Spartan Surveillance

By Ulas Yildirim

Recently, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) released its special report titled Projecting national power.

The report’s author, Peter Hunter, convincingly argued that the historical methods used by the RAAF on ‘delivering air fighting capabilities’ are not effective against methods observed in ‘grey-zone scenarios’ currently experienced within the Indo-Pacific.

Grey-zone scenarios are broadly defined as those activities below the threshold of open conflict. Hunter is quick to add, however, that the RAAF’s comprehensive modernisation program puts it in a prime position to face these new challenges within the Indo-Pacific.

He contends that through this program, the RAAF can participate in ‘influence operations’ as part of a joint force by prioritising creative thinking to generate strategic effects that contribute to the Australian government’s objectives.

In this context, Hunter’s next proposition is apt:

[f]or air power purposes, it will be helpful to identify mission types that align with the strategic goal of influence. In this regard, there’s a spectrum of activities that exist on a sliding scale from the seemingly benign […] up to and including the selective application of force.

What follows is an example of air power being applied in precisely this way.

Recently, the Australian government increased its Pacific engagement to generate goodwill towards Australia and counter malevolent influences in the Pacific Islands.

Some of the Government’s initiatives include the establishment of the Pacific Security College at the Australian National University and the pledge of funds to fight climate change.

The RAAF’s C-27J Spartan aircraft operating by No. 35 Squadron has been extensively used to support the government’s objectives within the region.

The C-27J is well suited because it can generate a variety of effects along Hunter’s sliding scale. The aircraft is capable of rapidly travelling long distances, can operate from short, austere airfields, and carry a variety of cargo and personnel. Furthermore, its relatively inoffensive signature as an air mobility platform ensures that its presence generates little suspicion.

However, this is an example of what Hunter described as linear thinking because it conceptualises the C-27J as an air mobility platform. What is required is disruptive thinking on the use of aircraft beyond what they were initially designed to achieve.

As Hunter argues, the RAAF needs to prioritise creative thinking on how best to achieve effects as part of a joint force, over and above the platform-centric thinking that has traditionally dominated the RAAF.

The C-27J presents multiple opportunities for such disruptive thinking. The Spartan’s ability to accept roll-on, roll-off kits means it can potentially switch from conducting aeromedical evacuation to acting as a gunship to land forces with relative ease. These are options that could be considered for future expansion, but they need to be thought about as expanding the options air power affords government as part of a joint force, rather than building a better Spartan.

No. 35 Squadron’s recent contribution to Operation Solania, however, has already demonstrated the potential of thinking differently. During Solania, the squadron’s Spartans provided maritime surveillance to support Pacific island nations’ ability to manage their fishery resources.

Maritime surveillance is a role traditionally associated with larger, specialised aircraft such as the AP-3C Orion or P-8A Poseidon.

These systems are indeed more capable in this mission, but their deployments generate larger footprints and are less accessible to the local populations due to the sensitive equipment on board the aircraft.

In contrast, 15 personnel from No. 35 Squadron were able to conduct Solania patrols and a range of parallel engagement activities including static aircraft viewing by locals, and school visits.

No. 35 Squadron’s Solania activities coupled with other government pledges towards the Pacific islands, are aimed at generating goodwill within the region towards Australia. The use of the C-27J in this role is an example of the creative thinking Hunter argues is needed.

But while the Spartan platform met an immediate need, the RAAF’s people need to keep thinking about how else it could achieve the desired effects. Focusing on the effects required, and decoupling those effects from specific platforms, is critical to employing the RAAF’s highly-capable personnel and materiel in creative ways for air power to contribute to desired influence effects, including within grey-zone scenarios.

Squadron Leader Ulas ‘Ulie’ Yildirim is an officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect the views of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.

This article was first published by Central Blue on October 20, 2019.