Northern Australia’s Supply-Chain Problems: The Perspective from Pitch Black 2022

By John Coyne

It’s been interesting to see how the combined impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have reinforced the importance of logistics.

It’s prudent, however, to remember that incomplete datasets from the Russian invasion of Ukraine demand a degree of caution when drawing conclusions.

Still, I’ve noticed that US General Omar Bradley’s famous quote, ‘Amateurs talk strategy. Professionals talk logistics’, is appearing more frequently in speeches and presentations.

Given the national impacts of Covid-19, the discussion of logistics in Australia and elsewhere has focused on supply chains. The acknowledgment of their importance is a good start.

But the Australian Defence Force’s major military exercises illustrate how hard, even with advance notice, it is to get supply-chain policy settings right.

The biennial exercise series Pitch Black is the RAAF’s most significant international engagement. The activity is conducted primarily from Royal Australian Air Force bases Darwin and Tindal. in the Northern Territory.

Participants are drawn from Australia, Canada, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Netherlands, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States. The 2022 iteration was the first time that Germany, Japan and South Korea participate fully.

During major military exercises, liquid-fuel consumption rates rise rapidly. In northern Australia, where Exercise Pitch Black is held, the jet-fuel supply chain gets stretched, despite these exercises being planned years in advance and operating to a pre-scheduled flying program.

It’s been long rumoured and reported that several important Australia-based exercises have ended early, despite their long lead times, due to supply-chain issues. In 2020, in response to an inquiry about the rumours, the Department of Defence said:

“During the three weeks of Exercise PITCH BLACK 2018, over 1,120 missions were flown, which equated to approximately 95 per cent mission success rate. By 15 August 2018, exercise directors assessed that all of the training objectives for PITCH BLACK had been achieved, and the primary goals of offensive and defensive air combat operations, air-land integration, and importantly, interoperability between nations had been exceeded.”

While reassuring, Defence’s explanation also seems to admit that fuel supplies were stretched in the exercise—and military operations during conflict are considerably more demanding than the largest exercise.

Defence’s answer to this problem, and the increased fuel demands of larger aircraft, is to boost the jet-fuel storage capacity at Tindal. This project and US investment in fuel storage in Darwin will support short periods of high fuel consumption. But that won’t address the vulnerabilities and limitations of fuel supply chains in northern Australia.

Exercise Talisman Sabre is the most significant combined training activity between the ADF and the U.S. military. The exercise is held across much of coastal northern Queensland. Again, it is held biennially and is planned years in advance. U.S. planners often lament that the region’s infrastructure and supply chains require them to treat the exercise as an expeditionary activity.

To supply both exercises, the Australian defence organisation relies on synchronising a range of interdependent public and private ecosystems that stretch from city to rural and remote locations. In many ways, most likely by coincidence, these activities also stress-test supply chains, though it’s unclear whether lessons are formally drawn from these experiences.

The results of these major planned exercises indicate that supply chains are not sufficiently robust or scalable to meet the demands of large, shorter notice deployments.

There’s likely some argument here that during a crisis or a period of heightened national security, Defence can draw on the wider national capacity with greater ease. This thinking assumes that Defence can draw spare or discretionary capacity away from existing commitments. While that assumption may be correct in some geographical areas, it would be tested in much of northern Australia.

We shouldn’t move too quickly to assume that Defence itself can bridge these supply-chain vulnerabilities. In 2000, soon after the completion of Operation Warden, former Commander International Forces East Timor (INTERFET) General Peter Cosgrove made the following comment on operational logistics:

“In the past, the Australian armed forces have not had to invest in substantial deployable logistics capabilities. Our forces have relied on our major allies such as the United States and Britain. The logistics support for INTERFET was magnificent, but sustainment was not achieved without frustration and some failures. Frankly, if the ADF is required by the nation to go offshore again in a lead role or as a contributor to international military action, we will have to underwrite our operations with a responsive and effective logistics system with stamina. Currently, there is room for enhancement of our capability to support offshore operations. We succeeded in East Timor, but our logistics engine was under extreme pressure most of the time.”

Much has been done since then to transform the ADF’s logistics capabilities. And let’s not forget that Australia’s subsequent operational deployments relied heavily on the U.S. Department of Defense. The broad observation here is about the ADF’s and wider defence organisation’s dependence on the national supply chain ecosystem. In doing so, both have made assumptions about capacity and the nation’s ability to respond to demands.

Covid-19 has shown that without government intervention, supply chains are vulnerable in the face of cascading risks driven by concurrent and continuous crises.

The good news is that across government, various programs and projects are either planned or underway that will help shore up supply chains. In addition, the recently announced defence strategic review will provide greater clarity on future requirements. The challenge for Defence is to provide input into whole-of-government requirements for nation-building and supply-chain resilience without being left responsible for their delivery or funding.

The defence review process will offer all stakeholders a chance to share ideas. There are also opportunities to ensure that supply-chain resilience is considered as a system of systems or ecosystem that involves all parts of Australia. The new National Recovery and Resilience Agency will likely have a lot to say on that work.

The government must make northern Australia an economic, defence and national-security policy priority. In the face of the challenge of building a more resilient north, the government should consider splitting the roles of minister for resources and minister for northern Australia. Appointing a dedicated minister for northern Australia and enhancing the capacity of the Office of Northern Australia would be strong first steps in setting policy priorities.

If Bradley were around today, perhaps he would be thinking of changing his infamous statement to something more like, ‘Amateurs talk strategy. Professionals deliver secure and sovereign supply chains.’

John Coyne is head of ASPI’s Northern Australia Strategic Policy Centre and strategic policing and law enforcement program.

This was published by ASPI on 18 August 2022.