What is the Main Effort? HA/DR or Warfighting?

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This is the third and final article in a three-part series from the Australian Defence Force Liaison Officer (ADFLO) to the New South Wales Rural Fire Service (NSW RFS) as a part of Operation Bushfire Assist 19-20. You can find article two here.

Operation Bushfire Assist 19-20 saw the ADF provide force elements in support of state bushfire firefighting efforts; doing so demonstrated the ADFs existing Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HA/DR) capability. 

This capability has historically been utilised by Australian Government and Non-Governmental agencies to respond to many significant natural disasters; including Operation Vic Fires Assist 2009Operation Queensland Flood Assist 2011 and Operation Yasi Assist 2011.

Each of these operations has seen increasing numbers of troops allocated to task, with the largest effort now being over 3,200 who served on OP Bushfire Assist 19-20. Given this was Australia’s most destructive bushfire event since 1974 (in terms of total area destroyed), it is natural to expect that a larger force element would be called upon in service of Australians in need.

However, a trend is becoming apparent: Australia faces a worsening climate characterised by more frequent and extreme weather events, and as such the ADF is becoming increasingly involved in operations to support Australian communities domestically. The ADF can enhance their HA/DR position by integrating with Emergency Management and service agencies to increase the effect the ADF can have on the ground within this type of operation.

However, what is the ADF’s main effort (ME)?

The Defence Budget Overview for 2019-20 provided $38.7 billion to the Department of Defence to spend on key capability. It identified that the Government’s number one priority is “…keeping Australians safe and secure”. This can be interpreted to mean warfighting capability and HA/DR capability – noting they sometimes go hand-in-hand. 

The Defence Budget Overview also outlines key outcomes to be achieved, including assisting the Afghanistan Government to manage its security, the continuation of Operation Resolute for domestic border security and a strong investment program in Defence capabilities; E-7A WedgetailP-8A PoseidonF-35A Lightning II and a naval shipbuilding program

A small note is made about domestic HA/DR capability: “…maintain the capability to support Australians affected by flooding, cyclones and other natural disasters.” This suggests that the ME is development of warfighting capability and to maintain the rate of effort (ROE) for HA/DR domestically. 

The logic and funding behind the Federal budget was established prior to the recent devastating bushfires, and before 3,000 ADF part-time members were ‘called-out’ to support the effort.

Both natural disasters and overseas conflicts come with their own requirements for preparedness; however, the ADF’s capability and output is finite. This encourages the need to identify the division of effort and to prioritise the ADF’s approach to achieving the ADF’s mission “…to defend Australia and its national interests”.


There are convincing arguments in favour of both HA/DR and warfighting capability being the ADF’s ME. Each achieve the ADF’s mission statement and can be executed through the existing capability comprising the ADF. Simultaneity and scale present issues.

So is Humanitarian Assistance / Disaster Relief the ME?

With climate change being a key topic, it is easy to identify the threat natural disasters pose to Australians. They cause devastation, harrowing scenes and ultimately take Australian lives on home soil. The emotion is felt by all Australians and is widely communicated through the news. The threat is easy to identify and the effects of ADF support can be felt instantaneously. 

This was shown most recently in the devastation caused by fires in the NSW South Coast, where there were raw scenes of those stranded without shelter calling for the ADF’s support to rescue them. The ADF is well equipped to support a combat agency, similar to OP Bushfire Assist 19-20, in varying tasks; including search and rescue missions with rotary wing elements, clearance activities with engineering forces and general humanitarian support.

Or is warfighting the ME?

In contrast, it is more challenging to impress upon the Australian public the threat posed by established and emerging threats and conflicts originating in overseas locations.

Most recently, the ADF has been deployed by the Australian Government on overseas operations supporting coalition forces across the Middle East Area of Operations (MEAO), Timor Leste, South Sudan, Egypt and Cambodia. Deeply embedded processes and training develops highly skilled soldiers equipped to undertake the demanding task of serving in operational conflict.

The Department of Defence has ongoing acquisition contracts in place for specific warfighting capability development and procurement. This includes the upgrade of air combat capability, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter fleet, naval shipbuilding of submarines and the ongoing acquisition of engineer capability for mine clearance equipment. To shift focus on the ME of warfighting jeopardises the ongoing capability acquisition framework and contracts and can limit Australia’s relationship building with the global military supplier network – integral to a good Australian global economy.

The ADF has an inherent war fighting ability and it has been the ME in the defence of Australia.

My Recommendation

My recommendation is that there is room for both options to be our ME. There is scope to support both and to create a division of labour to be effective in both realms of responsibility.

There is opportunity for the ADF to maintain readiness for domestic HA/DR operations similar to OP Bushfire Assist 19-20 by conducting Brigade-level exercises led by part-time ADF forces and supported by full-time Army capability. Practicing insertion, support and exfiltration at both the operational and tactical level would certify forces to undertake HA/DR activities; similar to Exercises Hamel and Talisman Sabre for warfighting capability. This exercise could focus on the key ‘lessons learned’ on OP Bushfire Assist 19-20: planning, force development/restructure, and the application of the FE to task which I described in part two of this series.

There is also opportunity to maintain warfighting operational readiness through existing certification exercises like Exercise Hamel and Exercise Talisman Sabre. This would be led by full time ADF capability and supported by part time members. The ADF’s ability to prepare for threats is through frequently exercising capability.

How will we pay for doing both? I recognise that this raises questions about the ADF’s financial obligations and limitations and is really a proposal for increased federal spending on Defence capability. However, to meet the increasing need for assistance both domestically and overseas it may be necessary to achieve the ADFs mission and to best serve Australians. 

There are varying opinions about where the balance lies, including from Michael Shoebridge:

“A challenge for Defence is whether it can respond creatively to the changing requirements and manage multiple demands simultaneously. A larger disaster-response capability will not just meet a key need here at home, but will also be a very welcome element in Australia’s closer strategic relationships in the South Pacific and Southeast Asia. Done well, the new role would reinforce Australia’s strategic interests and our growing military power. Done poorly, it would risk being cast as a distraction for the ADF at a critical time in the Indo-Pacific.”

And also from Marcus Hellyer who recently said “fighting fires is not the Australian Defence Force’s job”:

“If the government thinks that this is a higher priority for public funding than developing military capabilities to defend Australia against armed threats in an age of strategic uncertainty, so be it. But we should not default to an assumption that Defence is the best agency to deliver the necessary firefighting capabilities, particularly when we already have organisations in this country with vast experience and expertise in firefighting.”

This is a debate worth having, what do you think?

About the Author: Lieutenant Emma Watson is posted to Regimental Headquarters at 11th Engineer Regiment and most recently served as an Australian Defence Force Liaison Officer in OP BUSHFIRE ASSIST 19-20. You can follow her on Twitter via the handle @Emmamareewatson.

Cover Image Credit: Defence Image Gallery