Australian Army reservists to be compulsorily called out to respond to more bushfires, natural disasters and coronavirus-style crises

02 October 2020

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AUSTRALIA – Thousands of Australian Defence Force personnel will be deployed to more frequent natural disasters and COVID-style crises on home soil, in what a senior ADF official describes as a “paradigm shift” focused on the impacts of climate change.

Key points:

  • ADF officers will increasingly be called upon to respond to natural disasters and domestic crises as part of a “paradigm shift” for Australia’s military
  • The ADF has been warning for years it will be stretched by increasing disasters and unrest caused by climate change
  • Former Defence officials say the Federal Government’s attitude to climate change has held back military planning, but that is beginning to change

ABC Investigations can reveal many of the Army’s 14,000 active reservists will be the main responders under the strategy, facing mandatory call-outs to support state agencies grappling with increasingly catastrophic disasters, like the Black Summer bushfires.

The new strategy elevates domestic deployments alongside traditional war-fighting and regional security priorities, following years of warnings from the ADF of a deteriorating security outlook caused by climate change.

ADF Chief Angus Campbell has warned publicly since 2016 that disasters and instability connected to climate change will stretch the military, last year predicting “serious ramifications for global security [and] for the Australian Defence Force” within a decade.

The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements concluded in its final report last week that “Australia’s disaster outlook is alarming” and called on the Federal Government to introduce new powers to deploy the ADF more swiftly and intervene in the states’ responses in limited circumstances.

‘The seal has been broken’

ABC Investigations can reveal the Army has already been planning a permanent role in domestic crisis responses for months, under a new mantra of “more teams … for more tasks, in more places, more of the time.”

As part of the strategy, the Defence Department told the ABC the ADF was boosting its domestic response capabilities, investing in new equipment and facilities, more disaster response training, and logistics and planning.

A high-level Defence official told ABC Investigations the ADF was considering major purchases, including a new fleet of cheaper, civilian-grade helicopters to respond to fires and floods.

The strategic shift was ordered this year by the Federal Government, reducing the ADF’s focus on the Middle East to prioritise an uncertain strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific, the rise of China, and increasing natural disasters and crises at home.

The senior Defence official said ADF Chief Angus Campbell was also considering a permanent headquarters for domestic responses based at Sydney’s Randwick Barracks, because the bushfire response had exposed a “dysfunctional” command structure and poor planning.

The official said the new strategy built on the ADF’s deployment of thousands of personnel across Australia in response to the Black Summer bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve never been so busy at the behest of the Cabinet in power — there’s a much greater willingness to call us out domestically,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

“The Defence Force understands this is a new paradigm and we’ll be involved in Government responses indefinitely.

“Climate change is a key security concern for us.”

‘New normal’ brings new strategy

The royal commission report last week warned Australians could expect more concurrent and consecutive disasters, with bushfires coinciding with drought, heatwaves, cyclones and flooding.

It revealed that the responsibility to plan, prepare and support the ADF response to disasters has been assigned to the 2nd Division of the Australian Army, which is made up of thousands of reservists across the country.

The senior Defence official said the ADF was planning for more compulsory call-outs of reservists by the Federal Government, which is trying to push new legislation through Parliament allowing it to order them without a request from states or territories.

“Full-time soldiers will always be involved in these operations but where we need numbers with sandbags or chainsaws, or assisting police with traffic, our reservists are perfect for the job,” he said.

He said the new strategy would also draw on specialist units including logistics, health and communications, which are “light on the ground but in high demand”, and could be boosted by the engagement of contractors.

“We’ve found our conventional capabilities are not ideally suited to this new normal,” he said.

“There’s no point to call out the infantry brigade when state authorities want engineers, medics and logistics support.”

In a statement, the Defence Department told the ABC about 3,000 of the Army’s part-time workforce and 18,000 of its full-time workforce had received training to support domestic response operations.

“The ADF over the next decade will have more capacity to respond at home or abroad,” a spokesperson said.

“In the future, Army will prepare more teams to support the Joint Force, for more tasks, in more places, more of the time,” a spokesperson said.

“More capacity will come from making use of the total workforce as One Army: full-time, flexible work, part-time, contingent work, contractors and the Australian Public Service.”

New laws for compulsory call-outs

The ADF has been preparing for the increased role, after the Federal Government directed it to “enhance [its] capacity to support civil authorities in response to natural disasters and crisis,” according to the 2020 Defence Strategic Update released in July.

As part of the strategic shift, the Government is trying to push legislation through Parliament which will empower the Defence Minister to order compulsory call-outs of reservists to any emergency without a request from the states.

The proposed laws would remove the involvement of the federal executive council, which is currently required to advise the Governor-General on any requests for a domestic mandatory call-out.

A Senate inquiry into the legislation last week heard from constitutional and military law experts that it may be unconstitutional.

Last week, the royal commission welcomed the proposed new powers allowing the Federal Government to deploy the ADF more swiftly.

It found the use of the ADF should remain dependent on a request from a state or territory, except in “limited circumstances” when the Federal Government declared a national emergency.

Its report identified problems during the Black Summer bushfire crisis in coordinating the response between federal, state, territory and local authorities, noting that “in some states there was an apparent reluctance to seek ADF assistance, or delay in seeking assistance.”

The report called for greater involvement by the ADF in planning for natural disasters, but said Defence has “finite capacity and capability” and should not be relied on as a first responder because it has “broader responsibilities to protect the nation”.

Bushfires, COVID-19 response dominate ADF’s 2020

The ADF has been busier in 2020 with domestic responses than ever before, deploying throughout Australia in response to the bushfires and then the pandemic.

The Federal Government issued its first-ever compulsory call-out of more than 3,000 reservists during the bushfire crisis, catching state authorities by surprise.

The ADF’s bushfire operation spanned six months, with more than 8,000 of its full-time and reserve personnel deployed to support emergency operations until late March.

The deployment saw naval ships evacuate the Victorian town of Mallacoota and scores of aircraft deployed, while ADF personnel set up field health facilities, cleared fire breaks and roadblocks, repaired fences, and provided water, food and water purification systems.

Less than a week after that operation ended, the ADF established Operation COVID-19 Assist in April, deploying officers to man checkpoints, border controls, airports, public testing sites and hotel quarantine venues.

Defence also helped with contact tracing, operated an entire emergency department in Tasmania, set up health facilities in remote Northern Territory communities, and assumed control over some nursing homes in Victoria.

There are still more than 2,000 ADF personnel stationed across each state and territory supporting Australia’s COVID-19 response.

Government’s climate change stance has made planning ‘more difficult’

The ADF has warned for years of a deteriorating security environment caused by climate change, but former senior Defence officials have told the ABC the Federal Government’s stance on the issue has held back military planning.

Former assistant Defence secretary Brendan Sargeant said the Coalition’s position had created a culture of fear and silence in the public service around the issue.

“The Government’s stance on climate change has made it more difficult for departments, including Defence, to talk about it and integrate it into its strategic planning,” said Professor Sargeant, who acted as Defence secretary for much of 2017 and is now the head of Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre.

“It’s made it more difficult for Defence to talk about the issue in its full dimension. In other words, it is a bigger challenge than our public documents are presenting.

“The way in which we talk about it needs to catch up with the reality of what we’re experiencing.”

Last year, ADF Chief Angus Campbell declared climate change a current threat to security, warning it would trigger mass migration and could cause conflict.

He described a 1.5-degree temperature rise within a decade as a “best-case scenario” for the world, in a speech obtained by the ABC under Freedom of Information (FOI) laws.

“At 1.5 degrees of warming, we can expect … significant impacts, particularly in regards to oceans, low-lying areas and human health,” the speech said.

“The poor and vulnerable will be hardest hit, livelihoods lost, food scarce, populations displaced, diseases spreading. And this now looks like our best-case scenario.

“Should it rise to above that — to 2 degrees of warming — the impacts will be dramatic and dire.”

A Defence Department report, also obtained by the ABC under FOI, warned last year the ADF was ill-prepared to handle a major crisis like a war, pandemic or severe climate-induced disaster, despite facing the highest risk in 60 years.

A year earlier, internal ADF briefing notes admitted Defence did “not have an overarching strategy or policy to specifically address the risks posed by climate change beyond the 2016 Defence White Paper.”

Internal briefings

ABC Investigations can also reveal internal ADF warnings in 2017 and 2018, which advised Defence leaders to prepare for a drastic rise in domestic disaster response and potential unrest within Australia triggered by climate change.

One 2018 brief from the ADF’s climate and security adviser, Ian Cumming, calls on the Vice-Chief of the Defence Force to even prepare to deploy troops to domestic policing operations.

The brief, obtained under FOI, advises the ADF to “prepare for significantly more disaster support operations and potential operations involving support to the civil power such as policing of population under exaggerated stresses such as food and water shortages.”

It recommends the ADF “make deliberate plans for the operational resilience of bases to support the Australian people in times of significant emergencies and natural disasters”.

In response to questions about the internal warnings, a Defence spokesperson told the ABC the ADF was not preparing for domestic police operations.

“Defence considers a range of climate advice from various internal and external sources which are then considered in natural disaster and crisis planning,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

The internal report also calls on Defence to “commence planning for significant sea-level rise” and “consider planning for an orderly, dignified and deliberate retreat from Defence infrastructure at or close to the sea level.”

It warns ADF leadership to plan for significant health impacts of extreme heat.

“Prepare for a significant lack of community health capacity to meet population demands in stress periods such as heatwaves,” the report says.

The Defence Department also provided a submission to a 2018 Senate inquiry into climate and security, warning the ADF may not have the capacity to respond to simultaneous disasters or military missions which could create “concurrency pressures” by as soon as 2025.

‘The Government is starting to take it seriously’

The 2020 Defence Strategic Update, released in July, was accompanied by a plan to boost personnel numbers.

Despite committing Defence to put a higher priority on disaster response and resilience, the document barely mentioned climate change, other than to say it was compounding threats to human security.

However, former ADF chief Chris Barrie described the latest details of the strategic shift as “a good signal that the Government is starting to take [climate change] seriously”.

Admiral Barrie has long been warning the Federal Government of a growing climate security crisis.

“If I reflected the community’s concerns, I’d say they’re not doing enough to do the mitigation and other adaptation measures,” he said.

Professor Brendan Sargeant said the new domestic strategy would likely require more funding.

He said Australia faced a threat like never before with the convergence of climate change and an increasingly unstable Indo-Pacific region.

“We are living in a new world,” said Professor Sargeant.

“We’re going through a period of profound change. A change in the strategic order in the Indo-Pacific will lead to a redistribution of power and economic capacity across our region.

“But at the same time, we’re also seeing the profound effects of climate change, which are intensifying, and our biggest challenge is that those two enormous changes are occurring at the same time, and they are interacting with each other.

“It’s quite a profound policy challenge in terms of how do you think about defence? And how do you think about the capabilities that you might need to develop to work and respond to that environment?

“It’s one of our really big national challenges.

“We actually have a relatively small ADF, so the question then is how much can we can afford? We may need to invest more in Defence to be able to do both.”

Admiral Barrie warned that compulsory domestic call-outs of reservists could make the Army Reserves less attractive to potential volunteers.

“What worries me about calling people out, for example, potentially for the five months over the Black Summer of bushfires is people are going to lose their jobs, people are going to find themselves not able to conduct their own small businesses,” he said.

“A call-out provision like that might not mean that we won’t be able to attract people to our reserves.”

Defence Minister Linda Reynolds and the ADF declined requests for interviews.

In a statement, Senator Reynolds said the Government was “ensuring Defence is prepared for a wide range of contingencies, including the impacts of climate change”.

“Anyone who suggests the Government and its agencies have not been and do not plan for impacts of climate change have no understanding of the work our Defence and emergency services officials undertake each year in preparation for the High-Risk Weather Season,” she said.

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