HADR: in search of low-cost innovative solutions
8 May 2013|
Private Marcus Bonini shows Liberal Senator Nick Minchin the contents of a ration pack 'in the field' during a visit to Solomon Islands.

In financially-constrained times we need to think of innovative ways to promote useful but low-cost security cooperation in our region. Developing Australia’s capacity to provide emergency food relief would enhance our international reputation and support closer security ties.

Australia’s desire for closer engagement with Asia has been a prominent and largely bipartisan priority during the last decade, albeit with occasional divergence in approach and emphasis. While the Howard Government was guided by the principles of ‘shared interests and mutual respect,’ Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd surprised the region in 2008 with grand plans for an Asia-Pacific union by 2020. Mr Rudd’s announcement failed to resonate with regional neighbours, who saw it as a threat to ASEAN’s patiently-constructed regional architecture.

Since the 2010 Federal Election, Australia’s regional diplomacy has been less revolutionary and more focused on nudging multilateral cooperation down a more practical path. Cooperating under the banner of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), has gained prominence in the aftermath of natural disasters in Pakistan, Indonesia and Japan. It’s seen as a relatively non-contentious way to promote military-to-military interaction and consequently resonates in regional policy circles. Multilateral security agendas have increasingly focussed on:

  • developing more timely and agile responses following disaster events
  • exploring ways to broaden collective response options and
  • practically applying those responses within multilateral frameworks like the East Asia Summit, ASEAN, and the ASEAN Defence Minister’s Meeting.

Australia, as a regular ‘first responder’ to HADR contingencies, has an opportunity to play a leading role in promoting cooperation in this area.

One practical option would be to expand operations at the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO) facility in Tasmania, into an international centre for emergency food research. DSTO Scottsdale could be tasked with developing innovative, non-perishable food products for rapid distribution by regional militaries, emergency management agencies, or NGOs. Given the scale and quality of agricultural production in Tasmania, coupled with the current remit of DSTO to develop rations for Australian troops, there’s no reason why Australia couldn’t lead this development—or cooperate with an ASEAN partner. The initiative would have the potential to boost Australia’s international reputation.

Consider, for example, Australia’s provision of emergency support to Japan in March 2011 following a massive earthquake and damage to nuclear energy infrastructure. Australia provided strategic airlift (C-17s), urban search and rescue capabilities, water, and a range of ancillary support. Australia and the United States were the only two countries authorised to provide military airlift assistance internally within Japan, thereby acting as a focal point for regional and global offers of assistance.

As the Japanese Government responded to this unprecedented crisis, more than 100,000 members of the Japanese Self Defence Force were deployed. Japanese authorities asked whether Australia could provide non-perishable food to help sustain their troops and the many thousands of displaced civilians. Australia was unable to help due to insufficient stocks of Defence rations and an inability to quickly ramp up production at DSTO Scottsdale. This is because the Defence ration pack contract is held by a New Zealand company, thereby limiting our response options in this area. There was also the question of how suitable Australian Defence Force rations were for Asian tastes.

The potential to establish a food innovation partnership between the Federal and Tasmanian Governments is self-evident. Agriculture is already a prominent industry in Tasmania, with substantial growth forecast as new irrigation projects open up previously unusable areas. New thinking could leverage this opportunity to develop and produce innovative, non-perishable food products for global HADR contingencies.

The United Nations World Food Program, Australia’s key partner in food aid, has advised Australia (through AusAID) that military ration packs wouldn’t meet the nutritional requirements of its target groups, such as infants, children and pregnant women. Scope exists, therefore, to diversify the research and production base at Scottsdale. Emergency vitamin and medicine supplements could be produced to cater for very short-notice nutritional needs arising in the immediate aftermath of HADR events. Other products could be developed as follow-on supplies once stable points of entry are established within disaster zones. Even culturally-appropriate, long-life rations could be developed for HADR contingencies in our region and beyond; rice-based rations for Asian contingencies, perhaps taro-based rations for Pacific contingencies or Halal products for Muslim populations.

There’s also scope to consider bilateral or trilateral development of this proposal with New Zealand and/or an ASEAN neighbour. A food innovation and production facility at Scottsdale could be a major initiative with potential growth into new product lines for both humanitarian and commercial use. There’s further potential to open such a scheme to the US Marine Air Ground Task Force planned to operate out of Darwin should it undertake HADR missions.

This is a relatively low cost proposal, which could in the first instance be funded from resources already ear-marked for emergency relief operations. It has the added benefit of helping to sustain a high quality food research operation in Tasmania – a win-win for all concerned.

Implementing this proposal would enhance Australia’s response options for HADR contingencies, reinforce DSTO’s reputation as a food science centre of excellence, optimise Tasmania’s food bowl potential created by the major expansion underway in irrigation infrastructure, and strengthen Australia’s multilateral credentials. In terms of leveraging opportunities in the Asian Century, it would clearly demonstrate Australia’s desire to deepen the roots of multilateral diplomacy and security cooperation in our region – in ways that the Asia-Pacific community would welcome.

Andrew Nikolic AM, CSC is the Liberal Candidate for the federal seat of Bass (Northern Tasmania). He enlisted as a 17 year-old Army soldier in 1979 and left the Department of Defence in July 2011, having served for 33 years as a soldier, officer and senior public servant. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.