The bushfires, floods, and now COVID-19 will change the discussion of national security in Australia. The exact form of that change is still unclear; however, the subject matter experts in the Australian Defence Force must engage in and inform the debate early, consistently, and logically. This post is an example of how. Written before the effects of COVID-19 hit Australian shores, Nathan Thompson responds to calls – made in the aftermath of the bushfires – to divest the ADF of the C-27J Spartan.
Recently, Michael Shoebridge from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute called for the Australian Defence Force (ADF) to restructure and divest assets that are not focused on the greatest threat level of conflict with China. Of particular note is Shoebridge’s call to divest the C-27J Spartan; to remove it from the ADF asset mix and place it with another government agency for domestic and regional disaster response. This move would produce an unbalanced force and reduce strategic options for Government, as well as a potential reduction in support from the Australian people.
Geopolitical relations are increasingly being viewed as a spectrum; from cooperation to competition and at the far right, conflict. This spectrum presents several challenges to international relations in an age typified by events such as the Crimean conflict, South China Sea tensions, and ongoing economic development in Africa. Somewhere in the middle of this spectrum is a wide range of possible outcomes associated with competition that is often underestimated.
A Royal Australian Air Force C-27J Spartan aircraft lands at Honiara Airport, Solomon Islands, on completion of a maritime surveillance mission during Operation Solania.
Shoebridge is right to argue that the C-27J is unlikely to survive in a ‘dense threat environment of a conflict with a peer-level state military’. The C-27J, like other air mobility platforms, was not designed with the attributes that make air combat platforms survivable in high threat environments. The C-27J is, however, designed with a modern electronic warfare self-protection suite that aims to ensure its survivability in conflicts at lower threat levels than those present in a peer state military. This is important because conflict will not just be with a peer-level competitor. Throughout the Cold War – arguably, an extended competition similar to what is presently being observed with China – proxy conflicts were fought between countries with lower levels of capability, thereby presenting scenarios with lower threat levels than is present in direct conflict with China.
In this phase of the competition, China is increasingly seeking influence over other countries. A successful method for China to achieve this influence would be contributing militarily to a low-level conflict security mission within another state’s borders. The Australian Government’s decision to retain an ability to contribute to low-level conflict resolution is critical in this age of competition. Military air mobility platforms such as the C-27J permit survivable access to low threat level conflict, as well as survivable logistic support during the conflict, such as that provided in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past 18 years.
Divesting assets not focused on the highest threshold of conflict also reduces the ability for the ADF to interact with the Australian people. By design, highly specialised military platforms have restrictive security requirements on both their display and general capability specifications. A military order of battle which features only high-end, specialised and secure capabilities will necessarily be concealed to the public. Reduced interaction with the Australian people will potentially lead to calls for re-allocation of scarce resources, and limit recruiting pools, with longer-term capability impacts.
The Australian Defence Force must retain a balanced force. Assets that are part of a ‘balanced force’ are vital to the cooperation end of the spectrum for domestic and regional disaster relief. ‘Balanced force’ assets enable better interaction with the Australian population and achieve reputational benefits for the ADF. Operation Bushfire Assist earlier in 2020 demonstrated this – the C-27J evacuated citizens from Mallacoota ahead of the fire front, among other civilian authority assistance and presence.
Focusing only on the highest threshold of conflict removes response options for the Government in the cooperation, competition, and conflict phases of geopolitical relations. ‘Balanced force’ assets give the Australian Government greater strategic options and have positive longer-term capability impacts. Calls to focus only on the highest threat will lead to an unbalanced force, one who struggles to maintain a positive narrative with the Australian people.
Squadron Leader Nathan Thompson is a serving Royal Australian Air Force officer. He is currently a C-27J pilot and flight commander at 35 Squadron. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government
 Hugh White, 2019, How to Defend Australia (La Trobe University Press 2019), p. 11, 14, 38.