most useful and avoid duplicating the capabilities of existing emergency agencies.

On top of this domestic role, if Defence’s contribution to disasters in Southeast Asia and the Pacific is to be effective, change will need to come to how Defence is organised. It might make other parts of government unhappy, but creating a defence organisation with real capability to respond to rolling domestic and international disasters will require new money. Trying to do it on the cheap by magically absorbing the costs of disaster response into the existing defence budget won’t work.

A challenge for Defence is whether it can respond creatively to the changing requirements and manage multiple demands simultaneously. A larger disaster-response capability will not just meet a key need here at home, but will also be a very welcome element in Australia’s closer strategic relationships in the South Pacific and Southeast Asia. Done well, the new role would reinforce Australia’s strategic interests and our growing military power. Done poorly, it would risk being cast as a distraction for the ADF at a critical time in the Indo-Pacific.