Every Possible Capability: Some Implications of the Army Reserve Call Out for Operation Bushfire Assist 2019-2020
During the latter months of 2019 and the new year of 2020, Australia experienced catastrophic and widespread bushfires. As the situation worsened, the federal government unexpectedly called out the Australian Defence Force (ADF) Reserves to bolster an already significant deployment of ADF regular forces to contribute to a massive interagency and volunteer community response. This deployment was the largest ever peacetime domestic ADF operation in response to a natural disaster.
The ADF responding to domestic natural disasters is not new. What was new in this case was the scale of the response, the largest ever by some margin and the mandatory call out of Reserve units. This call out was a significant milestone for Defence. Previous use of Reservists was on a voluntary, ‘call for’, basis. The compulsory mobilisation of large numbers of Reservists was the realisation of a domestic emergency contribution by the Reserves articulated as desirable as long ago as the 1976 Defence White Paper.
Achieving a rapid operational effect for domestic disaster relief was more than just putting ‘boots on the ground’. Years of decisions with regard to factors such as resources, training, force structure, facilities and organisational priorities were put to the test. This paper uses a force projection theory framework to identify some implications of the Bushfire event for the ADF and its Reserve component.
As the lessons of Operation Bushfire Assist 2019-20 are absorbed by the ADF there will be an opportunity to recast the value proposition of the Reserves as part of the Total Force. As government seeks to build the national resilience to natural disasters, this paper argues that the ADF Reserves are an accessible, persistent and cost-effective means to apply available human capital in regions and communities. After all, in an uncertain strategic environment and given emerging non-traditional security threats, ‘every possible capability’ may be required again soon.