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Defence White Paper – A disaster focus?

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Today the Federal Government released a new Defence White Paper. Given all the discussion about the use of the ADF in disaster operations I thought I’d given it a review from a disaster and humanitarian response perspective.

The new paper contains 26 references to disaster operations, down from 31 references in the 2009 White Paper.

In terms of security pressures climate change, natural disasters and commodity shortages (water is mentioned) are covered. In keeping with the tone of the rest of the paper specifics are not mentioned but it does point towards the possibility of a water war in Asia potentially involving China, India or Pakistan – which are nuclear powers.

The paper also talks about improving the capacity of our South Pacific (and East Timor) neighbours to respond to disasters, aligning with our international development priorities.

Domestic disaster response is also discussed – though, as I’ve argued before, is and should be a less significant component of defence’s activities that some advocate. Interestingly this is appended to the discussion on Principal Task One: “Deter and Defeat armed attacks on Australia”. The remaining Principal tasks also discuss counter-disaster and humanitarian operations, notably involving Australia’s planned amphibious capability.

This is probably the most significant feature of the White Paper in terms of the ADF’s disaster response capability. Australia’s future amphibious capability is seen as multi-service and rapidly deployable. The white paper sees disaster relief and other humanitarian operations as being, initially, the principal initial task. This could be seen as practice for possible military operations to Australia’s north, a hedge against deteriorating stability in south-east and east Asia.

The ADF anticipates that the draw-down in it’s involvement in multiple overseas theatres (Iraq, Afghanistan and East Timor) will allow it to have a much greater focus on counter-disaster and humanitarian operations. Although welcome, this trend could just as easily be reversed if Australia becomes involved in future conflicts. Domestically we, and our neighbours, can’t come to depend on disaster response from the ADF.

As the disaster response capacity of many of our neighbours largely exists in the military, military-military cooperation will be essential to assisting in international disaster response operations. This will require a greater level of engagement between the ADF and our neighbours – the white paper anticipates this, with particular reference to Indonesia, Japan, China and ASEAN. Disaster relief operations in partnership with the Chinese PLA offer Australia particular opportunity to improve military diplomacy with our largest trading partner.

Overall the White Paper seems sensible with its consideration of disaster management. I would have liked to see more attention given to security issues associated with the destabilising influence of natural disasters, climate change and humanitarians disasters like famine. However being light on detail, the real proof will be in the implementation.


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