“Forget that online al-Qaeda study manuals have directed this kind of attack specifically at Australia almost 10 years ago, it’s clear to all now how abysmal our fire strategy is,” he said.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison this week defended his government’s preparation for the bushfire season, saying any suggestion the Coalition’s climate change policies were impacting directly on specific fire events “doesn’t bear up to credible scientific evidence”.
But with climate change and bushfires worsening, Dr Orr said Australia should be using at least two of Defence’s Triton drones, which are still a few years away from being delivered, to monitor the landscape throughout bushfire season. There should also be a network of significantly more fire towers with water tanks, which could be linked to fleets of drones equipped with fire retardant, he said.
“You could also have water bombs on pallets out of military aircraft seconded to domestic agencies, even active bombing to de-oxygenate when cost-benefit protocols dictate,” Dr Orr said. “A counter-fire bomb would have no shrapnel in it, for instance, and simply de-oxygenate the fire and would be scalable – i.e. of varying sizes.”
Bombs have been used to fight fires before, emitting a shockwave that can snuff out airflow and slow a fire’s speed. The Swedish air force last year dropped a 500-pound bomb from a fighter jet onto a burning forest that was threatening nearby communities.
Defence should be looking to share more of its equipment with law enforcement and emergency response agencies, Dr Orr said, pointing to a program in the US that legally requires its military to make various items available.
John Blaxland, professor of international security and intelligence studies at the Australian National University, has been calling for a “universal national community service scheme” to better respond to disasters.
He said capabilities that could easily be inserted into the ADF, like quick-release water bladders, should be a priority under any increase in spending.
“There’s certainly scope for the ADF to be looking seriously at how it can work seamlessly with RFS and SES agencies at short notice,” Professor Blaxland said.
Senator Reynolds said state and territory governments had primary responsibility for responding to natural disasters under the constitution.
“The Australian Defence Force is not trained, equipped or certified to undertake ground-based or aerial bush firefighting, and does not get involved in the direct act of fighting bushfires outside Defence property,” she said.
“While our ADF personnel are not trained firefighters, permanent and reserve forces are currently providing significant support in the firefighting efforts.
“The use of ADF unmanned aircraft systems in civilian airspace that is constantly used by civilian aircraft would require significant and close de-confliction, and is a matter for civil agency consideration.”
Since November 8, the ADF has provided jets to transfer firefighters, air support, refuelling and water supply and lent out some of its bases for storing equipment.
Anthony is foreign affairs and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Rob Harris is the National Affairs Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra