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ANZUS hospital ships for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief

(U.S. (US Navy photo by Bill Mesta/Released)

2020 so far has been a hard year for Australia, firstly the massive bushfires around the country and now the coronavirus pandemic causing the slow shutdown of our society. With this in mind, assistant professor at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs at Leiden University, Vanessa Newby, has raised some lessons that could be learnt from the response to these disasters.

2020 so far has been a hard year for Australia, firstly the massive bushfires around the country and now the coronavirus pandemic causing the slow shutdown of our society. With this in mind, assistant professor at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs at Leiden University, Vanessa Newby, has raised some lessons that could be learnt from the response to these disasters.

In an article for the Australia Strategic Policy Institute's The Strategist, Ms Newby outlines two lessons to be learnt from the events of 2020 so far.

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"Australia and its ANZUS treaty partners need to work more closely together, and non-traditional security threats need to be factored more heavily into Australia’s military strategy, particularly its naval strategy," she writes.

ANZUS and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR)

While Australia, New Zealand and the US all have the shared goal of progressing HADR efforts near and afar, ANZUS has not reflected this in practice and the alliance is largely seen a limited instrument of war-making.

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"The ANZUS states would appear to be well placed for greater collaboration on HADR activities in the Asia-Pacific. However, an investigation of the extent of co-operation among their militaries reveals that, despite broadly similar regional goals and a shared need for interoperability, strategic co-ordination on HADR is absent. All three states are more engaged with building and maintaining individual relationships with states in the Asia-Pacific," writes Newby.

She identifies the vast benefits of the ANZUS alliance "[it] has enormous benefits for its members’ through shared culture and language. Collaboration between Australia and the US is extensive, with hundreds of Australian Defence Force personnel embedded in the US military".

Newby believes it is puzzling how the greater structure of the ANZUS treaty has not led to greater co-operation in the region within the HADR space as it makes sense logistically but it has seeming fallen under the radar for military leaders, governments, media, and academics. 

Newby points to the recent example of the bushfire, which showed that interoperability and cooperation exists between states in regards to HADR.

"Firefighters from the US reported that it ‘had been no trouble to assume their roles and get down to work in a new country. The incident command system used to fight fires is standardised in all of these countries'," writes Newby.

ADF and HADR

The Australian defence force is no stranger to HADR activities often called upon in times of flood, fire, cyclones and now pandemic. The structured and organised nature of the armed forces makes it able to co-ordinate complex operations in crisis in a quick and timely manner. Outside of Australia, HADR has also been an integral part of the ADF's operations abroad. For example, Australia has participated in the Pacific Partnership, which involves the deployment into the region of units from the US Pacific Fleet with a range of government and non-government humanitarian organisations since its formation in 2006.

Newby highlights the enduring role of HADR in Australian defence thinking and strategy as a whole.

"Australia initially conceptualised an increase in the ADF’s humanitarian activities as part of prosecuting the war on terror. The 2013 defence white paper included HADR among the stated objectives of Australia’s amphibious capability. In the 2016 version, the importance of HADR was emphasised in the context of regional relations. In 2012, the ADF took possession of ADV Ocean Shield, a ship dedicated to HADR missions, and in 2014 and 2015 two Canberra Class multipurpose amphibious ships were acquired whose role includes HADR operations."

Australia has an important role and responsibility in the pacific region as a nation that is better equipped to assist it times of crisis when the capabilities of local responders are inundated by natural disaster.

"Lessons learned from previous disasters illustrate the need for robust command and control and communications; a medical surge capability beyond that available locally; and a fast and heavy-lift capability for evacuation, decontamination and isolation," Newby writes.

These are all capabilities that Australia with the added assistance from our ANZUS allies would be a better position to provide if more co-ordination and commitment could be put in writing.

ANZUS hospital ships

In her article, Newby calls for the use of hospital ships in the Pacific to be considered more closely.

"After the tsunamis in Indonesia and Japan in 2004 and 2005, the US Navy’s hospital ships Mercy and Comfort were indispensable sources of medical aid and relief. They have now been deployed to the east and west coasts of the US to assist with the coronavirus responses in New York and California," Newby says.

She also highlights the ability for coronavirus to inundate existing medical facilities and bring them to an almost standstill with the sheer number of people needing high levels of care. She notes that hotels and cruise ships are an alternative to overburdened hospitals in terms of caring and isolating less serious cases but a hospital ship is obviously better suited for this role as far as preparedness and resilience go, as "hospital ships are well equipped with medical teams and supplies and provide more secure isolation".

While airlift is by far the quickest way to supply areas of disaster with much needed medical supplies, especially in the vast Pacific and south-east Asian region, the ability to land planes can be compromised in times of disaster due to damage to runways, for example, during a major earthquake. 

Hospital ships do not have these kinds of issues, although they are slower to arrive but carry much higher levels of capability and assistance. She writes, "Ships, however, can still provide supplies and facilities. During non-crisis periods, hospital ships can travel to regions in which medical facilities are limited to assist with non-urgent treatment such as immunisations and eye or dental examinations."

Your thoughts

Newby calls for an increase in the number of hospital ships available to Australia and the Asia-Pacific region to better act in times of crisis to ensure that responses are not only reactionary. She calls for a consideration of how Australia itself can use the military, especially the Navy, in times of crisis both at home and in our region as the wealthiest and most capable to assist during a natural disaster.

The ANZUS treaty has ensured long-term co-operation between Australia, New Zealand and the US through shared cultural beliefs and goals in the region. However, this partnership has the ability to grow the co-ordination of HADR activities that are beneficial to not only to neighbours in the Asia-Pacific region but for greater defence and strategic goals of the ANZUS partners through increased stability and relationship growth.

It is already proven that the ANZUS partners can co-operate and co-ordinate disaster response together but a tightening of these capabilities and the possible growth of hospital ship capability in the region can only improve reactions to disaster.

What do you think of the idea of ANZUS hospital ships and should Australia look into the possibility of growing this capability or sharing with our partners? Or should ANZUS be a pure defence agreement? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or by emailing This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

ANZUS hospital ships for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief
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