This Tuesday, Air Power Australia published a research paper on the vulnerability of the RAAF’s northern airbases. Happily, there has been healthy media and public interest in the subject matter. Three radio interviews and one television interview in the last two days. Plenty of complimentary emails from retired senior RAAF officers, largely pointing out how overdue the paper was in the public debate. Indeed, the Australia Defence Association has been arguing for airbase tactical upgrades for many years.

The argument in the paper is a very simple one. Our bases were largely designed and built during the Cold War, to survive dumb bomb attacks. Since the end of the Cold War, smart bombs and cruise missiles have been exported across the region, and earthworks and concrete berms, or lightweight shelters, cannot protect our aircraft if the bases do come under attack in a future conflict. The simple economic argument is that a $1-$2 million dollar concrete shelter is a cheap investment to protect a $100-$150 million dollar aircraft from a $50,000 dollar smart bomb or $1 million dollar cruise missile.

The aim in publishing the paper was simple — ensuring that this important and long neglected issue is included in the Rudd Government’s new Defence White Paper review process, so it is properly addressed and dealt with.

Sadly, the manner in which the Defence bureaucracy responded to the paper reflected the denial behaviour of the Howard era — Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Support Dr Mike Kelly, who does not have a research background in regional weapons or air power, was given an erroneous briefing that “all is well after all” and left to answer media questions.

It is a hard fact that the Defence bureaucracy is at this time not qualified to comment on the issue of regional weapons capabilities and how they impact RAAF base survivability. Why? The principal analyst previously responsible for this area in Defence is no longer employed there, as he was blacklisted last year for pointing out that Brendan Nelson’s Super Hornets would not cut the mustard against the new Russian jets arriving in the region. In fact, the very same analyst was one of the six expert reviewers who commented on the draft of this paper.

It would appear that Defence are prepared to provide incorrect advice to the Rudd Government in exactly the same manner they poorly advised the Howard Government on so many issues. Defence owe Dr Kelly a big apology, and should do so publicly, without reservation, and without delay.

Peter Fray

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