The demand for airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets has grown exponentially in recent years, as commanders recognise the central role of ISR in force protection, situational awareness and decision-making. One area in which ISR can play a vital role – but which has received relatively little attention – is that of humanitarian assistance and disaster response (HADR).
The Australian Defence Force (ADF) regularly provides forces in the immediate aftermath of natural disasters, both globally and within Australia under the provisions of Defence Assistance to the Civil Community (DACC). One of the immediate requirements following a disaster – whether a cyclone, flooding or bushfires – is to determine the extent of the damage it has caused in order to prioritise assistance efforts. Defence ISR assets can conduct aerial reconnaissance of large areas, and feed this information to Australian and national government agencies, as well as local and international humanitarian organisations.
Over the past ten years, for example, Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) assets have deployed to provide ISR for disaster response operations following Cyclone Winston (Fiji 2016) , Cyclone Ita (North Queensland 2015), Cyclone Yasi (North Queensland 2011), and the Victorian bushfires (2009).
An on-station RAAF AP-3C Orion circles over a bushfire affected area in the aftermath of the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009. [Image Credit: Commonwealth of Australia]
One HADR example stands out in demonstrating the utility and flexibility of ADF ISR in the HADR role. When Tropical Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu in March 2015, the ADF launched Operation Pacific Assist 2015 to assist in delivering humanitarian assistance and repairing infrastructure. One of the first tasks involved RAAF assets conducting aerial reconnaissance to identify the worst affected areas, allowing Australian and Vanuatu organisations to prioritise their immediate efforts. This reconnaissance was conducted by RAAF AP-3C Orion and KA-350 King Air aircraft, as well as Australian Army rotary wing aircraft. The King Airs and helicopters also provided inter island transport, demonstrating the flexibility that can be achieved with air assets fulfilling multiple roles.
There is nothing new about the employment of ISR assets in a HADR role, and performance of these tasks requires little in the way of additional training or resources. What may require more attention is incorporation of this role into doctrine, improved processing, exploitation and dissemination (PED), and improving engagement with whole of government and civilian actors.
RAAF doctrine refers to ISR moving beyond traditional conflict roles but does not discuss its utility in HADR. Further, the RAAF website omits ISR in a list of services it provides as part of humanitarian support. As remotely pilot aircraft (RPA) are increasingly integrated into the RAAF fleet, the capacity to provide dedicated and responsive ISR support will correspondingly increase. The RAAF will therefore need to consider the potential contribution of these assets to HADR operations, in tasks such as route reconnaissance and damage assessment. The US Air Force provides a useful model, having successfully employed RPA to conduct infrastructure assessments following the 2010 Haiti earthquake as well as supporting domestic disaster response operations.
The use of air assets to collect imagery of disaster affected areas is the most visible aspect of ISR support to HADR operations; however, collection is only one aspect of the ISR enterprise and the RAAF’s expanding PED capability will provide an invaluable source of analysis and intelligence output. In terms of PED, the RAAF should ensure it can quickly establish appropriate mechanisms to process and store information, and disseminate this information to relevant stakeholders, including Australian and host nation officials, other government agencies and non-government organisations. This dissemination might range from passing raw imagery to creating bespoke products that fuse imagery, observations and information collected from social media. The value of RAAF PED in the HADR role was demonstrated during the ADF response to Cyclone Marcia in 2015. Receiving hand-held imagery collected by RAAF KA350 aircraft flying from Townsville, the RAAF’s, at the time interim, Distributed Ground System (DGS) processed the images to provide intelligence-type products to local and Defence authorities commencing their disaster relief efforts.
The contribution of ISR PED to HADR is illustrated by this processed image from an RQ-4 Global Hawk showing passable and obstructed roads in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake. [Image Credit: U.S. Air Force]
Finally, the ADF’s capability to collect, analyse and produce intelligence to support HADR operations will be limited by the ability to integrate as part of a whole of government response. Increased engagement is required across government agencies (state and federal) and civilian actors, in order to increase the humanitarian community’s awareness of the capability that ISR assets provide, as well as identifying opportunities for improved collaboration and information sharing. The ADF may also have to share airspace with others on future operations – the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has released a report on UAVs in humanitarian response, and civilian organisations are now available to deploy UAVs at the request of humanitarian organisations. Without this engagement, the significant potential of the ADF ISR to support HADR will be underutilised to the unnecessary detriment of those requiring assistance.
The ability of military forces to contribute niche capabilities as part of HADR operations has long been recognised. ISR represents one of these unique capabilities – one that has been well utilised but sometimes under appreciated. Further emphasis on incorporation into doctrine, improvements in PED and engagement with other humanitarian actors could improve Air Force’s capability to support these operations now and in the future.
Squadron Leader Alexandra McCubbin is a serving officer in the Royal Australian Air Force and an editor at The Central Blue. The opinions expressed are her’s alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.