Reinvigorating aerial delivery: Supporting our conventional land forces
The past decade has seen a steady decrease in aerial resupply tasking in support of the conventional Army. The reasons for this include the operational focus of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) in the Middle East Area of Operations (MEAO); the removal of the airborne role from the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment and the retirement of the DHC-4 Caribou and C130H fleet. Now, with the significant reduction of operations in the MEAO, the shift in strategic focus towards the Indo-Pacific Strategic Arc (IPSA) and the imminent increase in the tactical airlift capabilities of the ADF, an ideal opportunity has presented itself to reinvigorate this responsive, expansive and at times essential distribution option to our conventional land forces.
Current airdrop tasking within the ADF is predominantly limited to Special Operations Command (SOCOMD) and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). In most cases this consists of support to airdrop currency training, as well as to facilitate SOCOMD elements conducting over-the-horizon amphibious insertions. Whilst these will remain essential tasks moving into the future, the Introduction Into Service (IIS) of the Caribou replacement, the C-27J Spartan Battlefield Airlift Aircraft, will significantly increase the tactical resupply options available to the Combat Brigades (Cbt Bdes) within Forces Command (FORCOMD).
The C27J has the capacity to carry significant loads and still access small, soft, narrow runways that cannot be used by C-130J or are unable to sustain repeated use by larger aircraft. Within Australia, the C-27J can access over 1900 airfields compared with approximately 500 for the C-130. In our region, the C-27J can access over 400 airfields compared to around 200 for the C-130. When these aircraft deploy to the field with support from the 176th Air Dispatch Squadron (176 AD SQN), Cbt Bde Commanders will have at their disposal a dedicated tactical aerial delivery capability able to conduct targeted aerial resupply (both air drop and air land) to dispersed force elements, regardless of the terrain in which they are operating. This is especially important noting that these Brigades must be prepared to operate within the IPSA; an extremely challenging archipelagic region comprising complex terrain, and requiring extended lines of communication in support of expeditionary operations.
The C-27J, which is expected to reach Initial Operating Capability in December 2016, is not the only factor to increase the relevance of the ADF’s air logistic capability. Until recently, all of the heavy drop certification for the C130J was being trialled in the United States. Now this certification is occurring within Australia and has placed a significant burden onto 176 AD SQN. By combining this extensive task with the expected increase in support to FORCOMD and the existing SOCOMD and RAAF currency training (including a large training bill expected to certify all C-27J aircrews), prioritisation of airdrop tasking must occur to ensure FORCOMD, SOCOMD and RAAF receive sufficient air logistic assets to remain certified. To facilitate this, close liaison between RAAF and Army is critical to ensure concurrent training occurs, whereby RAAF aircrew are being certified while supporting the Raise, Train and Sustain (RTS) requirements of the Cbt Bdes and SOCOMD.
Given the limited exposure FORCOMD has had in tactical aerial resupply in the past decade (less when receiving airdrop and external lift support from coalition assets in the MEAO), it is vital that RAAF and Army aviation assets and 176 AD SQN are gainfully employed during RTS exercises such as CATA, TALISMAN SABRE and HAMEL. This will ensure that external lift and the technical aspects of establishing, operating and clearing a drop zone in a tactical environment is sufficiently rehearsed by FORCOMD elements prior to these resupply means being employed on operations. External lift tasking in particular will become more prevalent in the future noting the significant enhancement of the ADF’s amphibious capability and the ship-to-shore resupply that will occur using the ADF’s rotary wing assets.
The primary benefit of aerial delivery is that it can be used when no other means of resupply is available. To illustrate this, one only needs to look at the United States forces in the MEAO, who in 2011 alone airdropped more than 80 million pounds of stores to coalition forces, including members of Joint Task Force 633. More recently, the rapid deployment of an air dispatch detachment from 176 AD SQN in support of the humanitarian effort in Northern Iraq also illustrates the responsiveness and impact that aerial logistics can have, even at the strategic level.
Noting the flexibility aerial logistics provides commanders on the ground, combined with the complexity of the terrain within the IPSA, aerial distribution must once again become relevant in Australia’s conventional battle space. This is especially important moving into the future given there will be less opportunity for the ADF to rely on air logistic support from coalition partners in our region.
The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.