Airbases do not feature significantly in the history of air power unless they are denied. Absence or scarcity is what usually brings them to prominence. The Pacific theatre of World War Two has been described as a battle for airfields with islands taken or bypassed according to the significance of airfields.
The lack of focus on airfields is surprising, given that Australia’s fixed-wing aviation depends on them to operate. For the foreseeable future, civil and military aviation will require airfields. The potential location of airfields is constrained by terrain, both natural and human. To support most military and civilian aviation needs, airfields must be 3000 metres long and have high pavement strength. While pavements can be built if required, three kilometres of clear, level and firm ground close to the support of human habitation is not common.
This proximity to habitation is driven by access to logistics, workforce and consumables. This also creates some competition for these resources with industry and growing communities. The majority of the world’s airports and airbases were built more than half a century ago, and the options for future airfields are constrained; the multi-decade delay to construction of Sydney’s Badgery Creek airport is testament. Military airbases face greater issue with noise templates and international law constraints.
Air forces focus on platforms, land forces focus on the soldier, and navies on ships. Mounting bases, unless the site of a major battle, are generally ignored in history. Aircraft are the ‘totems’ of airpower, both figuratively and literally, judging by the number mounted on posts outside airbases. Airfields feature rarely, with the Battle of Britain being a notable exception where sector stations such as RAF Biggin Hill becoming famous in their own right.
Airbases must receive greater attention as essential foundations of air power. One of the traditional considerations for the application of air power is impermanence; yet airbases provide the equivalent permanence of mounting operations in any other operational domain, and air fundamental to air power. This consideration captures the always theme of the RAAF centenary.
To look at then, we must cast back into history. The characteristics of level and clear ground, close to support drove Henry Petre’s selection of Point Cook as the site for Australia’s first airbase, over Duntroon. At sea level and near the city and port of Melbourne, Point Cook was a far better choice. These characteristics remain pertinent today, with consideration of RAAF Base Scherger continuing to highlight the importance to airbases of access to support, including fuel supply. Following No 1 Squadron’s deployment to the Palestinian Campaign in 1916, as part of the Australian Flying Corps (AFC), bases were then selected on the same enduring constraints.
Power projection and the ability to defend were also identified as essential characteristics for airbases during conflict. Long transits are demanding of crew, fuel and maintenance. Airbases close to the front became targets for enemy attack. The AFC developed a model of three types of bases: an aeroplane park for delivery, assembly, and maintenance; an operating base, home to the workforce and logistics; and forward landing grounds that placed aircraft temporarily close to front. The aeroplane parks were semi-permanent, with many surviving the war. Operating bases and forward landing fields, by contrast, moved with the tide of war.
The peace that followed World War One saw airbases become permanent establishments with tarmac runways and permanent maintenance facilities. All of these elements were useful for raising, training and sustaining the force, but less suited to war. The fate of Darwin in 1942 highlights the risk of short memories, and that efficiency is not the same as effectiveness. The rapid retreat inland from Darwin and the proliferation of dispersed landing grounds along the highways south and west, to disperse and protect aircraft, fuel and maintenance assets is a lesson that should not be forgotten. Given the RAAF’s leadership were aware that the Battle of Britain had seen dispersal to satellite fields, and had also seen the spectacular fate of Hickam and Pearl Harbour, it is surprising that more was not done to disperse and protect Australia’s capabilities.
Post-war Australia saw a return to large bases with increased investment in fixed structures, far from any likely battlespace. This trend has continued with the efficiencies and cost effectiveness of ‘Super Bases’ such as RAAF Base Amberley. The Defence of Australia policy did see the construction of the northern bare bases, but upkeep and provision of services has been the basis of controversy and debate. It is worth noting that these airbases, now more than a quarter of a century old, were the last new airbases built.
The now is looking increasingly dangerous. Modern air bases are, to targeteers, ‘a target-rich-environment’: large, fixed airbases are at ever increasing risk from precision stand-off and hypersonic weapons. Drone attack is a new and evolving threat. To an adversary in war, there would be little appetite for engaging an F-35 in combat when their airbase and crew provide an easier target: a ‘pre-airborne’ option to disrupt air power may be more attractive.
What can we do now to begin to ameliorate risk? The traditional concepts of dispersal and mobility remain valid. What does the modern air platform need to conduct a mission? Fuel, ordnance, and crew rotation for manned platforms remain part of the always. Access to information is an increasing requirement, and while maintenance remains, modern design and reliability lessens this demand.
Air Forces that sit on the forward edge of the battle space with small territory, such as Finland and Singapore, protect fixed assets underground and by dispersal. The precious runway capability is maintained by redundancy using hardened dual-use roads.
The RAAF has its own role model: remote stretches of highway have been purpose-built to support Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) operations. There are multiple locations that double as RFDS landing strips and one near Broken Hill is named after the RFDS architect, Cliff Peel, a young 3 Squadron AFC pilot who lost his life operating from a forward dispersal strip in the closing weeks of World War One.
Of the consumables, fuel can (at some cost) be provided airborne, and ordnance delivered by road or air to dispersal sites. The enduring problem is access to those precious three kilometres of runway. The question at the heart of the matter is, do we need a new model for airbases? Air power’s need for airbases in always, and the threat then is increasingly now.