Digital Snapshot

by Sophia Brook

Geopolitical Considerations and Disaster Relief – The Future of the ADF

Digital Snapshot #05/22

25 March 2022

A potpourri of current affairs topics from Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific brought to you by KAS Australia and the Pacific. The weekly digital snapshot showcases selected media and think tank articles to provide a panorama view and analysis of the debate in these countries.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in these articles do not necessarily reflect KAS Australia’s position. Rather, they have been selected to present an overview of the various topics and perspectives which have been dominating the public and political debate in Australia and the Pacific region.

With recent government announcements of plans to expand the Defence Forces and the deployment of the military to assist with flood recovery in Queensland and New South Wales, the future role of the Defence Force in general has become a major topic of discussion in Australia.

Over the last two weeks, the government has made a series of announcements concerning defence capabilities and spending. Firstly, a pledge of $4.3 billion (AUD) for a naval shipyard upgrade in Western Australia to facilitate the building of bigger warships and the servicing and maintenance of visiting US navy ships, as well an upgrade of the Stirling naval base so that it can house part of Australia’s future nuclear submarines. Secondly, a $650 million (AUD) investment towards the acquisition of 24 new uncrewed aerial surveillance systems for the Army. And, thirdly, the development of a new submarine base on Australia’s east coast to accommodate the new nuclear-powered submarine fleet and provide a second, strategic base in addition to the Western Australian naval base.

This expansion of equipment and capabilities will be in addition to projects already under way, such as the AUKUS nuclear submarine deal, the LAND 400 armoured fighting vehicles project and the SEA 5000 Future Frigate program, the upgrade and extension of the RAAF and BAE System’s in-service support for the Hawk 127 Lead-In Fighter Training System, the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD)’s newly unveiled cyber and foreign intelligence facility, and the recently opened, expanded Blackrock military camp in Fiji. Together with the government’s decisions to replace the European-designed Taipan helicopters with US Black Hawks and Seahawks earlier than planned, these announcements highlight a renewed focus on strategic preparation in light of the current increase in geopolitical tensions and fast-evolving perceived threat environment.

In addition to military equipment, the government further announced plans to increase the total number of personnel across the three services from 60,000 to 80,000 by 2040. This is meant to guarantee high enough staff levels and provide the additional skill-sets needed to operate and service the new equipment once it becomes operational.

At the same time as Australia prepares for its strategic environment, crises at home have seen ADF deployment on Australian soil. In recent years, the government has been quick to call in troop support for natural disaster relief. From rescue missions and clean-up operations during the disastrous 2019 bushfires, to assistance with hotel quarantine, the vaccine roll-out and the dispatch of military medical units to aged-care facilities at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, and, most recently, the flood relief and rescue missions in QLD and NSW. This has lead to raised expectations among the general population of the ADF being used as a first response unit, and states have come to rely on ADF support rather than on their own emergency services. As a result, during the recent floods, increasing pressure was put on the federal government to deploy the military to disaster zones, and disappointment was great when this did not happen as quickly as desired.

Part of the problem herein is that the more frequent deployment of ADF troops to natural disaster regions has created a misconception within Australian communities regarding the actual capabilities and resources of the ADF. Contrary to general belief, the Defence Forces’ being equipped for conflict missions does not automatically mean they are equipped for natural disaster relief. Especially since disaster response traditionally is a state responsibility, which requires state-own emergency services to act as first responders.

This then leads to the question of what the future of the ADF should be. According to the experts, with the ongoing climate change, an increase of natural disasters in Australia is to be expected – from longer and more intense bushfire seasons to other events related to more extreme weather conditions, including droughts and floods. While, at the same time, the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine has made the possibility of a potential China-Taiwan conflict more real, and, thus, the necessity of a prepared defence force more urgent.

Some experts argue that the ADF should create a fourth service, dedicated to disaster relief missions in Australia and the region. While others warn this would mean the ADF would be stretched too far and lose its efficiency on all fronts as a result. According to former Chief of the Defence Force Sir Peter Cosgrove, the government should aim to create a joint Commonwealth and state specialised, civilian emergency response force, as relying on the military would be ‘unviable’ in the long-term. A solution that would be hindered too much ‘by the red tape of federalism’, according to Michael Shoebridge, Director of Defence, Strategy and National Security Program at ASPI, who would prefer a new, semi-civilian capability developed within the ADF structure.

It is undeniable that the question of the role of the ADF and the issue of state emergency response solutions have become a major consideration when discussing Australian security concerns. In the current climate, the government cannot afford to overstretch its defence resources, but neither can it risk delays in disaster response. With a major research project by the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) recently finding that the traditional model of volunteering is declining, it has also become clear that the states’ own emergency services are no longer able to deal with climate-related disasters on their own due to staff shortages. So far, the federal government has not presented its own solution to the problem.