Australian soldiers are being called upon to respond to natural disasters such as floods and bushfires so frequently that an entirely new branch of the Defence Force may be needed to ensure they are not distracted from their core duty of preparing for battle, according to crossbench senator Jacqui Lambie.
Lambie, who served in the army for almost 10 years before entering politics, is chairing a Senate inquiry to examine the role of the Australian Defence Force in natural disaster recovery efforts and how the current arrangements can be improved.
The federal government’s defence strategic review, which will be released on Monday, is expected to explore the issue and make recommendations for changes.
The Department of Defence told Lambie’s inquiry that more than half of all defence personnel had been deployed in domestic disaster relief efforts since 2019 and that demands to respond to more frequent and intense natural disasters were harming its capacity to conduct important training exercises.
“While the ADF is proactively postured to support the response to domestic disaster relief, the unprecedented scale, duration and frequency of support is unsustainable without accepting significant impacts to ADF preparedness for its primary defence-of-Australia role,” the department said in a submission to Lambie’s inquiry.
The navy had to withdraw oiler replenishment ship HMAS Stalwart from a regional presence deployment last year to support flood victims, the department said.
Defence personnel played an important role in the response to last year’s Lismore floods and the 2019-2020 black summer bushfires, as well as being sent into aged care homes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lambie said the current situation was becoming untenable given climate change would result in more natural disasters and the Asia-Pacific region was becoming increasingly volatile.
“It’s gotten so bad we may need a fourth branch of the defence force: the army, the navy, the air force and a force for responding to natural disasters,” she said.
Lambie said this could function similarly to the United States National Guard, a state-based military reserve force that is routinely called upon to respond to natural disasters, but said she feared it would struggle to find recruits because young Australians no longer embraced a culture of volunteerism.
Air Vice-Marshal Stephen Chappell, head of the ADF’s military strategic commitments division, said the Defence Force was used to responding to natural disasters but the scale and duration of these operations was stretching scarce resources.
“It has been of a magnitude to create pressure on the Australian Defence Force and Defence that is unsustainable if we are to ensure we are prepared for our primary role, which is to defend Australia and its interests,” Chappell told the inquiry last month.
He said the need to respond to natural disasters was hampering the Defence Force’s ability to attract and retain staff given this was not the main reason many enlist in the armed forces.
Nationals senator Perin Davey told Chappell during the committee hearings: “Anecdotally, I’ve heard of frustrations by Defence Force personnel saying, ‘I didn’t join up to mop up; I joined up to serve’.
“While they don’t mind doing their bit to help, it increasingly feels like more of the primary role.”
Emergency Minister Murray Watt said the government was considering creating a semi-professional standby workforce to respond to natural disasters to ease pressures on the ADF.
While the arrival of troops provides an important morale boost to disaster-affected communities, Watt told the National Press Club last year that “their core job is the defence of the nation, and we do need to make sure that we’re not stretching them so far that that can’t remain their core focus”.
The Defence Department said the creation of “a scalable and deployable civil contingency workforce to support national crisis response and recovery could provide an alternative option to utilising the ADF workforce”.
In its submission to the inquiry, the Department of Home Affairs said it was examining how the US, Germany and Denmark respond to natural disasters and whether their approaches can be replicated in Australia.
Denmark’s Ministry of Defence has a standalone emergency management agency to prevent and respond to major disasters while Germany’s disaster response policy includes a volunteer national service program called “Your Year for Germany”.
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