Lightnings over Delamere

One of Australia’s greatest but least known military assets is the Delamere weapons range in the Northern Territory. It’s a large range located around 120 kilometres south of Katherine and RAAF Base Tindal. As the main air weapons range used by the RAAF, and with little or no civilian presence nearby, it’s the ideal playground for fighter pilots flying fast jets who want to ‘feel the need for speed’ and practise dropping live ordnance.

Delamere is not just used by the RAAF but is open to Australia’s close allies. And it’s not just a place for fast jets, but is also visited by heavy bomber platforms from the US Air Force like the B-52 and the B-1B. It plays a vital role in airpower exercises such as the biennial Pitch Black and Arnhem Thunder.

Its use should be significantly expanded as the F-35 Lightning comes into service with the RAAF and allied air forces.

The facility was described by a RAAF range safety officer:

Delamere is undoubtedly the premier air weapons range in Australia; all Aussie aircrew as well as visiting ones acknowledge that. The fact that we can provide the facilities we do and have virtually unrestricted airspace provides terrific training value for them.

The absence of human settlement over a vast area means that live ordnance—like freefall and guided bombs, aircraft cannon and rocket pods—can be used, including against fake townships (known as ‘Tac Town’ and made up of shipping containers). USAF bomber crews can train under realistic conditions; the missions they’ve conducted have included flying non-stop from Guam to strike at targets in Delamere, and then returning to base, with in-flight refuelling en route both ways.

One of the most important aspects of the Delamere range is that it’s also fully instrumented, which enhances range safety during missions. The instrumented range means that bombing can be monitored for accuracy and effectiveness against a variety of targets, and post-attack analysis can be done in high fidelity to consider how to improve tactical capability.

In addition, simulated threats can be exercised. For example, the fire control radar emissions of various adversary fixed and mobile ground-based air defence systems can be simulated, increasing the realism of training. This obviously has benefits for operational experience, as well as allowing planned missions to be practised before they’re flown. Testing models of systems in a real-world environment also contributes to greater understanding of red-force capability.

Delamere remains a well-kept defence secret, and one wonders if this is deliberately so. It will take federal government leadership to grasp the alliance and regional security value that will come from making these training facilities the hub of Asia–Pacific F-35 operational excellence. We should grab this opportunity.

With that in mind, how do we make better use of facilities like Delamere?

The introduction of the F-35A Lightning II joint strike fighter into RAAF service from late 2018, with full operational capability of all 72 aircraft due by 2024, adds a new opportunity for developing Delamere for greater cooperative training with key allies in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.

Practising similar and dissimilar air combat training operations—for example, our F-35s flying alongside F-35s from the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force, the Republic of Korea Air Force, and the US Navy and US Marine Corps, as well as the USAF—under realistic conditions would be a valuable operational boost for all partners. It could also help strengthen defence cooperation between partners such as South Korea and Japan. For other F-35 operators, like the UK and Singapore, that lack adequate weapons ranges and must operate in constrained airspace, the wide-openness of the Northern Territory would have real appeal.

Delamere, together with Bradshaw Field, and the Woomera test range further south, should be seen as key capabilities for defence diplomacy as Australia seeks to strengthen defence partnerships with its Five Eyes allies, and other key partners such as Japan, Singapore and Indonesia.

Australia does conduct major international exercises such as Pitch Black and Talisman Sabre on an annual or biennial basis, but it’s time to go beyond that approach and develop a more regular drumbeat of exercises that make full use of Delamere.

We could conduct regular multinational exercises similar to the USAF’s ‘Red Flag’ exercises, with Delamere and Bradshaw Field the focus of air operations. The Red Flag exercises are run over two weeks several times a year. An Australian equivalent run out of RAAF Tindal and Darwin, focusing on F-35 operators, and practising fifth-generation airpower and multi-domain network-centric air operations, would link well with the recently announced arrangements for F-35 maintenance and sustainment.

Additional exercises could practise ‘fifth to fourth’ operations between the F-35, F-22 and fourth-generation platforms like the F/A-18F and E/A-18G as well as regional partner platforms such as the F-16.

With the announcement of an Australian development of the ‘Loyal Wingman’ unmanned combat air vehicle, it’s easy to see the Delamere range and others like it being the ideal testing ground for practising manned–unmanned teaming and developing UCAV capabilities for the RAAF, and potentially for export.

Finally, the employment of ‘aggressor’ capability designed to fly and fight in a manner similar to possible future adversaries, notably China, should be part of such exercises. The US operates them, as do Japan and the UK. If we want to expand the use of our weapons ranges, operating in a contested airspace, including with aggressor squadrons in the air, is a vital aspect of training.

Too often when we debate the current state, or the future evolution, of defence capability, we focus on platforms—sometimes at the expense of the more intangible command and control aspects. Australia’s vast and sparsely populated outback terrain is an asset in itself that we can promote as we seek to strengthen our defence relations with our key partners, given that we all confront a more dangerous and unpredictable strategic outlook.