Rethinking basing in the Indo-Pacific – Natasia Pulford

The Indo-Pacific region is undergoing profound change resulting in increasing instability and uncertainty. The recent release of the 2020 Defence Strategic Update highlights an increased acceleration of tension within the region, and by extension calls on the Australian Defence Force to be ready to support a range of activities. In this post first time contributor, Natasia Pulford assesses Australia's offshore airbase arrangements, and their suitability for supporting future operations.

The primary objective of Allied forces in the Southwest Pacific is to advance our network of airbases deep into the Japanese perimeter.

General Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold[1]

The geography of the Indo-Pacific region has changed little since World War II, and the tyranny of distance continues to be the key challenge for conventional military forces. Just as General Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold noted during the Second World War, a network of airbases would be a decisive factor in the Pacific. Unsurprisingly, there has been little discussion about a regional airbase strategy in more recent times. Since the end of World War II, the Indo-Pacific has enjoyed relative stability; however, the recently published 2020 Defence Strategic Update asserts that we are in the midst ‘of the most consequential strategic realignment since the Second World War […] complicating our nation’s strategic circumstances.’ Furthermore, the Government has signalled its willingness to utilise the Australian Defence Force to ‘shape Australia’s strategic environment, deter actions against our interests and, when required, respond with credible military force.’ However, Australia’s airbase arrangements in the region have not substantially changed since World War II.

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) requires a contemporary airbase strategy for the Indo-Pacific region to ensure it can achieve the objectives the Australian Government outlined in its 2020 Defence Strategic Update. This paper discusses Australia’s changing strategic environment and resultant impacts on airbases. It outlines critical considerations for a contemporary airbase strategy, including range, threat, and regional engagement. It concludes by addressing the systemic challenges which currently prohibit a strategic approach.

Changing Strategic Environment

The Indo-Pacific region is undergoing profound change resulting in increasing instability and uncertainty. The conflation of several macro forces (including threats to human security, major power competition, military modernisation, expanding cyber capabilities and attacks, ‘grey zone’ activities) and the accelerating pace of change is creating a security environment ‘markedly different from the more benign of the past, with greater potential for military miscalculation.’ Ongoing reclamation and militarisation of South China Sea features in the vicinity of crucial shipping routes and initiatives aimed at creating a permanent presence in the South Pacific highlighted the stark realities of the situation to the Australian Government. In response, the 2020 Defence Strategic Update signalled a willingness to project military forces in the region to protect sovereign interests. Force projection is not a new concept for the RAAF; however, noting the increasing military capabilities within the Indo-Pacific region, projecting air power at extended ranges, may be easier said than done.

Australia’s network of offshore airbases was established before the current era of great power competition and may not be suited for Air Power operations in the contemporary environment. Australia has two offshore airbases, Cocos-Keeling Island and Christmas Island, which are both located in the Indian Ocean and have some significant limitations. Bergin argues that due to their ‘remoteness and difficulties of resupply,’ they are not likely to be suitable options for significant military operations of the kind envisaged by the Strategic Update and would require hardening to mitigate potential threats. Meanwhile, the RAAF has a long history of conducting operations from Royal Malaysian Air Force - Butterworth under the auspices of the Five Power Defence Arrangements. Existing Government agreements with Malaysia constrain the types of operations conducted at Butterworth. Considering the significant changes in the security environment, any future airbase strategy should first assess the sufficiency of these three locations.

The pilot of a Royal Austraian Air Force F/A-18A Hornet conducts pre-flight checks in the cockpit moments before commencing a mission from Royal Malaysian Air Force Base Butterworth as part of Exercise Bersama Lima 16. (Source: Australian Defence Force)

Critical Considerations for a Contemporary Airbase Strategy

One of the critical limitations of projecting air power from mainland Australia is aircraft range and the vast distances they would be required to cover for an Indo-Pacific operation. In a recent ASPI report Marcus Hellyer highlights the limitations of projecting and sustaining the F-35A using the current force structure. He notes ‘[t]he problem of limited fighter range in the vast Indo-Pacific is a pervasive one […] any operations in the Indo-Pacific will face the same challenges.’ A contemporary airbase strategy could overcome these challenges by establishing a network of offshore airbases which enable manoeuvre and continued presence in the region.

Airbase defence and resilience must also be addressed in an airbase strategy to counter threats resulting from military modernisation in the region. Of note, the Center for Strategic and International Studies highlights that ‘China’s numerous and diverse missile arsenal poses a significant threat to allied forces in the Indo-Pacific region.’ The United States has accepted that traditional approaches which involve ‘concentration of personnel and materiel’ at well-established operating locations create logistics synergies but expose critical vulnerabilities for military forces operating in the Indo-pacific. Through wargaming and experimentation, the United States has identified that ‘distributed basing arrangements’ with ‘point defences to bolster the resilience and agility’ of coalition forces are required to maintain credible deterrence. Accordingly, Australia’s airbase strategy must seek to mitigate the risk of attack through hardening, dispersal, and resilience, thereby imposing costs for potential adversaries.

As Australia relies heavily on host nation airbase support for operations outside of mainland Australia, collaboration with partners will be an essential aspect of any airbase strategy. Engagement and transparency will not only promote shared goodwill but should seek to reduce miscalculations and improve opportunities for cooperation on infrastructure development in the region. Peter Jennings suggests that airfields such as Momote Airport on Manus Island could be ‘a strategic game-changer as far as north and west as the South China Sea.’ That being the case, Jennings notes that upgrades would be required to support military aircraft operations, which would require the approval of the Papua New Guinea government. Ultimately, regional engagement will be critical for continued access to offshore airbases and any changes to the existing arrangements.

Systemic Challenges

There are two fundamental systemic challenges which contribute to the lack of an airbase strategy. Firstly, current doctrine and concepts fail to address the role of airbases within manoeuvre warfare adequately. Future operational concepts being developed by the United States Air Force, including agile combat employment, seek to maximise dispersal and manoeuvre of air assets in high threat and contested environments. Additionally, experimentation and wargaming have demonstrated the need for greater focus on basing and logistics to ensure generation of combat missions in contested environments. Similarly, Australian concepts and doctrine need to be updated to reflect the new realities of the strategic situation. Although the second edition of the Operational Air Doctrine Manual discusses the ‘manoeuvrist approach’ and the functions of an airbase, it fails to discuss the role of airbases in manoeuvre warfare. This omission contributes to the lack of recognition of the airbase as a warfighting capability which, as Peter Layton points out, is what makes the airbase unique. Failure to address the role of the airbase in air power doctrine inhibits the development of future airbase concepts and education of air power professionals in the ‘art’ of airbase strategy.

There have been some recent developments which signal the beginnings of a shift in mindset about airbases. The first was the publication of the Air Force Strategy 2017 – 2027, which highlighted the need to investigate ‘mobile and fixed’ airbase requirements. Such an intent signals a recognition amongst leadership that a different approach is required. The second development was the publication of Surfing the Digital Wave by Peter Layton which acknowledged the symbiotic relationship between airbases and air power and the traditional fascination with ‘flying machines and those who operate them’ to the detriment of furthering the advancement of airbases. Layton highlights the potential for airbase digitisation which could fundamentally change how we generate air power in the medium to longer-term and the need to view airbases as a system of systems. Both publications position the RAAF to commence a dialogue on the future of air bases in the broader context of a basing strategy and pave the way for updates to doctrine and concepts.

The second systemic challenge which must be addressed in an airbase strategy is the existing capability development and acquisition processes. Current processes do not enable a strategic approach to airbase capability management and development of support concepts. The scope of infrastructure development and investment is established during the aircraft acquisition process. It is often constrained to the requirements for a single aircraft type operating from airbases on mainland Australia. Additionally, infrastructure planning for airbases has traditionally prioritised efficiency over resilience, resulting in a concentration of forces on an airbase. Consequently, the lack of an offshore airbase strategy has inhibited the ability to develop comprehensive force protection concepts (through hardening, dispersal, or camouflage) and an assessment of logistics risk. Current business practices optimise planning at the tactical level; however, they fail to address the strategic planning required to ensure the overall network of airbases and associated force protection and logistics will support future warfighting requirements.

Conclusion

This article argues that the changing strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific necessitates a renewed focus on airbase strategy to ensure that the RAAF is positioned to execute the objectives of the 2020 Defence Strategic Update. The deteriorating security environment in the region has invigorated the Australian Government’s desire to utilise the military, in roles which will span the continuum from competition to conflict, to protect sovereign interests. Existing airbase arrangements pre-date the current great power competition era and therefore require a reassessment of their suitability for the current environment. Of note, regional military modernisation will challenge Australia’s ability to project and sustain air power in the region. Accordingly, airbases should be appropriately ranged for effective employment, and possess the appropriate defense and resilience. Additionally, Australia’s airbase strategy will be dependent on other nations, and therefore early engagement and consultation will be instrumental in avoiding miscommunication and pursuing opportunities for synchronisation of effort.

Finally, doctrine and capability management practices should be updated to promote a strategic approach to airbase management and recognition of the role of airbases in manoeuvre warfare. Recent publications have set the stage for a renewed focus on airbases, but further work will be required by the RAAF’s leadership to advocate for processes which support future operational requirements. Ultimately, a contemporary airbase strategy will enhance the delivery of air power effects and underpin response options available to the Australian Government.

Group Captain Natasia Pulford has completed 22 years of service in the Royal Australian Air Force, having worked in a diverse range of positions within the Australian Defence Force and the United States military. Her responsibilities have included future concepts and capability development, acquisition, and sustainment of weapon systems (including F-35, KC-30, P-8, C-17, and Caribou), and international logistics. The opinions expressed are hers alone and do not represent the views of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.

[1] Charles Westenhoff, Military Air Power: The CADRE Digest of Air Power Opinions and Thoughts (Alabama, AL: Air University Press, 1990), p. 26.

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