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Increasing Defence’s role in disaster response is essential but costly

Posted By on February 1, 2020 @ 06:00

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s National Press Club address on Wednesday foreshadowed a major role for the Australian Defence Force in responding to natural disasters. From Operation Sovereign Borders to the Pacific ‘step-up’, the Department of Defence has long been Morrison’s go-to agency when the government needs fast responses to difficult problems.

The policy change is welcome, but no one should underestimate the salesmanship task Morrison faces to persuade state and territory governments, emergency and fires services—as well as Defence—that big change is needed.

In redesigning Australia’s response to natural disasters, Morrison will have to force cultural change on some deeply entrenched fiefdoms, well able to quote the Constitution back to the ‘feds’ about state and territory responsibilities.

One would embark on such a task only if the need were overwhelming—and indeed it is. This summer, millions of Australians are feeling the direct impact of natural disasters becoming more frequent and more devastating because of a long-term trend for the continent to become hotter and dryer.

Australia’s arrangements for dealing with natural disasters weren’t designed to face the emerging scale and ferocity of the problem. Everything about state and federal responses will have to be reconsidered.

These changes can’t wait for the findings of a royal commission, even one that is turbo-charged to deliver on an implausible deadline of six months. The government will need to start its own natural disaster response redesign effort.

What needs to happen? If disaster response and even handling the new coronavirus is all now part national security in the broad, and the National Security Committee of cabinet is the vehicle for managing these issues, Morrison urgently needs to beef up his own department’s capacity to drive security policy.

Climate and disaster issues impact so many government sectors there is no point arguing which bureaucratic silo to fit them in—the national security area is the one best placed to deliver effective responses.

Over the past few years the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet lost key national security functions to the Department of Home Affairs. But inevitably in big disasters, the prime minister steps forward to lead. Morrison should appoint a senior figure as a national security adviser—a position that faded away during the Abbott years because of bureaucratic turf wars.

If ever there was a time for rethinking a national security strategy, this is it. Generally, one should be sceptical about the value of pointy-headed strategy statements, but so much has changed since the 2016 defence white paper that the government needs to rethink fundamental policy settings.

Next, it should be clear that whatever Defence is asked to do on climate disasters, it can’t be at the expense of diverting even one dollar away from the core task of providing for the military security of Australia and our interests. In fact, more conventional military strength may be needed in the region to deal with the strategic consequences of climate-related disasters anyway.

There’s a view in parts of Defence that the organisation should avoid being drawn too heavily into natural disaster response because the military is there for high-end war-fighting. However, that’s not the public’s or the government’s expectation. Defence would be wise not to price itself out of relevance to Australia’s central strategic challenges.

But change will come with a big dollar cost. It’s true that the government is meeting ahead of time its commitment to lift defence spending to 2% of GDP, but with the region spiralling into risky disorder that money is the absolute minimum we should be prepared to spend on our military security.

There is no lazy billion or two in the defence budget available to be redirected to natural disaster response. New defence disaster response arrangements will require new money.

Next, we need to consider realities of scale. According to the Productivity Commission, in 2018–19, some 207,445 state and territory volunteer firefighters and 23,796 emergency service personnel attended 387,500 emergency incidents, including fires, storms and cyclones.

By contrast, 5,500 ADF personnel are supporting current bushfire operations. Defence can bring some immensely important qualities to counter any natural disaster, but it’s clear that the bulk of effort will remain with the states and territories.

State and territory volunteer and full-time personnel remain the heart and soul of disaster response, but it’s important to ask if this approach is still appropriate to the ferocity of the threat. There will surely be a need for massive investment in volunteer training and the technology they use.

For the ADF, the focus should be on areas where defence forces have natural strengths, including communications, logistics, command-and-control arrangements, air- and sea-lift capabilities and being able to rapidly respond to threats.

A Defence strength—now almost absent in any other part of public administration—is its long-term planning ability linked to preparing for military operations. Defence has for years prepared for a December-to-February disaster season (more like September to March these days), but always in the context that any response must be requested by the states and is drawn from military units designed for combat.

Under the Morrison mantra of ‘moving forward’ and ‘integrating’ with state efforts, I suggest the best way for Defence to proceed would be to create a specific disaster response command, much as there is today a Special Operations Command.

Under a two- or three-star general, reporting to the chief of the defence force and the government, this command would plan for and run federal responses to natural disasters. It would determine how to best use the current ADF and reserves, what new military units should be established for disaster response, how best to liaise with the states, and how to drive greater cooperation with foreign partners dealing with regional disasters.

Most of the ADF’s structure and investment planning is designed for combat operations and isn’t relevant to natural disasters. But parts of the ADF, such as engineering capability, air transport, communications, regular military units and reserves, can, at a push, be adapted to disaster response, thereby providing the reassuring presence the prime minister so admires.

It should be possible without too much expense or diversion from combat roles for some units to also be optimised for natural disaster tasks. Where that dual-tasking can sensibly be done, Defence should develop options for government.

None of this is simple. For example the air force’s transport aircraft, the C-130J, can be fitted for a containerised water-bombing system of a type being used in the United States.

But water bombing is a precise and dangerous mission needing specialist training. Likewise, military helicopters can be used for many disaster-related roles, from tracking fire fronts to rescuing people, but they are vastly more expensive to operate than civilian helicopters.

If government wants Defence to play a larger role, the disaster response command should establish new units purpose-built for the task. This could include smaller, simpler boats to shelter and move communities at risk, and lower-cost non-military helicopters and water-bombing aircraft to assist commercial operators.

What Defence will do superbly in this context will be to establish planning, training, safety, maintenance, communication and operating regimes around all of these functions.

Defence’s part-time reserve forces deserve their own consideration. It could make sense to repurpose some reserve units towards a specific disaster response role.

A specifically created disaster-ready reserve, under the disaster response command, could find an enthusiastic recruitment base from people who want to contribute to community safety without being part of a system focused on combat operations.

A disaster-ready reserve could enhance training and career options for the same pool of people who are volunteering for state fire and emergency services. A pragmatic and flexible approach should offer people the chance to build their skills while rotating through Defence and state entities.

In terms of federal–state relations, an ADF disaster response command could be a useful way to break down some of the prickly barriers that can exist when long-established, proud and effective organisations rub shoulders.

Whatever liaison arrangements are currently in place, they are clearly not eliminating sensitive rub points when crisis situations unfold. The general who heads up the disaster response command will need to have high-order diplomatic skills and see relationship management as a key part of the job.

Finally, there’s a growing international dimension. Defence is active in our region doing excellent work on disaster response and recovery. However, a new disaster response command would create an opportunity to deepen engagement with key partners like Japan, India, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

The command should not just respond to events but work in advance of crises to strengthen local communities to reduce and mitigate disasters once they hit. In effect, there is a year-round purpose for this new Defence function, one that will help Australians and build closer ties with our neighbours.

What will this cost? It depends on the priority the government wants to put on Defence’s role. But let’s start modestly and be prepared to scale up. A new force of several thousand defence personnel and limited investment in equipment that’s fit for purpose but not combat operations could cost around $2 billion annually—about 5% of the defence budget.

After the past few months, could anyone doubt that this is an essential investment in combating a threat that is only going to get more severe?

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