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Calling in the army no magic bullet to terrorism threat

Author: Dr John Coyne 

Australia's counter-terrorism decision makers, from outback police stations to the Prime Minister's Canberra office, need to have access to a suite of quick-to-mobilise response options.

Today, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Defence Minister Marise Payne showed they understand this requirement when they announced a raft of proposed changes to the arrangements for the deployment of the Australian Defence Force in response to terrorism.

Turnbull's proposed changes will provide some counter-terrorism decision makers with some new options, but the public ought to be wary of viewing these changes as Australia's terrorism panacea.

Australia has an incredibly potent and effective Defence Force. Even with this capability, there are some serious logistical challenges to Defence's ability to deploy rapidly in response to domestic terrorism.

Over the past 25 years, the ADF has made many changes to the locations of its bases, facilities and individual units. Many have been moved northwards to be co-located with field training areas. Unsurprisingly then, many of our major capital cities are without substantial concentrations of regular ADF units.

Even Special Operations Command's famed Tactical Assault Groups, or TAGs, are located only in Sydney and Perth. The inconvenient truth is that even if the Commonwealth government wanted to deploy a TAG to Melbourne or Brisbane it would be several hours before it would arrive. The problem of deployment times is exacerbated when more conventional capabilities are considered for movement.

The terrorism threat that we face today is fluid and adaptive. The trend in terrorist incidents in Western countries involves quick, aggressive and mobile attacks. Sure, if we have another long siege in Sydney, there might be time to spare to deploy the ADF. However, Lindt cafe style sieges are likely to be the exception, not the rule.

Putting aside the ADF's inconvenient geographic and logistical reality, counter-terrorism first response remains a legal responsibility of the states and territories. Even with these proposed changes, general duties police officers will continue to be the ones responding to, and resolving, terrorist attacks in Australia.

This is a point not lost on the states and territories. Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, has made several attempts to shift some of the counter-terrorism responsibility onto the Commonwealth. As recently as last month, Andrews tried to force the Commonwealth to deploy resources when he stated that Melbourne Airport should have "a dedicated 24/7 tactical response provided by the Australian Federal Police".

In the midst of this trend, Turnbull's latest policy may unintentionally create more uncertainty around counter-terrorism roles and responsibilities.

On one hand, Turnbull is, of course, right when he says: "Defence can offer more support ... to enhance their capabilities and increase their understanding of Defence's unique capabilities to ensure a comprehensive response to potential terrorist attacks."

On the other hand, there is a difference between offshore military operations and domestic law-enforcement operations. Unlike the military, our officers' normal focus is on protecting and preserving life, including their own, not taking it. So the earlier deployment of the ADF, with a far different focus, could potentially negatively impact on community safety.

To be prepared for terrorist attacks, our police need far more advanced firearms training. This training needs to focus on a wide range of threat scenarios including stopping cars or trucks being used as weapons.

Turnbull's changes will pave the way for state and territory police to access advanced marksmanship training. The real challenge for counter-terrorism leaders will be in preparing these officers to make the split-second decisions to employ deadly force under less than ideal conditions.

The Turnbull government's latest policy to simplify the arrangements for ADF call out for domestic terrorism incidents has merit. Even so, the Council of Australian Governments and Parliament should closely examine the wider impacts and limitations of this proposal.

Dr John Coyne is a senior analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Before joining the institute Dr Coyne was Coordinator for Strategic Intelligence with the Australian Federal Police.

Originally published: The Sydney Morning Herald. 17 July 2017