Delamere Air Weapons Range, NT. Source: NNTT

Most people wouldn’t have heard of the Delamere air weapons range much before last week’s visit to Darwin of the world’s most powerful man and the announcement that a relatively modest force – to be known as the Marine Air-Ground Task Force – will be based in Darwin at the local Robertson Barracks.

But soldiers can’t ply the pointy end of their trade, particularly the fun stuff that goes bang, from inside four walls at a Darwin barracks. Luckily the Northern Territory provides ample space and facilities to conduct the live firing exercises that modern armies need.

Delamere air weapons range is the smaller of three live firing areas that the Australian – and many other – military forces have used in the Top End for some time.

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I’ll have a look at the largest of these, Bradshaw – about the size of Belgium – next.

But first up, where – and what – is Delamere?

Delamere air weapons range covers an area of about half-a-million acres and with Shoalwater Bay in north Queensland, Bradshaw and Mount Bundey ranges in the NT forms part of perhaps the world’s best war-games backyard any defence force could want.

Being 100 or so kilometres away from Australia’s northern air defence base at Tindal near Katherine and not much further, in air time at least, from Darwin means that Delamere is ideally placed as a place to drop big things that go boom.

B-52 Stratofortress. Source: US Air Force

The American’s have been using Delamere well before 2005 when AUSMIN, the annual Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations, decided that Delamere and RAAF Base Darwin would support an enhanced Strategic Bomber Training Program:

The United States is rebalancing its force presence in the Asia-Pacific region, including through the rotation of US strategic bomber aircraft through Guam.

There are opportunities for Australia-US training to be enhanced through a regular program of visits to Australia by US B-52, B-1 and B-2 aircraft and combined training with the Australian Defence Force … It continues a long-standing and mutually beneficial combined training and exercising program.

A B-2 Spirit. Source: US Air Force

In March 2007 the Military Press reported on a typical B-52 bombing run by planes from the 96th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron out of Andersen Air Force Base in Guam:

Andersen Airmen flew to the land ‘down under’ this week to demonstrate the capability and flexibility of the B-52 Stratofortress bomber to their Australian partners.

They completed a series of scheduled Green Lightning exercise sorties at the Delamere Bombing Range while also providing aerial flyovers for the Australian International Airshow 2007 in Victoria, Australia. The missions over Australia were flown under two different types of mission profiles.

The Green Lightning missions were 12-hour, round-trip flights into the Delamere Bombing Range beginning and ending here.

Later missions saw a B-52, along with a KC-135 Stratotanker for support, landing at the Royal Australian Air Force Base Darwin to fly sorties supporting the Australian air show.

“We departed Andersen and received 80,000 pounds of fuel from the KC-135 tanker accompanying us,” said Capt. Mike Maginness, a B-52 co-pilot with the 96th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron.

“We continued our mission to the Delamere Bomb Range where we received permission to employ six BDU-50 inert bombs.” This was the third time Andersen-based bombers have participated in the Green Lightning exercise. B-2 Spirit bombers completed the first Green Lightning exercise from Guam in July 2006, while the first group of B-52s completed their sorties in October 2006.

A B-1B Lancer from the 28th Bomb Wing. Source: US Air Force

I don’t know about the B-1 and the B-2 but from personal experience the B-52 is a truly fearsome thing.

When I first moved to Darwin in the mid-eighties I lived for a while on the Coonawarra Naval Base – now notorious as the home of the Darwin Immigration Detention Centre.

Coonawarra Naval base – which in the perverse logic that is typical of Darwin is inland, while the Army occupy the Larrakeyah Barracks surrounded in large part by Darwin Harbour – is situated right at the end of the very long (3.3 kilometre) Darwin airport runway.

KC-135 Stratotanker. Source: US Air Force

B-52 Stratofortresses – and their essential companions the no-less frightening K-135 Stratotankers – are very scary beasts. Back in 1985 I would be woken at breaking dawn by the house – and every thing in it – rattling and shaking as if by an earthquake. But it was no earthquake – just a few B-52s dragging their fully-loaded weight off the ground and into the air a few hundred metres away from my bed.

All other sensations were drowned out by a blanket of one of the ugliest sounds known to man or beast. Just think about the forces involved in dragging 120 and more tonnes – 32 of which can be weapons – into a the air on a warm tropical morning.

The B-52s would be followed by the K-135 tankers full to the brim with their load of fuel to get the B-52s back to base. The K-135s were an order of magnitude louder and dirtier again than their suckling companions.

Even at the end of Darwin’s long strip – which has a distinct up-hill kick over the last kilometre or two – they would be struggling to make height above the straggly scrub. The K-135 Stratotankers weigh up to 135 tonnes fully loaded, 90 tonnes of which can be made made up of their load of fuel.

And there have been a few “incidents” over the years at Delamere and Tindal with the US Air Force planes.

In September 2004 a United States Marine Corps pilot ejected from his F/A-18 fighter jet moments before it crashed. He was one of about 300 US servicemen taking part in the joint US-Australian military exercise Southern Frontier. The following year, during the same joint exercise, a “range incident” at the Delamere range  saw a weapon released from a United States Marine Corps (USMC) F/A-18 Hornet strike the ground in close proximity to a control building. And back in August 1998 a United States Marine Corps F/A-18 aircraft crashed at Delamere.

I’ve picked up some interesting chatter from various spots on the web about the future deployment of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force in the Top End.

While us acclimatised locals either suffer in sweaty silence or reach for another beer to cope with the worst of the Darwin build-up – and this year’s is relatively mild – it can be an … ummm … stressful time for those not used to the heat and humidity.

And Darwin – or Robertson Barracks – isn’t exactly seen as a comfort post. One comment on a military weblog reckoned that while the Northern Territory might be a great place to conduct large-scale training exercises most of the troops won’t be based at or near Darwin but at Bradshaw an awful long way from Darwin.

One commentator described Bradshaw as a “shitty place to be posted”.

Other comments included:

I reckon the Marines would probably rather go back to Iraq than Bradshaw! 😆

To give some perspective Darwin is seen as a crappy posting in the Australian army and that is living in a city – these guys are going to be lucky (like really lucky, really, really, kissed-on-the-penis lucky) if they get to Darwin on their weekends every other week from Bradshaw where there is quite literally n-o-t-h-i-n-g, not even a small town – the only trace of civilisation is a gas station a long drive away.

And Delamere doesn’t seem much better.

While it might be acceptable for Australians used to the heat, flies, dust and distance from anywhere, I doubt if too many Marines will be taken in by the romance or big-brotherish nature of life at Delamere as painted in this puff-piece from Airforce, the RAAF’s official newspaper:

DELAMERE has all the ingredients of a great reality TV show. Eight Air Force members living and working together while serving their country at a remote outback post.

According to resident cook, Corporal Eddie Sequitin, “it’s like a Big Brother house without the eviction”. Of course, they’re much too busy for any Big Brother antics, but it makes an appropriate analogy about life at Delamere.

Made up of a Range Safety Officer, cook, medic, supplier and three explosive ordnance technicians, the small detachment is a happy bunch of characters with an obvious fondness for their unique lifestyle. As part of that lifestyle, they willingly give up weekdays with their families to spend it out bush, more than 200km from RAAF Base Tindal and 100km from the nearest neighbour. They either catch a chartered 30-minute flight or take the two-hour drive out. Fortunately, they get to go home on weekends, during which time the range is managed by two Air Force caretakers.

Supplier Corporal Geoff Page says with a wife and two kids back home at Katherine, it’s “the love of the job” that keeps him coming back each week. “It’s my third year here, and I love the place,” he says. “I’m one of those old-time equipos, so I like to be outdoors doing stuff with my hands, rather than sitting behind a computer screen. “Out here, you’re not tied down doing the same thing over and over again; there’s always a chance to go out and jump on a tractor or help the blokes clean up the ranges.

“It really feels like Air Force because you’re doing something to directly support the aircraft flying, and can see what’s happening, like the bombs dropping. Then you get to go out afterwards and clean it up, which is great.”

Medical assistant Corporal Claire Aram, who also looks after all the administration at Delamere, is the only female on board, and has been for the past three years. “It’s a great place, because we all get along really well here,” she says. “Everyone gives that little bit extra to not be overbearing, which could easily cause problems within such a small unit. “It’s been a totally different experience for me [as a medic]. For instance, I’ve had the opportunity to shoot 81mm mortars with the US Marines and I’ve got a licence for just about everything that drives. You keep your ears open and you learn a lot out here.”

And – in an echo of the “only-trace-of-civilisation-is-a-gas-station comment above – this story of a trip to the Top Springs pub won’t ease the minds of those looking for a little light R & R close handy.

She said being a remote posting doesn’t make Delamere boring. “Sometimes it can be very peculiar, for instance, we didn’t have a cook one day so the four of us decided we didn’t want to cook for ourselves. So we drove 100km to the Top Springs pub, which is the closest shop, so they could cook us a meal. “They only had spaghetti carbonara cooking that day, so we ate that and then drove back again. It was a 200km trip just for dinner.

 As well as tolerating each other, they also have to share their limited space with other visitors, such as the US Marine Corps, who are currently staying on site as part of Exercise Southern Frontier. “When the Americans come in, normally they are a mortar battalion, which is a different type of Marine,” says Corporal Page. “These guys are forward air defence, so every exercise is different. They’re all really nice guys and because you’re in such a tight community, you get to know them pretty well, so it’s good.” While the average posting to Delamere is three years, most members request to stay longer. Must be that Big Brother feeling.

Others have a different perspective on a night out at the Top Springs Hotel.

This is from the decsion by the NT Licensing Commission in relation to complaints that the Hotel had breached sections of the NT Liqour Act, namely Section 102 –Liquor not to be sold to an Intoxicated Person; and Section 121 – Failure to Remove or Exclude Intoxicated Person from the Licensed Premises.

The following paragraphs describe the conduct of the Hotel’s patron, a local cattle-station worker, the subject of the complaint about what hopefully is not a typical day at the Toppy:

i) An intoxicated Webb soon struck up a conversation with Dormer but quickly took offence at the fact that Dormer was a teacher at Lajamanu, an Aboriginal community. He removed his shirt and was agitated and abusive towards Dormer. 

j) This behaviour resulted in Webb being reminded that he was earlier asked to leave and was again told to leave the premises by Haseldine who had by then returned to the Back Bar. Her evidence is that after asking him to leave, she watched him get off his chair as if he intended to leave. She did not remain to ensure that he left the premises however as she was called away to the shop to serve a customer.

k) At around that time and in response to Webb’s drunken, aggressive behaviour, Dormer and his wife decided to leave the premises. While they were attempting to leave, Web attacked Dormer from behind and they fell to the ground. Webb bit him on the stomach and was abusive and threatening. He also smashed the shop’s bain-marie to the floor. Even as they found refuge in their car and attempted to drive away, Webb continued being violent and threatening bashing his fist against the car window. Osborne and Biggs attempted to restrain Webb and Police were called by Haseldine at 3.30pm.

Any of your stories about the Top Springs pub, adventures with local and US servicemen and women out on the town or your thoughts about Delamere as a suitable place to spend some time are welcome….

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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