For the RAAF, there’s not a lot of concrete in the Pacific
7 Sep 2020|

The mantra of Australia’s 2020 defence strategic update is ‘shape, deter and respond’ with a renewed focus on the Indo-Pacific region. Unfortunately, this policy will face challenges in delivery. Shaping, deterring and responding demand understanding, access and presence.

The Australian Defence Force’s understanding of the region will need to be rebuilt. A generation of sailors, soldiers and airmen have amassed enormous experience in land operations in the Middle East. The Indo-Pacific is mostly maritime, and what landmass there is varies greatly in geography, climate and terrain.

In the 21st century, access is, in the first place, provided by air. Military personnel travel by air. Humanitarian aid and disaster relief arrive in the first instance by air. Search and rescue’s first response is usually from the air, and surveillance for fisheries protection is mostly carried out from the air and space. A refocus on the near region of the Indo-Pacific has significant implications for Australian airpower.

Two characteristics of airpower that have made it essential to modern security and military forces are reach and speed. By air, Australia is four hours wide by three hours high. By land or sea, travel times are at best measured in days. But when we set out to explore the Indo-Pacific, range comes sharply into focus. The aircraft involved in air operations against the Islamic State terror group required multiple mid-air fuel-ups and sorties were at the limit of crew endurance, yet in the near region the distances covered equate to a flight from Townsville to the eastern Solomon Islands or from Brisbane to Vanuatu—only about halfway to Tonga, Samoa or Tuvalu. Our region will challenge the ADF’s reach.

Air operations, more than those in any other domain, are affected by weather and climate. The skies over the Middle East and Afghanistan are generally clear—apart from the occasional sand storm. Air and space operations for surveillance, reconnaissance and response can be conducted essentially at will. Little can move without notice and assets can rapidly respond. Vegetation is limited to cultivated areas.

In contrast, the Indo-Pacific is a region of vast seas and jungle-covered islands, and the ground is largely invisible to air and space surveillance. The equatorial and tropical areas are in the intertropical convergence zone, a region of towering cumulonimbus clouds up to 15 kilometres high that generate spectacular and violent storms with a demonstrated ability to bring down aircraft unfortunate enough to enter them. This weather also interrupts space-based sensors and many forms of communication essential to military operations.

The paucity of infrastructure in the Indo-Pacific will challenge Australian airpower. Oil-rich Middle Eastern countries have made a showcase of infrastructure, be it communications, multi-lane highways or 3,000-metre concrete runways. There are more runways of this length in Iraq alone than in all the islands of the southwest Pacific. This will constrain operations for Australian fixed-wing aircraft. Helicopters may have greater freedom of movement once they arrive, but to get to where they’re required they’ll need to be carried aboard one of the Royal Australian Navy’s two Canberra-class landing helicopter docks.

Runway length matters. Most modern jets require at least 2 kilometres of reinforced concrete from which to operate. But they also place demands on runway strength (reinforcement and thickness), and need suitable parking areas for refuelling and loading and unloading stores and ordnance. Modern operations also demand communications access for flight planning and monitoring. The Middle East has complete radar coverage, and ubiquitous high-capacity networks. The Indo-Pacific does not.

Modern aircraft are also thirsty for fuel, including a range of additives, depending on type and role. While the larger Pacific islands have some fuel storage facilities, the smaller atolls do not. And Pacific island countries don’t produce fuel of their own.

The difficulty of sending aircraft into the Indo-Pacific first became apparent in 1941 with the Japanese advance into the region. Aircraft carriers became the ‘kings’ of the Pacific war, but the transport fleets that sustained operations and air defence demanded a lot more airfields. The US Navy ‘Sea Bees’ constructed many airfields for aircraft able to operate from airstrips as short as 300 to 400 metres, something that few military aircraft can do now.

Airfield construction occurred on an industrial scale in northern Australia and Papua New Guinea during the war, and many runways built then can still be seen around Darwin and through PNG. Most have faded back into the landscape, but some remain in the highlands of PNG and provide the only access to remote regions.

Such a building program is happening now as China constructs island airfields and ports on reefs and shoals. This is not to suggest that Australia should embark on island-building in the southwest Pacific, but it does highlight that shaping and deterring involve infrastructure and that is sadly lacking in the region we are now focusing our security policy on.

We also need to know if we would be welcome to use the limited infrastructure that does exist. We already see a reluctance of some Asian nations to support Australian access to their facilities. What infrastructure there is in the Indo-Pacific is somebody else’s sovereign territory. We need to negotiate access, and the sooner we start talking, the better.

Finally, we need to better develop knowledge and information. Decades of conflict in the Middle East have resulted in the region being one of the most mapped and closely observed places on earth. Djibouti alone hosts bases used by the US, China, France, Japan and Italy looking out into the Bab el Mandeb, the entrance to the Red Sea and southern end of the Suez Canal.

In the southwest Pacific, local populations are often dislocated from their own governments. When it comes to domain awareness, Australia and New Zealand are the big dogs on the block. What mapping, hydrography and surveillance assets exist are ours. In a region that we have until recently studiously ignored, we run the risk of not knowing what is there or what is going on, and not having the presence needed to find out.