Soundings Papers: When Disaster Strikes. Assessing the Royal Australian Navy’s Preparedness for Humanitarian Assistance & Disaster Relief

Soundings No. 17
Soundings No. 17

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Bryant Cong

This report analyses the Royal Australian Navy (RAN)’s material preparedness to meet its future Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) obligations: if the Navy has enough assets (ships and aircraft) and if those assets have suitable capabilities to perform disaster relief. As climate change increases the incidence of cyclones, earthquakes, and tsunamis in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, Australia as a regional power will be expected to aid affected populations. The RAN must, therefore, be prepared for HADR, and its ability to sealift aid will become one of its most important non warfighting functions. Particularly important for the RAN is to prepare for complex ‘concurrency pressures’ identified by the 2018 Parliamentary Hearing on Climate Change and National Security, where the RAN will have to respond to either a chain of natural disasters striking abroad or a simultaneous domestic and foreign need for HADR.

This report finds that the RAN should be cautiously optimistic about its overall HADR preparedness. The RAN’s acquisition of two new Canberra Class Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) ships - amphibious vessels with greater capacity for personnel and helicopters than any previous asset - has enhanced its abilities to deliver aid and to coordinate complex HADR operations from the sea. However, the RAN’s HADR operations from 2005-2017 also highlight that technical problem in its assets, the strain of handling concurrency pressures, and the increased need to deploy on disaster relief that will divert it from the core task of warfighting: all ongoing concerns that could diminish its HADR readiness.

To bolster its HADR readiness, the RAN should consider two policy options. First, it should expand regional HADR cooperation with other navies, which will build coordination in the event of an actual natural disaster and mitigate the increased HADR burden its ships will face with climate change. Second, it should conduct a force review to analyse the performance of its assets under climate change, including formally assessing the time and resources it will need to spend on future HADR pressures and ensuring that its amphibious elements will be capable of performing both warfighting and HADR missions. If implemented within the next five to ten years, these steps will reduce the risk that the RAN is caught unprepared for its long-term, future HADR obligations.