Under the Defence of Australia policy, which dictated Australia’s military strategy in the late 20th century, a number of decisions were made oriented around continental defence. One such decision was the creation of number of ‘bare bases’ – airfields scattered across the northern parts of Australia, which can be rapidly activated in times of national emergency.
Originally, four bare bases – Tindal (NT), Curtain (QLD) , Learmonth and Scherger (WA), were constructed in the 1980s and 1990s by ADF units. Tindal, approximately 300km south-east of Darwin was upgraded to a full-time airbase status in the late 1980s and is home to RAAF No 75 Squadron, which operates classic F/A-18 Hornets. The other three bases are kept in a care & maintenance status year-round by four caretaker staff from 13 SQN with contractor support. The timeline from decision to activate to operational ready status is only 24 hours. Regular exercises and training occur at each base to keep up operational capability across all RAAF competencies.
1994 Defence White Paper
F-111 landing at RAAF Scherger (Source – RAAF)
In addition to the defence mission, RAAF Curtain and RAAF Learmonth are used as airfields for the surrounding communities with regular passenger flights by both Qantas and Virgin Australia. RAAF Learmonth was used as an emergency landing site in 2008 when Qantas Flight 72, an Airbus A330, experienced a ‘sudden, un-commanded pitch down maneuver on the Singapore to Perth route. One crew member and thirteen passengers were injured in the incident.
Apart from relatively few incidents during World War Two (including Axis submarines and Japanese bombings), Australia has escaped any major military action on home soil. Australia’s geographic isolation is both a blessing and curse for our defence requirements. Far enough away that attack seems unlikely, yet our defence force is tasked with thousands of kilometers of coastline to patrol. Regardless of the political party in power, Australia’s Defence Forces have been involved in implementing the border protection policy of the time. The three bare bases haven’t been immune either with RAAF Curtain & RAAF Scherger hosting immigration detention centres, and RAAF Learmonth being activated to support P-3 Orion surveillance missions.
Overview of RAAF Scherger (Source – RAAF)
Since the original Defence of Australia policy, Australia’s air force has seen many structural changes including a move toward 5th generation fighters (F-35s), strategic airlift capability (C-17As), air-to-air refuelling (KC-30As) and complete battlefield management (E-7s, P-8s & UAVs). Despite these upgrades to technology and enhancements to capability, the role of the bare bases has not been made redundant – ‘to allow Australian Defence Force aircraft to operate at long ranges and to remain on task for extended periods over a much larger portion of Northern Australia and its sea and air approaches than was hitherto possible’. Responding to the shift in the global landscape, maintenance of strategic alliances (ANZUS) & the current defence status, puts Australia in a well placed position to deter to any possible aggressor.