Location, Location, Locations: Working Forward and Mobile Basing

By John Conway

Access and basing – and logistics writ large – is back in the spotlight in the Indo-Pacific, and beyond

In 2018 the Australian Government announced a partnership with the US to develop the Lombrum naval base on Manus Island. More recently, it added plans to upgrade the Cocos Islands airport with a wider runway and taxiway, and strengthened parking aprons.

Both of these developments send a strong message about the importance of logistics in setting Australian Defence Force posture in the broader region.

Elsewhere, the UK MoD recently completed its first overseas deployment of six F-35B Lightning II aircraft to its largest overseas base at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus. Although it started out as a training exercise, it soon expanded to include combat operations over Syria, this deployment highlighting the critical importance of infrastructure and logistics in accelerating the integration and projection of power and influence.

While major platform acquisitions invariably steal the limelight, the mounting interest in operational access and basing, and the US’s and the Commonwealth’s increased focus on the readiness and sustainment of high intensity operations in the Indo-Pacific region, marks a significant change in the force posture which has characterised recent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With economists calling for broader investment in Australia’s infrastructure to stimulate the economy, they should look no further than national security objectives as a priority.

The Sir Richard Williams Foundation High Intensity Operations and Sustaining Self-Reliance seminar in April 2019 broke new ground with a shift in focus from the design and generation of a 5th generation force to the practical aspects of its application and sustainment.  The seminar examined the challenges in preparing and posturing the Defence Force for a future which is fundamentally unknowable, and the impact of policy on the way we think and prepare.

In his opening, Professor Brendan Sargant analysed trends from recent White Papers and the wistful nature of the pursuit for a rules-based order, while Dr Andrew Carr unpacked Defence self-reliance in the context of Australian foreign policy, and Dr Alan Stephens analysed self-reliance and its inextricable link to military strategy.

Each looked to the future with a nod to the past, holding a mirror to extant policy and thinking, and painting the picture of a defence force that must now further embrace industry and become increasingly prepared to take the lead and become ever more self-reliant. And operate at higher tempos, too.

The lasting message was that policy was in a state of flux and likely to remain so, with the impact on Defence becoming clear in that it must now think in terms of what it might be required to do rather knowing with certainty what it will be going to do.

With an emphasis on preparedness and building sovereign capability, the seminar highlighted the importance of establishing favourable policy settings for the operational architecture and apparatus of a sophisticated manoeuvre capability in the Indo-Pacific region, which will go beyond the major systems which have dominated the defence narrative for the past decade.

Above all, it highlighted the criticality of access and basing, and a renewed emphasis on logistics as an essential element of defence preparedness, and the prerequisite for future operational success.


The past two decades have largely seen the ADF contributing force elements to US-led coalitions in support of operations with a reasonably well-defined scope in terms of missions and tasks. These tasks were extremely dangerous and difficult, and way beyond the capability of most defence forces. Whether or not they had clearly defined linkages to geostrategic objectives is another matter but, without doubt, the ADF acted professionally and further established a reputation for operational excellence.

Much of the architecture and apparatus for operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan was put in place by the US with support from others. Basing, commodities, and contracted services were provided by gulf state host nations, with the United Arab Emirates and Qatar in particular providing safe and secure facilities from which the coalition projected overwhelming firepower.

But the Williams seminar described a different future, with Defence refocusing on the Indo-Pacific theatre and its new power projection challenges, not least in relation to secure and resilient access and basing. Providing the architecture and apparatus for the operational level in the region will require increasing levels of influence and investment, just at a time when China and others are trying to do the same.

And it’s not just physical access. In most cases the ADF will also have to gain access to the information domain and, more specifically, potentially fight for access to the electromagnetic spectrum with commercial actors just as hungry for the spectrum as the military.

Therefore, in many ways it could be argued that from an organisational perspective, operations in the Middle East skipped a level – the operational level, where the so-called ‘operational’ art of linking strategic objectives with tactical actions through the design, organisation, synchronisation, and command and control of operations and campaigns is practised.


Operational art is fundamentally a form of communication with its intent to send a message to both friend and foe. It is described in human-centric terms, such as imagination, skill, talent, influence and, above all, ideas, measured in terms of the power, influence and impact they create. Logistics, for example, is fundamentally characterised as being operational art.

Yet many defence forces instinctively prefer to deal in the more tangible aspects of operational science and combat systems, even though future concepts and doctrine describe an increasingly important role for combat support and combat service support systems. Such is the nature of Defence resourcing and acquisition that operational art is more often than not in lag of the science, and focused on the application of force at an individual combat system, or project level.

Indeed, doctrine does not help either with its somewhat scientific and business-school description which lacks important detail and nuance: ‘Operational art links available resources (means) and tactical actions (ways) to the attainment of national and military strategic end states and objectives (ends), while taking into account possible costs (risk)’.

Although this description is technically correct, the new operational environment which is characterised by long-term strategic competition across multiple domains, renders such definitions inadequate and in need of a significant refresh if it is to generate the thinking necessary to counter new threats and new risks.

Since the end of the Cold War most coalition operations have been dominated by science and management rather than operational art, especially so in the past decade, despite a broader move away from the overly scientific approach to operational planning seen in the Vietnam War era.

A key factor for many defence forces has been the harsh reality of the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC) which sent shockwaves across western economies and resulted in many forces being substantially configured for efficiency rather than effectiveness. And while the first order impact of the GFC on the ADF was limited, the US and the UK were not so lucky, with project cancellations and underinvestment in combat-enablers allowing strategic competitors to rapidly close the capability gap.

Ideally, operational art should lead the defence investment debate and be free-thinking and imaginative, open to criticism, contextualised historically, and its aesthetic dimension representing the character of the society from which the defence force is drawn.

Of course, this must be set within the constraints of an affordable defence budget and the physical building blocks of the force structure. But simply linking strategy to projects and systems, rather than mission objectives is unlikely to guarantee operational success.

History has proven, time and again, that operational success has been as much about ideas and institutions, such as bases and logistics facilities, as it was the force structure itself. The most likely missions and tasks the ADF will conduct in the Indo-Pacific region in the future will require a similar focus on the operational architecture and apparatus necessary to enable the manoeuvre of a networked, 5th generation force.


There is nothing new in recognising the importance of basing and logistics and their relationship with operational success. But the Williams seminar explored the art of logistics in a modern context, and highlighted the practical elements of projecting and sustaining a digitally networked, joint force, and the need to incentivise defence industry to become part of the solution too.

Presentations by Donna Cain-Riva, LTCOL David Beaumont, LTCOL Keirin Joyce, and WGCDR Alison McCarthy demonstrated the importance of professional mastery and intellectual rigour in the way readiness and sustainment challenges must be addressed as an enterprise when integrating the tactical edge of ADF warfighting capability with the national support base. They described the apparatus necessary to support an agile and technically sophisticated joint force that has a growing dependence on digital supply chains.

The assurance of these supply chains must also be set within the context of a secure and resilient basing strategy.  Protecting and operating bases in the broader region will place an increased demand on resources and will need to consider whether the contracted logistics and support services upon which many platforms rely are able to deploy and sustain operations when threat levels are elevated.

And while the presenters validated the importance of the enabling capabilities described in detail in the 2016 Defence White Paper, they also revealed much is still to be done and investment to be made in major force-multiplying logistics projects. This will be challenging since logistics cannot be bought off-the-shelf like many major weapon systems, and it is often oversimplified to focus on supplies. Yet basing provides the platform upon which sophisticated and resilient logistics capability can be built, and firepower delivered.

Furthermore, by using the term ‘enabling capabilities’, it can relegate them to a supporting role which inevitably translates into under-investment when budget pressures impact priorities and the competition for resources.

But without these enablers the joint force is constrained significantly no matter how impressive the line-up of combat systems. The consequence of this is to limit the operational options and choices available to the Government of the day, and thereby handing a strategic advantage to a competitor.

The unfolding geo-strategic circumstances are such that yesterday’s enablers are becoming tomorrow’s battle winners.


Operational apparatus – described in terms of critical infrastructure (bases, ranges, ports and airfields), information and communications technology (ICT), logistics support, science and technology, and health services – must be designed at an enterprise level rather than within individual projects.

The benefits of designing and building enabling capabilities at an enterprise level was exemplified in Wohlstetter’s Strategic Air Base Study, conducted on behalf of the RAND Corporation in 1954. The study examined the key factors in the selection of US bomber bases, which included, among others, distances to targets, favourable access points into enemy defences, logistics and the supply chains.

In his report into the Analytical Criteria for Judgements, Decisions, and Assessments, Barry Watts, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic & Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) from 2002 to 2014, points out that Wohlstetter’s study “not only resulted in a more secure posture for Strategic Air Command’s bomber force, but also saved the Air Force a billion dollars in planned construction costs for overseas bases”.

Watts describes the success of the study as being down to its focus on the operational art of where and how the bases would be used as part of a broader strategic system, rather than the science of simply working out how to acquire, construct, and maintain them. This exemplifies the importance of considering the asymmetries of the battlespace in a net assessment approach to competition, rather than tactical platform-on-platform engagements.

Throughout history, access and basing and, more recently overflight rights, have played a significant role in the projection of military power, with the strategic significance of many of those factors enduring to this day. The most successful long-term basing locations have been those which have proven to be secure, resilient, flexible and adaptable and, moreover, available to operate within a broader strategic and operational enterprise, not just in support of local tactical activity.

While individual types of bases are described doctrinally in terms of their location, permanency, and facilities, the most effective bases are those which maintain asymmetric and strategic relevance over time, and provide a range of options across the full spectrum of operations.


Looking further afield, RAF Akrotiri on the Island of Cyprus is an interesting case in point.

Cyprus has throughout history maintained its geostrategic relevance with numerous rulers recognising and exploiting its significance. At one point it was gifted to Queen Cleopatra of Egypt by the Roman General Mark Antony. Later, Richard the Lionheart used it to mount crusades before selling the island to the Knights Templar for 100,000 gold bezants.

More recent times saw the Republic of Cyprus forming in 1960 under the treaty of independence wherein the British retained control of the military bases and installations, which remain operational to this day.

Described formally as a Permanent Joint Operating Base (PJOB), Akrotiri serves as a multi-purpose enabler for operations in the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East theatres, and beyond. It has been used by the UK and its allies as a base for operations in Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, and Syria, among others. Indeed, the ADF deployed an RAAF C-130H detachment to Akrotiri in 2006 as part of Operation RAMP to support the DFAT-led evacuation of Australian personnel from the war in Lebanon.

Much of Akrotiri’s success has been down to its functionality as a forward mounting base (FMB), one which delivers capability within the theatre of operations but far enough away from the combat area to allow the storage and maintenance of weapons and munitions, vehicles, role equipment, and fuel supplies without the levels of security required in forward operating bases.

A key function of an FMB is to enable and accelerate the integration of the joint force before forward deployment to main operating bases, and to carry out those logistics activities that are too difficult to undertake at a busy forward operating location.

In other words, it provides a stepping-stone at the operational level for individual force elements to accumulate the fighting power required in the combat area; fighting power measured in terms of both operational art and science.

The recent deployment of the six RAF F-35Bs to Cyprus, and the acceleration of their integration into combat operations over Syria provides further evidence to support the development of the architecture and apparatus of a networked 5th generation force in the Indo-Pacific. New or re-developed basing can hold extensive fuel reserves, weapons, and pre-positioned equipment for future deployments, thereby reducing the demand for air and sealift just at the time when it is needed the most.

The development of basing on Manus Island, Cocos Island, as has been reported recently in the Northern Territory, and elsewhere represents a significant opportunity to enhance the preparedness and resilience of the ADF and forward-deployed US forces. Combined with an appropriate ongoing investment in training ranges and logistics capability, the Commonwealth can leverage Australia’s enduring geo-strategic advantage, and negate the need for other highly-specialised and resource-intensive force structure drivers such as aircraft carriers.

Adaptable, secure and resilient bases provide operational access, and their inherent logistics capability links strategy to task. They link force structure to accelerated warfare, and resources with strategic outcomes.

A network of strategically located bases are the foundations of a sophisticated 5th generation manoeuvre capability, and provide increased choice and options when the time comes to project firepower and influence.

This article appeared in the May-June 2019 issue of ADBR

The featured photo shows an AN/TPS-80 Ground/Air Task Oriented Radar starts up at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., Feb. 26. The AN/TPS-80 will replace the AN/TPS-63 andreduces set up time from eight hours to 30 minutes for the system. Marine Air Control Squadron 2 recieved the first G/ATOR issued to the Fleet Marine Force following testing to improve the squadron’s readiness and expeditionary capabilities. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Ethan Pumphret)

See the report on the Williams Foundation Seminar in April 2019 below: