Thursday 16 Aug 2018 | 06:03 | SYDNEY
Thursday 16 Aug 2018 | 06:03 | SYDNEY

Harnessing our national logistical assets


Sam Roggeveen


7 August 2008 11:33

The military-themed blog Ares reports here on a recent speech by the Singaporean defence minister Teo Chee Hean about the increasing role of military forces in disaster relief:

...the role of militaries in responding to non-traditional security challenges is proving increasingly critical. While most militaries are not specifically equipped or trained to deal with non-traditional threats, militaries are often the only organisations able to respond to them rapidly and on the scale that is required.

The minister is surely right that the capability to respond to disasters rests heavily with military forces. But that's been the case for a very long time. So what accounts for the fact that the military role in responding to disasters is 'increasingly crititical'?

The answer surely lies in that last (seemingly inocuous) phrase, 'on the scale that is required'. As Philip Bobbitt* argues in Terror and Consent, the modern market state increasingly derives its legitimacy from its ability to protect its citizens from harm (rather than defend its territory, which was the primary concern of the twentieth century nation state). So the requirement to protect and mitigate against the worst consequences of disasters is driven in part by the changing nature of the state. Improved capabilities and higher expectations probably also play a part.

What does this mean for our armed forces? The American strategist Thomas Barnett argues that non-traditional military tasks like disaster relief are now so important as to require a whole new intra-government structure, separate from the war-fighters, which he calls a 'Department of Everything Else'. Our armed forces may not be big enough to allow for such a stark division of labour, but we could think about devoting some of our military assets more fully to jobs like disaster relief.

I've argued before that, outside of training and military exercises, our new amphibious ships are very likely to spend their operational lives as soft power assets, engaged in tasks like disaster relief. It's just very hard to dream up credible military scenarios in which  Australia — D Day-like —would land troops on contested shores from these ships.

So why not devote those ships to non-traditional tasks from the beginning, in an operational sense? In fact, why do they have to be purely military assets at all? Yes, Navy has the experience and know-how to operate such ships, and they would use them for military exercises. But it might be better to see the ships as national logistical assets, operated jointly by various government agencies in close cooperation with NGOs that would have a lead role in a disaster relief operation.

I'd like to hear from you about why this is a brilliant or horrible idea.

* This might be the last time you see me mention this book — despite my best efforts, I just cannot finish it. I'm convinced Bobbitt is an important thinker, but his opaque style leaves me cold. Look out for a briliant review of Terror and Consent by my colleague, Rory Medcalf, in an upcoming issue of the Australian Literary Review.