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Features

Going active
In 10 days, a vacant airstrip in Australia’s remote north was transformed into a bustling fast-jet launch platform. Private John Wellfare looks at how RAAF Scherger went online.

 

LACW Sara Doore and FLTLT Robyn Tatnell lead the stretcher carrying a wounded enemy soldier.

LACW Sara Doore and FLTLT Robyn Tatnell lead the stretcher carrying a wounded enemy soldier.

Cooks from 381ECSS prepare hot boxes for deployed personnel.

Cooks from 381ECSS prepare hot boxes for deployed personnel.

LACW Katie Gallin, from 1CLS, drives back to Townsville after bringing stores to RAAF Scherger.

LACW Katie Gallin, from 1CLS, drives back to Townsville after bringing stores to RAAF Scherger.

The first 1SQN F-111 touches down at RAAF Scherger.

The first 1SQN F-111 touches down at RAAF Scherger.

LAC Chris Campbell, from 2AFDS, mans a vehicle checkpoint at RAAF Scherger.

LAC Chris Campbell, from 2AFDS, mans a vehicle checkpoint at RAAF Scherger.

Photos by CPL Kirk Peacock

The 1SQN advance party disembarks at RAAF Scherger.

The 1SQN advance party disembarks at RAAF Scherger.

LACW Chris Everett and CPL Gill Rutledge work at the alternate message tactical comms centre.

LACW Chris Everett and CPL Gill Rutledge work at the alternate message tactical comms centre.

EOD technician FSGT Kelly Morris checks out an explosive device planted beneath a truck.

EOD technician FSGT Kelly Morris checks out an explosive device planted beneath a truck.

Photo by PTE John Wellfare

WHAT does it take to activate a bare base? Commanding Officer No. 381 Expeditionary Combat Support Squadron, Wing Commander Scott Winchester, knows the answer.

As do the members of his unit and No. 2 Airfield Defence Squadron, who turned RAAF Scherger into a high-security platform for launching F-111 strike missions during Exercise Kakadu.

The remote far north Queensland facility is one of three Air Force bare bases in Australia, which can be activated as staging platforms for air attacks against an invading force.

When activated, the base population goes from four – Air Force caretakers live at the base to provide year-round upkeep – to more than 500 personnel. The bare bases are a crucial part of Australia’s defence strategy, which forms the basis of the ADF’s primary role.

“It’s not just a matter of coming in and turning the lights on,” Wing Commander Winchester said. “You need to look at, first of all, what element you’re supporting and from there deduce the level of airbase services needed to activate and sustain flying operations.

Then you start to look at the force structure that you’re putting in place and that will drive the numbers and the equipment requirements that you need to deploy to the location.

“If we’ve got pre-positioned stores at the base, we have to look at serviceability issues and make sure it’s there, it works and then bring up any additional equipment that’s required to provide the stores support.

“There’s lots of moving parts to activating the base – identifying the customer requirements, formulating the force structure and from that falls out your personnel requirements and their movements. Then you’ve got to look at how you deploy people under the threat scenario to ensure that we can step through the activation process.

“We’re providing the airfield services that you’d expect from the main operating bases to the south.

“On the airfield we have navigation aids, we have landing aids, we have a cable arrest system, we have air traffic control service, we have airfield rescue, fire fighting, tanker support and an air load team.

Communications-wise, we have the full suite of IT systems, radio networks [and] video conferencing. We have messing, accommodation, logistic support and vehicle maintenance.

“All those capabilities that you find on home bases, we can establish them at this base.”

RAAF Scherger was to be activated to support F-111 operations in a political environment of rising tensions between northern neighbours Mauveland and Purpleland. With the governments of both countries warning Australia not to intervene, RAAF Scherger faced a potential security threat from either nation and had to be protected.

Airfield defence guards from No. 2 Airfield Defence Squadron cleared the air base and established patrol staging posts in the surrounding bushland before the main body of personnel arrived. Expecting the likely threat to come from a foreign Special Forces unit, the ADG patrols covered likely insertion and extraction points for small reconnaissance or strike teams.

“In addition to activating the base you’ve got to protect the base as well, and that’s a role that needs careful monitoring and prioritisation to ensure that one’s not done to the detriment of the other,” Wing Commander Winchester said.

For 10 days, personnel from No. 381 Expeditionary Combat Support Squadron and No. 2 Airfield Defence Squadron waged a battle against time and an increasingly disruptive team of Mauveland Special Forces troopers, who were intent on preventing the approaching F-111 deployment.

Despite setbacks – some a result of exercise scenarios, others arising from the base’s lack of use and the need to “clear out the cobwebs” – the first F-111s touched down on schedule on August 1, and were immediately refuelled and relaunched as a test of both the air base and No. 1 Squadron’s ground crews.

“A lot of the hard work is actually in setting up the base and activating it, especially with RAAF Scherger, which hasn’t been activated to this extent since it was constructed.

“There’s also the reception of No. 1 Squadron and basically being responsive to their needs.

“We need to provide them with an excellent level of service to ensure that they can do what they need to.

“We’re activating this base because of the F-111 operations and that needs to be our focus at all times.”

Fortunately, many members of Wing Commander Winchester’s unit have experience with establishing services in a deployed environment.

“With the level of operational tempo we’ve had in the past couple of years, a lot of the personnel have deployed on operations.

“They can draw on their knowledge and experience from those locations and apply them to a bare base scenario.

“Overall, the level of experience across the unit is fairly high as far as operating in austere conditions.”

At the completion of their mission, the F-111s and support crews leave the base, which No. 381 Expeditionary Combat Support Squadron then closes up and vacates. The caretakers return to their duties, maintaining the lonely outpost on the western coastline of Cape York until the next time it’s needed.

 

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