For the RAAF, the Indian Ocean has traditionally been second in importance to the Pacific.
This reflects that Australia has long perceived the Indian Ocean as being stabilised by others, first the British and now the United States (US).
Over time, however, the United States may substantially reduce its presence in the Indian Ocean, concentrate on Pacific-facing China, and leave Indian Ocean stability to littoral states, particularly India.
Accordingly, Australia and the RAAF may need to look afresh at the Indian Ocean.
The control of the Indian Ocean was last seriously contested in the Second World War when intruding German and Japanese warships, and submarines sank considerable allied merchant shipping. In that conflict, the RAAF based small air-defence and maritime strike forces in Western Australia to protect against possible Japanese carrier raids and to undertake anti-submarine patrols. Late in the war, B-24 long-range bomber missions were flown from the Kimberley region against strategic targets in Java in support of the Borneo campaign.
In regional terms, today’s small, well-equipped RAAF probably ranks about number three in the Indian Ocean, behind India and Saudi Arabia.
The latter two countries have quantitatively large, well-balanced air forces operating a range of modern and modernised combat aircraft while including in their national air power sizeable surface-to-air missile forces and limited numbers of surface-to-surface missile systems.
Moreover, in India’s case, the air force is nuclear-capable and supported by an indigenous aircraft industry and aviation technology research base. While the Pakistan Air Force is also numerically larger than the RAAF, it operates many obsolescent aircraft, lacks comprehensive all-weather and night capabilities, and has notable electronic warfare and stand-off weapon deficiencies.
The RAAF’s broad capability balance allows it to undertake independent national air operations although in higher-end conflict contingencies it would generally operate as part of a larger coalition.
Realistically, if such a coalition in the Indian Ocean were not with the US, it would probably be with India.
Yet, while Australia historically privileges military collaboration, India favours autonomy.
India’s reticence in inviting Australia to the Malabar maritime exercise reflects its traditional strategic wariness. This may be changing with an early sign being greater interaction between the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the RAAF, including the 2018 deployment of Su-30s to Exercise Pitch Black in Darwin.
IAF participation is now likely each year and opens up the possibility of a reciprocal activity to further deepen ties. India has held several exercises with the Royal Air Force and the United States Air Force (USAF), Exercise Indradhanush and Exercise Cope India respectively.
The RAAF could perhaps participate with F/A-18F Super Hornets and a KC-30A tanker, mirroring Indian participation in Pitch Black.
Sending an E-7A Wedgetail airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft might also be appropriate.
Closer to Australia, new options are opening up as the RAAF introduces the MQ-4 Triton remotely piloted aircraft.
Operating from Cocos Keeling Islands, Christmas Island, RAAF Base Learmonth, or RAAF Base Curtin the Triton could remain on station undertaking high-altitude maritime surveillance in the Bay of Bengal or over the Sunda and Lombok Straits for periods of 12 hours or more. The exact patrol time depends on where the Tritons operate from.
In broad terms, when flying from mainland bases compared to island bases, the Tritons lose about eight hours of on-station time. Given the RAAF is only buying seven Tritons, maximising their Indian Ocean maritime surveillance effectiveness through developing island deployment, basing options seems sensible.
Under Defence Project 8129 the Cocos Keeling runway is being widened and strengthened to allow P-8 operations, but new facilities and infrastructure would be necessary to permit regular, on-going Triton flights.
This raises the issue of whether to invest in Cocos Keeling and/or Christmas Islands.
Geographically both have strengths and weaknesses, but low-lying Cocos Keeling will be more adversely impacted by climate change.
Developing appropriate infrastructure on the islands might also provide an opportunity to enhance Australia’s relationship with India.
The Indian Navy’s P-8Is could occasionally deploy there for short-term maritime surveillance operations, perhaps operating in conjunction with RAAF P-8As, thereby enhancing interoperability and helping to develop the Australia-India relationship.
India has little capability to surveil that part of the Indian Ocean and, in terms of India-China geostrategic regional competition, this is a noticeable gap.
Moving to the mainland, recent Defence white papers have judged the likelihood of attacks on Australia as low.
Nevertheless, there are geostrategic changes underway, and some argue risks to Australian security are increasing.
Prudence may dictate that these risks are managed just in case Australia’s national security situation deteriorates sharply.
In such a scenario, air power might broaden from being maritime surveillance focussed as it is during peacetime, to also including air defence, strike, AEW&C, air-to-air refuelling, and air transport.
Accordingly, some upgrades are planned for the bare bases of Learmonth and Curtin.
At Learmonth, the runway will be strengthened and lengthened, and the fuel infrastructure upgraded to allow deployed KC-30A air-refuelling operations. At Curtin, the asphalt pavement will be resurfaced, and airfield lighting replaced. Both projects should be completed by mid-2022.
A few years on from then, facilities at both bases will be upgraded to allow deployed F-35 operations and maintenance.
The two bare bases may also have an increasing role in terms of supporting future coalition air operations, in particular USAF long-range bombers and their accompanying air-to-air refuelling aircraft.
In times of crisis, such aircraft flying from the bases could range as far as the northern South China Sea.
In times of peace, the bases offer additional training options that might augment the Australia-US Enhanced Air Cooperation program.
While this program has focussed on RAAF bases Darwin and Tindal so far, as it develops further with longer and larger US Marine Corps and USAF deployments, it could potentially include air activities in the West, including short-term basing.
In terms of national defence, the internationally significant North West Shelf gas fields are among the most exposed of Australia’s major economic assets.
The gas fields are inherently vulnerable to damage, although their distance from possible threats provides them with some protection. Submarine attacks might be the most likely military threat, possibly countered by ADF anti-submarine warfare forces including RAAF P-8s deployed forward to Learmonth or Curtin. Less likely might be cruise missile attack, whether launched from hostile warships or long-range bombers.
Such operations might be defended against through operating F-35A, F/A-18F, E-7A, and KC-30A aircraft from Learmonth and Curtin.
There may also be concerns in times of high-end conflict about the liquified natural gas export tankers, especially those that supply Japan.
These might be best safeguarded by routing them southwards around Australia and east of Papua New Guinea. In lesser crises, tanker protection through the Indonesian archipelago using convoys would be possible, although economically undesirable as delaying ships to form convoys is costly.
Looking south, Australia has interests in Antarctica including with the Heard and McDonald Islands located in the extreme and remote Southern Indian Ocean. Fisheries exploitation is steadily increasing there, suggesting a new role for the Triton unmanned aircraft. Operating out of RAAF Base Pearce, the aircraft could spend several hours on patrol overhead the islands monitoring foreign fishing activities.
Given limited numbers, additional Tritons would need to be purchased if Southern Ocean fisheries surveillance developed into a major role. Pearce’s facilities would also need further upgrading.
In terms of building multilateral cooperation across Indian Ocean states, the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium offers a possible model. Some 32 countries attend a seminar-style meeting every two years that involves the respective naval chiefs.
A comparable air symposium could be undertaken, perhaps initially focussing on areas of common interest such as flying safety, training, logistics and search and rescue, before later considering more difficult areas such as maritime surveillance information sharing.
In a more practical vein, many Indian Ocean air forces are quite small and have considerable trouble maintaining an indigenous aircrew training capability. From a financial perspective, it would be sensible to pool resources and undertake training at a single large facility.
Australia already has such a suitable training capability at RAAF Base Pearce, that, with expansion, could provide pilot training for many of the smaller Indian Ocean air forces. Indeed, Singapore already uses Pearce for its pilot training, having done so since 1993. While being cost-effective, such pooled training would also help build relationships between Indian Ocean countries.
The Indian Ocean balance of power is changing and with it the importance of airpower.
Air forces across the region are steadily evolving, becoming larger, more capable, and more consequential.
This has significant implications for Australia, the country with the longest coastline in the Indian Ocean.
Australian defence strategists and air power thinkers need to take note.
Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University, a Senior Correspondent with WA DEFENCE REVIEW, and the author of the book Grand Strategy.
This article was originally commissioned for, and published in, the WA Defence Review 2019 Annual Publication.
This is part three of a series and published by Central Blue on March 22, 2020.