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Ebola: ADF was caught short and Tony Abbott’s response was wrong

15 January 2016
Changing security landscape needs new capabilities

The ADF needs to be flexible and adaptable, capable of responding to the wide variety of threats we now confront, writes Associate Professor Adam Kamradt-Scott.

An insignia on the arm of a member of the Australian Defence Force personnel. Image: iStock

The ADF lacked the numbers and right military hardware to aid the response to the 2014 West African Ebola outbreak.  Image: iStock

In Gary Johns’s recent opinion piece in The Australian he argues that various medical and humanitarian groups had exaggerated the danger the Ebola crisis in West Africa posed to Australia.

Johns highlighted research that I had undertaken in response to calls to deploy the Australian Defence Force to help fight Ebola. I had argued it would be inappropriate to send the ADF, given the limited numbers of military health personnel and military assets suitable for this type of mission.

My research sought to highlight how we, as a society, have reduced the ADF’s military health capabilities to an all-time low. We have allowed this to occur through so-called government “efficiency savings” and decades of under-investment that have forced our defence community to prioritise war-fighting tasks and high-spec equipment over more commonly needed capabilities such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

We couldn’t afford to send the ADF to help in the Ebola outbreak because its personnel had not been trained for this type of scenario.

A modern military — as the ADF is arguably meant to be, and what most Australians already consider it to be — should be capable of responding to a range of situations, especially when traditional conflicts between ­nations hardly exist any longer.

Our military needs to be flexible and adaptable, capable of responding to the wide variety of threats (such as those identified in multiple defence white papers) we now confront. In 2014 we couldn’t afford to send the ADF to help in the Ebola outbreak because its personnel had not been trained for this type of scenario. It didn’t have adequate numbers of people and lacked the requisite military hardware.

Given the frequency with which we are witnessing local disease outbreaks transform into global catastrophes, not to mention the ongoing risk from bio­terrorism, we urgently need to reconsider our defence force’s capabilities in this space.

Without new and substantial investment in the ADF, we have no choice but to rely on well-meaning aid workers who are prepared to put their lives on the line to save others and prevent the disease from spreading to our shores.

Fortunately, in 2014, Australian volunteers were able and willing to go help stop the Ebola outbreak.

All they had wanted was some assistance from the Australian government to help them get to West Africa and back again, but the government demurred, kowtowing to fringe elements who believed the best strategy was to try to raise the drawbridge in the vain hope it would prevent Ebola arriving on our shores.

Of course Ebola didn’t reach Australia, but that was due more to blind luck and the economic status of most West Africans rather than any border control measures we instituted.

Moreover, such attitudes run counter to the typically Australian value of getting in there and lending a hand, of doing our part.

Tony Abbott’s approach to the Ebola outbreak was not right, nor was it particularly reflective of Australian values.

Now is the time for us to sit down and ask what we expect of the Australian military in a highly interconnected, globalised world. Once we work that out, we then need to pay for it.

Adam Kamradt-Scott is an Associate Professor at the Centre for International Security Studies, at the University of Sydney.