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On Target: The evolution of Butterworth - The Suez Crisis, RAAF leadership in SE Asia

Brian Weston 'On Target The evolution of Butterworth: How the Suez crisis saw the RAAF take the lead in SE Asia' in Australian Aviation January-February 2019

Previous On Target columns have traced the ten-year evolution, from 1948, of the RAAF presence in Malaya/Malaysia and Singapore which, by 1958, had grown to a permanent presence of two Sabre squadrons and one Canberra squadron. This presence represented 50% of the RAAF operational fighter force and 33% of the RAAF operational bomber force ‒ by any measure, a national commitment of impressive proportions. But not unexpectedly so, given the instability in South-East Asia, which had led to the establishment of the South-East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO), and the threat posed by Indonesian ‘Confrontasi’.

The RAAF expansion also included, from 1962, a permanent six-year Sabre fighter deployment at Ubon, Thailand, constituted as No 79 Squadron.

In April 1967, the composition of the RAAF operational presence at Butterworth changed when No 2 Squadron deployed to Vietnam, leaving its ‘C’ Flight of Dakota transports in Malaysia; reconstituted as Transport Support Flight, Butterworth. Further change occurred following the replacement of the CAC Sabre by the Dassault Mirage IIIO ‒ selected by the RAAF ahead of the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter ‒ when No 75 Squadron and its Mirages arrived at Butterworth in May 1967. No 3 Squadron and its Sabre fighters then returned to Australia.

In February 1969, No 77 Squadron returned to Australia handing its Sabres to No 2 Operational Conversion Unit where the Sabres continued to serve as the RAAF lead-in fighter. After a 21 month absence, No 3 Squadron, now equipped with Mirage fighters, returned to Butterworth. The base also gained an RAAF UH-1B Iroquois search-and-rescue helicopter capability which replaced a previous RAF helicopter presence.

But by far the most significant development for the RAAF presence at Butterworth since the outbreak of the Emergency in 1948, was the announcement in January 1968, that Britain would withdraw from its interests ‘East of Suez’ by 1971.

The decision was of monumental importance to the UK which marked a step back in its status as a world power, with the decision leading to Australia assuming a prime role in the interim post-withdrawal Australia, New Zealand and United Kingdom (ANZUK) organisational arrangement. Subsequently, Australia took the lead role in the definitive follow-on Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) comprising Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and the UK.

Australia’s decision to remain engaged with South-East Asia also involved deploying, on a permanent basis, 50% of its operational Mirage fighter force to RAAF Base Butterworth.

Australia also took a role in the development of the regional air forces when, in September 1969, Australia gifted 10 refurbished Sabre fighters to Malaysia; a gift that also came with substantial support, training and deployed RAAF personnel, who served with No 11 Squadron, RMAF to assist in the assimilation of the Sabre fighter capability.

The writer has several colour slides taken from the cockpit of A94-362, a CAC Sabre Mk 32, flying as ‘Number 10’ from Williamtown to Butterworth via Amberley, Mt Isa, Darwin, Den Pasar and Tengah on Operation Regimen, over the period 16 to 19 September 1969. Two years later, six additional Sabres were gifted, together with the two ground training airframes, making 18 Sabres in all.

Australia also deployed RAAF personnel to support the development of the Singapore air force; and, in February 1973, with Confrontation having ended, Australia gifted 18 Sabres to Indonesia with similar support packages to those provided to Malaysia.

But in August 1973, as a consequence of the post-Vietnam War defence cuts, No 76 Squadron at RAAF Base Williamtown was disbanded. This disbandment resulted in Australia having two of its three fighter squadrons, 67% of its operational Mirage fighter force, permanently deployed at Butterworth – an obviously unbalanced and difficult proposition from operational, organisational, training, logistic and personnel viewpoints.

But there was good reason for the RAAF to sustain the imbalanced basing as, subsequent to the withdrawal of British forces from ‘East of Suez in 1971, there was a pressing need to fill the capability void that had been left ‒ a void that could not yet be filled by the nascent air forces of Malaysia and Singapore.

Apart from the void left by the withdrawal of the Lightning F6 fighters of No 74 Squadron RAF and of the two RAF Control and Reporting Units (CRUs), there was also the dissolution of the Headquarters Far East Air Force (HQFEAF), which had provided the operational command and control framework under which Australian, New Zealand and British air forces operated, with RAF, RAAF and RNZAF personnel all serving in HQFEAF.

A further consequence of the British withdrawal was Australia’s commitment to the maintenance of a permanent deployment of one-half of a RAAF Mirage squadron, in Singapore. As well, following a period under an interim ANZUK command and control arrangements, Australia took the lead role in the new command arrangements implemented under of the Five Power Defence Agreement.

Next month’s column will review the period 1971 to 1983, during which the RAAF sustained a continuing deployment of Mirages in Singapore.

Brian Weston is a Board Member of the Williams Foundation and this On Target article appears in Australian Aviation magazine.

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