Future Operating Environment

A force for good: A discussion of the Army’s future role in disaster relief and recovery operations

By Owain Griffiths September 7, 2020

Two days after the Black Summer fires ripped through the Adelaide Hills and came within an uncomfortable distance of Woodside Barracks, Dr Anthony Bergin and Dr Paul Barnes of ASPI published an article asserting that the ADF needed to play a greater role in domestic civil assistance. This re-asserted Dr Bergin’s earlier work with David Temmpleman:

‘The military role in domestic disaster assistance is viewed by Defence as secondary to its priority role of war fighting and other international tasks. This isn’t the expectation of the public: the community considers that one of the key tasks of our armed forces is to contribute to disaster-­relief operations in Australia. And a military presence provides a calming effect in stricken communities.’

In March this year, Michael Shoebridge addressed the concurrency problems created by the ADF having a greater role in domestic support, while also maintaining and increasing its warfighting capability. Specifically he argues that ‘Seeking to minimise the impact of the twin new demands on Defence – to be more central in Australian and regional disaster response, and to have more offensive power to be part of deterring Chinese military power – simply sets the ADF to fail in both tasks.’ The 2020 Defence Strategic Update, highlights that internal competition between training, population support and operations will be an ongoing challenge for the ADF.

This article aims to promote discussion among military professionals about how best the Army might posture itself to flexibly respond to disasters, while concurrently managing the need to train and enhance its capabilities in preparation for war. This article seeks to explore whether the Army is best placed for disaster relief operations only, or if it has a role to play in longer term recovery activities. I will argue that the Army is optimised to provide high-impact, short duration domestic disaster relief tasks. This will enable us to provide the support, then transition to another agency before returning to force and operational generation requirements.

Relief or Recovery

JTF 1111 in South Australia supported two concurrent Areas of Operation during Operation Bushfire Assist. One area of operation supported relief activities on Kangaroo Island. The tasks included making that area safe and setting the conditions for recovery to commence. Setting safe conditions included the distribution of water, clearance of roadways, burial of deceased livestock and wildlife, and supporting active firefighting efforts through building fire breaks. The second area of operation supported disaster recovery activities in the Adelaide Hills. The fire in the Adelaide Hills occurred on 20 December 2019 and therefore, the community was already in the recovery phase once ADF support was provided. Activities in this area of operations included clearing burnt trees and obstacles to allow residents safe access to their properties, and clearing fence lines to allow rebuilding to occur beyond the initial priority of stock containment. Similarly to Kangaroo Island, the Adelaide Hills recovery effort involved the provision of emergency water and fodder to bushfire affected residents and their livestock. The main difference between relief and recovery was that generally in the relief phase the ADF was directly supporting other agencies, such as the CFS and SA Water. During the recovery phase, the tasks were approved by the Lobethal Recovery Centre (a South Australian Agency), but the support was generally provided directly to fire-affected residents and small businesses.

Based on this experience and extrapolated from the Prime Minister’s comments in January; ‘This is a major step-up in ADF involvement and assistance and demonstrates our absolute commitment to supporting states to fight the fires and to immediately swing into disaster recovery operations as soon as the fire-front has passed.’ The definition of relief versus recovery is important. In this context, relief operations could be defined as those activities designed to safeguard lives, property and livelihood in response to an immediate and ongoing threat.  The Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience defines a recovery operation as ‘The coordinated process of supporting affected communities in the reconstruction of the built environment and the restoration of emotional, social, economic, built and natural environment wellbeing.’ Recovery implies that the immediate threat has passed.  

Looking at these definitions, there are clear parallels between relief operations and combat operations. Short, high intensity activity to defeat a threat while protecting friendly force vulnerabilities. Recovery operations perhaps align more closely with security and stability operations.  While both of these relate to tasks that the Army trains for, recovery operations are generally more protracted, and this temporal price is exacted against time that would otherwise be used in training for war.

Relief operations can be conducted with clearly defined outcomes, which allow for a great deal of autonomy being provided to commanders on the ground. Simple intent statements allowed Commanders to achieve fantastic outcomes. Local commanders were able to identify risks and opportunities which in turn meant that emergency support forces had an impact that was disproportionate to the size of the force. This rapid exploitation of opportunities is a critical factor in community stabilisation and survival following a disaster.

This breadth of autonomy is not as readily available (or appropriate) in recovery operations, where multiple government and non-government organisations are working in the same area. Autonomy in recovery operations requires detailed liaison, with clearly defined and communicated control measures and the definition of tasks that are appropriate to various organisations. While autonomy exists within each of these ‘lanes’ exploiting opportunities that may exist outside a Unit’s defined task requires more time and deconfliction in comparison to relief operations.  This structure lends itself to the sustained nature of recovery operations at the cost of local initiative.

A key advantage of remaining to support recovery operations is the sense of hope that is imparted to members of the public by seeing ADF Members in uniform working in their communities to support them. Indeed, in areas where a disaster occurs close to an ADF base, the habitual relationships with the community that can be developed through longer term recovery support can pay significant dividends in terms of community connectedness with Defence, and can extend to new and interesting local training opportunities post recovery.

Options in facing concurrency issues

In examining this issue, Peter Jennings suggests that ‘…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.’ When discussing the concept further, Michael Shoebridge acknowledges that this concept would only be effective if it was provided specific capabilities and personnel. Funding, training, and maintaining this capability; however, represents a significant cost for a capability that may not be frequently required on the scale for which it is designed.

Training and equipping the Army Reserve for disaster relief operations is another potential solution. The Army Reserve’s unique skillsets and local knowledge is particularly helpful in this sort of operational setting. Unfortunately though, this idea doesn’t present a solution to the concurrency problem. It is entirely foreseeable that the Army Reserve would be called upon in times of conflict. Focussing the Reserve on disaster response leaves them at risk of being unprepared for conflict. It passes the concurrency problem on to 2 Div, without necessarily solving it.

An Alternative Solution

To offset lost training opportunities, particularly when the outstanding and varied skills of the Army Reserve need to be augmented by the weight of personnel that the Regular Army can offer; focussing solely on short duration relief operations represents a pragmatic approach to the concurrency problem. If Army focusses on short duration operations to stabilise the immediate impact of a disaster and prevent [further] loss of life, its focus can return to training for war more rapidly while allowing the community, local government and non-government organisations to continue to lead ongoing recovery efforts. This does not diminish the need for effort to be applied in the recovery phase, but this sustained effort may be better left to local government and community while Army focuses on meeting the military challenges described in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update.

In his article for the Australian Journal of Emergency Management, MAJGEN Field proposes six ideas on ‘closing the community recovery intent-to-capability gap’. His ideas, particularly ‘sustain developing relationships in phase zero, enable charities and volunteers, and sustain compatible communications networks’ indicates a potential solution to the concurrency problem. Developing community resilience and capacity in phase zero is critical to enabling the Army to play a smaller role in recovery operations. Volunteer organisations such as Team Rubicon Australia (Now Disaster Relief Australia-DRA) have formulated their raison d’etre around developing and deploying trained disaster recovery volunteers. In DRA’s case they were able to deploy ‘grey shirts’ who led and coordinated additional community volunteers in five areas across three states. This remarkable four year old organisation achieved this with only three full-time staff. DRA uses a high percentage of military veterans and first responders as the basis for their volunteers and now has over 2500 members. This organisation knows how to integrate and communicate with ADF personnel, and that fact manifests in a strong and compatible communication network which integrates seamlessly from mission commander to individual soldier/ volunteer level.

The solution to the concurrency problem may be found in supporting and increasing the capacity of these organisations, perhaps even training with them prior to a disaster occurring (a phase zero relationship between 2 Div/ JOSS and DRA for example). This could conceivably lead to the Army and ADF being used in the early stages of relief operations, where their weight of personnel and high-technology equipment could immediately limit the devastation. When operational level capabilities or platforms are no longer as effective (two CH-47s were soundly beaten in a friendly fodder delivery contest by legacy and L121 trucks on Kangaroo Island) this could be the point where Army specific recovery efforts are handed over to organisations such as DRA in support of local government. Working in this manner allows the Army to avoid trading training opportunities in favour of protracted recovery operations. It may also have intangible benefits, such as exposing soldiers to DRA, which may prompt them to volunteer after service, resulting in their military training being of sustained use in the Australian community. 


Concurrency pressures and the need to prioritise where effort is focussed is not new; however, the sure way to realise Shoebridge’s ‘failure in both tasks’ is to let the opportunity to discuss and plan for these pressures pass by, and allowing the next disaster to be a surprise. It is essential to get this right if we are to be truly future ready. This article offers one potential path to balancing the concurrency problem that the Army now faces. Short duration recovery operations, before handing over to a trained and trusted NGO and government organisations may be a way that the Army is able to balance competing demands, and achieve the desired outcomes in both. As a plan, it is simple and under-developed, but if it sets the foundation for robust consideration and conversation, then this article more broadly, will have met its word-limited purpose.   



Owain Griffiths

Owain Griffiths is an Air Defence Artillery Officer and the Battery Commander of 111 Air Defence Battery at 16 Regiment, RAA. Since commissioning, he has completed a range of Regimental appointments within 16 Regiment, as well as instructing at the School of Artillery and ADFA. He was privileged with leading an Emergency Support Team, attached to 1 Armoured Regiment on Kangaroo Island, and subsequently leading a team in the Lobethal Recovery Centre in the Adelaide Hills, working closely with members of Disaster Relief Australia to maximise the utility of both organisations during Operation Bushfire Assist. He is currently supporting Operation COVID-19 Assist.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.


During the 2019 - 2020 bushfire, I was tasked to the Dunns Rd Fire (Tumut NSW). I am an Operational Officer with the NSW Rural Fire Service. I was working in the Incident Management Team, and has soldiers from 1/19 RNSWR Wagga Wagga tasked to the Fire Control Centre as runner and around assistances. These Soldiers went above and beyond and no task was to difficult. They were there at the crack of dawn and would leave well into the night and do it all again. These soldiers were locals and knew the area, which was fantastic. When they were relieved, elements of 2 CER came into the AO. They provided the same assistance as the soldiers from 1/19 RNSWR did. No task was to difficult. As an ex-Sapper, I was in my element, where I could talk the talk with 2 CER and also the RFS. Having a person speak both terminologies makes it quite easier.

Owain Griffiths has eloquently argued the problems associated with concurrency and disaster recovery operations. The use of the military is always an attractive option in response to civil disaster situations, but the Reserve of the 21st century is not the Reserve of the 20th century. Today’s Army Reserve is very much dedicated to supporting full time Army operations by the Reserve achieving the objectives for each stage of the force generation cycle it is in. Defence preparedness plans provide for Army’s requirement to also meet assigned tasks relating to Defence Assistance to the Civil Community (DACC). It must be assumed therefore that protracted civil support tasks will only exacerbate concurrency issues. With regard to the Disaster Relief Australia Volunteers referred to by Owain, it is a great initiative. In 2014, a proposal was to put to the Federal Government for a trained and paid part time disaster recovery support force that provided for the generation of 2000 trained persons annually from year 5 onwards. The force concept was to have civilians trained and competent in basic skills such as chain saw operation, rough terrain driving and towing, and temporary shelter erection, to mention just a few tasks in direct support of communities across the country. It was costed at $0.95 bn over the 5-year period, or an average cost of $200,000 per year. At the time, the cost was viewed as excessive since government considered that the then current resources were adequate to meet occasional environmental threats. Since then, several bush fires and droughts have occurred. With the benefit of hindsight, an investment in building resilience by empowering civil communities to self-help would have repaid its cost with ‘dividends’. In any event, this sort of civilian-manned initiative would not only allow Defence to focus on its primary role but engage a large cohort of disengaged and under-employed youth within communities across the country to be more self-reliant and resilient. In a nutshell, on the understanding that Defence will continue to support initial responses to disaster situations as directed by Government, communities should be encouraged to become cohesive, collaborative and self-reliant which will enable a better state of resilience as the environmental threats come about with increasing frequency. Owain’s concluding paragraph is ‘on the money’.

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