Integrating with Combat Agencies in a National Emergency

Reading Time: 5 minutes

This is the second 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 one here.

The ADF provided a significant force element in a short amount of time on Operation Bushfire Assist 19-20. This force element made a demonstrable difference in aiding an unprecedented natural disaster. 

Multi-agency integration during this national emergency has been an invaluable currency and has shown that teaming with others and understanding domestic agencies is an important component of readiness.

Australia faces an ever-changing climate with more frequent and larger extreme weather events. It’s possible the ADF may be called upon to undertake these types of operations in the future.

The Chief of Army has called for building partnerships as the norm for an ‘Army in Motion’. Building relationships in support of leading combat agencies, as occurred with the NSW RFS during Operation Bushfire Assist 19-20, is a component of this. This includes understanding how domestic agencies work and how the ADF fits into this domestic landscape to produce the best possible outcome for all parties involved, including every Australian. 

This article looks at partnership lessons from Operation Bushfire Assist 19-20 and explores readiness opportunities going forward. As reservists were ‘called out’, an extraordinary historic event, there is arguably a need to focus their training on warfighting as well as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) Brigade-level exercises. 


Within NSW, the definition of a ‘Combat Agency’ is derived from the State Emergency Management Plan (EMPLAN). A Combat Agency is “…the agency identified in the State Emergency Management Plan as the agency primarily responsible for controlling the response to a particular emergency”. The EMPLAN has been prepared with input from all NSW government agencies that have responsibilities and functions in disaster response and recovery.

Image Credit: Lieutenant Emma Watson

The State Emergency Operations Centre (SEOC) manages agencies that ‘plug-in’ to this EMPLAN framework and it’s here I worked in my role as ADFLO to NSW. The integrated agencies range from Parks and Wildlife, Welfare, Telco, and NSW Police. They already have a natural cohesion because acting in accordance with the EMPLAN is ‘business as usual’. They have similar processes for aligning that fit neatly and enable streamlined planning; and each agency has a responsibility to engage and embed themselves to contribute to overall objectives. 

Environments where the ADF partners with other organisations, either as the ‘supported’ or ‘supporting’ force element, is normal for the ADF. This is demonstrated in both training, exercises and operations across the globe: operations within the Middle East Area of Operations (MEAO), training deployments (Rifle Company Butterworth) and relevant multi-national exercises (for example, Exercise Puk Puk in Papua New Guinea conducted by the 3rd Combat Engineer Regiment). However, Brigade-level training to partner with the complex structures of State Government to prepare for domestic response to HA/DR is less common.  

That being said, the ADF does provide a representative to the State Emergency Management Committee (SEMC) and this contributes to developing better approaches to natural disaster events. Committee meetings are held with agencies to discuss emergency management, ongoing NSW State goals and to determine better ways of doing business. However, any exercises that are conducted by agencies expected to participate within this emergency response framework are performed at a single agency level and are predominantly internally focused; designed to train their people. There  is sometimes smaller multiple agency input.  

An example is Exercise Deerubbin, last conducted in June 2019 by the State Emergency Service (SES) to explore what would occur if the Hawkesbury catchment failed and caused a large-scale flood. This exercise lasted three weeks; wargaming and exploring concepts of emergency response and management into recovery. The ADF provided input, but as a supporting agency only rather than incorporating a Joint Task Force (JTF) element into the exercise.

My Recommendation

There is opportunity for the ADF to prepare for similar domestic HA/DR operations by conducting Brigade-level exercises led by reserves. With the support of regular 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 Operation Bushfire Assist 19-20: planning, force development/restructure, and the application of the FE to task. 

I recognise that this raises questions about meeting our existing certification requirements and our being accountable to government for meeting a standard of warfighting. In the third and final article in this series I will explore this contradiction and argue that while warfighting must remain our primary effort and HA/DR the secondary effort, there is space for developing more nuanced HA/DR capability in the part-time Army. 


Contributing a planning element to a pre-existing exercise run by a state agency, like Exercise Deerubbin, would help with the integration of ADF personnel with NSW State Government agencies and with the subsequent processing of requests for assistance from the lead combat agency. This could include an establishment of a JTF for natural disaster scenarios, embedding personnel within the complex State Government environment and the initial formation of a FE to apply ‘troops-to-task’.

This will engage states agencies who can then provide input into the development of the ADF’s processes, communications and battle rhythm.

Image Credit: Lieutenant Emma Watson

All this will aid in shortening ADF planning cycles when responding to a future emergency. I note that the ADF works within a ‘current operations’ and a ‘future operations’ framework. However, this works well when future tasks can be predicted and planned for. By their nature, emergencies mean work will continue into recovery and it cannot be pinpointed where a FE will be required, of what size, and with what priorities of effort. A ‘focus on response’ is required where ADF planning adapts to the task.

Force Development/Restructure

Traditional FE structures work well within warfighting capability where the ADF may delegate smaller FE to manoeuvre commanders who then achieve an effect on the ground or allow for greater freedom of movement in an area of operations (AO). However, a true Combined Arms approach is necessary in HA/DR operations to achieve a FE with the required, applicable technical skills to actually achieve an effect on the ground. 

Operation Bushfire Assist 19-20 demonstrated that engineer and supply/transport assets are key to completing the tasks likely to arise. To bolster the effect, however, these assets needed the support of troops able to do general duties. This might mean force restructure down to the fire-team level.

Application of FE to Task

Once FE are applied to standing tasks of a blended and composite nature, testing the methodology on likely HA/DR tasks will show how well, or how poorly, the composition works. Operation Bushfire Assist 19-20 demonstrated that infantry units were best placed to support engineers in the clearance of roads and trails, but also to complete general duties tasks. 

Careful consideration of the effect required and to the application of appropriately constructed FEs and equipment before the emergency is vital to quick response. We also need to promulgate skills applicable to HA/DR more widely. For example, a course was quickly stood up to train infantry personnel on the use of chainsaws (a widely held qualification amongst engineers) so that they could aid in the many clearance activities required. 

Testing and adjusting elements in a live exercise will be impactful on the future planning of operations. Though necessary, a force restructure is only as good as its application in an exercise prior to a national emergency. 

The ADF cannot assume that when it ‘plugs-in’ to a state emergency framework it can work with others by flexing its ‘leadership muscles’ and becoming the lead combat agency. It must remember that the NSW State Government’s standard of HA/DR response is equivalent to our standard of warfighting and, as such, a level of respect should be administered when playing a part within a much larger system. Exercising with agencies different to ours will only enhance the effect the ADF can have on the ground in future emergency responses.

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.

Cover Image: PNGDF sappers and the Australian Army 3rd Combat Engineer Regiment supporting Forest Fire Management in Victoria by clearing Bogong High Plains Rd of hazardous trees south of Falls Creek during Operation Bushfire Assist 19-20. Defence Image Gallery.