Vice Admiral David Johnston interview with Patricia Karvelas, RN Breakfast, ABC Radio National
11 March 2022
PATRICIA KARVELAS: As Australia responds to an unprecedented flood crisis, the Defence Force has stepped into the spotlight rescuing stranded victims from their rooftops and clearing debris as the waters recede. Now while thousands of Defence personnel deal with the floods, the federal government is promising a massive boost to recruitment with an eye on rising geopolitical tensions in our region and beyond.
Vice Admiral David Johnston is the Vice Chief of the Australian Defence Force and your guest this morning. Vice Admiral David Johnston, welcome to the program.
DAVID JOHNSTON: Patricia, good morning. It's great to talk with you.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: What's the latest on the flood response this morning? What phase of the response are we in now?
DAVID JOHNSTON: We are still in the response phase, which precedes the recovery phase, which will follow in the days and weeks ahead. And that's why you still see a very sizable presence on the ground, including from the ADF supporting the local communities, state emergency services, other emergency responders, as we respond to that emergency or provide immediate assistance to those people in our community who need it.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: What is the work the ADF is actually doing on the ground now? Can you just give us a sense of the scale of it?
DAVID JOHNSTON: We've got over 5,000 people now between Queensland, northern New South Wales and as that weather system moves south towards Sydney in the Sydney Basin area as well. Our role has changed as the weather and the circumstances on the ground have evolved. We started, as many people saw, with those quite dramatic scenes of helicopters conducting rescue efforts for people on rooftops.
Where we are now, we're assisting with the clean-up that's occurring in communities. We're doing food distribution, aerial surveillance to determine the extent of the damage and to assist the state emergency services to prioritise their effort. We're conducting welfare checks on people that are in remote areas and assisting to open up the roads so that assistance can be provided and gradually some normality can return.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: The need on the ground is huge. How broad is the support you can offer? You just mentioned even welfare checks, which really demonstrates just how deep the work that you do is. But what's become the pressing need?
DAVID JOHNSTON: The clean-up effort is clearly what we are all seeing as people remove that extraordinary amount of damage that their houses and community have experienced. So trying to assist with that clean-up effort and then getting the material off the streets as quickly as possible so it doesn't continue to pose health or other hazards to the community.
I think we're there to provide some reassurance. We know having a military uniform when our community is in need is a sense of comfort and that there is assistance being provided. So we're providing a whole series of different effects. And it depends on each local community, each town, what they need at the particular time so that we can adjust what we are contributing based on their needs.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: So obviously this is a long-term project. What role do you play in the coming weeks and months then?
DAVID JOHNSTON: That would be a conversation that will occur in the days and weeks ahead. We're clearly not there at the moment. And it will also differ, some communities will recover earlier than others. So we'll be there to continue while we are in this response phase.
I think our experience has been based other circumstances where we've provided disaster relief, communities can get to a point where they're seeking that return to normality, and the presence of uniforms can start to impact that. So communities naturally reach a point where they think they're ready to stand up on their own two feet.
And we also see that some of the work that we do starts to become employment opportunities for local communities that enables them also to commence that recovery themselves. So it's case by case, town by town. We'll be part of consulting with Emergency Management Australia, with the state emergency services to determine just what that right time and pathway is.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: We've heard repeatedly from residents in the flood zones that it took too long for the ADF to arrive. We know it was hard to get into many places. What's – what can you explain to us about that? Because I even spoke to the Defence Minister Peter Dutton who said at the beginning it was really hard and dangerous to get into those places. I had a really strong reaction to that from some of the listeners who said ‘isn't that the point of the ADF? Danger shouldn't be something that stops the ADF.’ What can you explain to us about that process and the delay that's been noted by residents?
DAVID JOHNSTON: I am aware of that criticism. I think, like all of the responders – and in our case we were active from the 25th of February, so very early on in the impact that was being experienced in southern Queensland at the time. The scale of it grew quickly and all of us had to make adjustments to that. For our own capability some of the places that we would be bringing people out, the Amberley airfield that's south of Brisbane was also being impacted by water, so we were redistributing to ensure that we had the capabilities where they would be operable.
We needed to know where the State Emergency Services wanted to place us. Of course, they're coordinating all the response efforts. They're prioritising where the need is. We had our people in with their operation centres to have an appreciation of where those effects were required and then to enable us to appropriately task our people.
Of course, the weather did have an impact on how quickly we could get road access – in particular, move our heavy plant and the large-scale movement of people to where they might be needed. And we're very conscious that when we came in we didn't wish to be a burden to the local community. So we needed to be able to support our people on the ground, provide them food and water, enable them to set up some shelter, so ensuring that we were able to get all of those elements right in the way we were responding are factors that influence the speed and scale.
But it was such a broad area that was impacted that unfortunately it does appear some people got support later than any of us would have preferred.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: So with respect, if you could have your day again, what would you change, not only about what you did, what the ADF did, but about that line that you talk about – the request or telling you where to deploy? What would change?
DAVID JOHNSTON: One of the things we've worked very significantly on since the bushfires of 2019 and 2020 are the way that we work with Emergency Management Australia and the State Emergency authorities. We've done significant work to ensure we've got our people in there on a regular basis. We build the relationships so that we're in a position to respond well. That's a really important part that we would continue to work on to enable us to shorten that decision loop of where to get our effects and how quickly to achieve it.
I think that making sure we've got the right communication, the right people in place. We have, I think, all of us – because we've used the same structure for Defence support from the bushfires in that 2020 period, how we've constructed our Covid support in the community has built on the structures that we've put in place, and then the way that we have responded in the floods, all of these are improving our learning in how to respond, the types of capabilities that are necessary when we’re called on to do so.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: The government has announced a major boost to the ADF. It wants to see over 18,000 new recruits by 2040. How will those new recruits be used as Defence grows and adapts over the coming two decades?
DAVID JOHNSTON: The Government in 2020 made some very important announcements where they released a Defence Strategic Update which evaluated the environment in which our national security would be conducted over the next decade. And with that assessment came a new capability plan. It was called the Force Structure Plan, and what that plan outlines are the types of new effects that Defence expects to have to be able to generate in order to meet our national security needs. A big emphasis on new areas like cyber and space;, an increase in the capacity that exists within our naval, land and air forces to meet the contemporary environment in which we see ourselves.
We know that one of the really important ways that enables a modest sized Defence Force like ours to achieve its optimal outcome is the way we work and pull it together. So our intelligence capabilities, the way our communications bind us, the logistic support that enables us to get high rates of availability and movement when we are operationally deployed.
We are increasing the type of equipment that we have customarily had and introducing new equipment that reflects the environment in which we are operating.
All of that takes more people to be able to do it. And it's people both to use the equipment that we're bringing in, it's people who are required to acquire the equipment for us, so the number of defence acquisition projects are increasing significantly. We need the support from our human resources to manage everything from training to the wellbeing of people in our workforce.
So the effects or the outcome of that increase that the Government announced yesterday both goes directly and importantly to military capabilities, but it also improves the resilience of all the supporting enablers that ensure we can use them when we need to do so.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Thank you so much for joining us this morning.
DAVID JOHNSTON: You're very welcome. Good to talk to you. Thank you.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Vice Admiral David Johnston is the Vice Chief of the Australian Defence Force.