What is the future of the Royal Australian Corps of Transport?

The purpose of this article is to stimulate discussion into the future roles and responsibilities of the Royal Australian Corps of Transport (RACT). RACT will receive its scope from higher HQ to review its trades in an Employment Category Review (ECR) later this year. This is the point at which the human aspects of capability are set in stone for the better part of a decade – for this reason it seems worthwhile to stimulate informed debate into the future of the RACT now.

At present, the role of the RACT is 'to control and operate Army-owned surface transport, other than unit transport, and to provide movement control, terminal, postal and Army aspects of air logistic support.' (LWD4-3, Transport Support, 2009). This is somewhat circular, defining the role of the Corps of Transport as being the control and operation of transport, except for unit transport. This has also become inaccurate – much unit level transport is operated by RACT personnel and much non-unit transport is operated by non-RACT personnel. Finally, it is a technical, rather than a functional description of the role, that relies on an implicit, common and very nuanced understanding of what is and is not 'transport' – I’m not convinced that a well developed collective understanding actually exists.

The last is the most serious problem: that transport is a really nebulous term.

There are two basic ways of conceptualising how we define what is and is not transport in the sense of RACT:

The first applies a literal definition: If something is being transported, then the something transporting it should belong to RACT. This conceptualisation is inaccurate because it is too broad to be useful – after all, firearms can be conceptualised as an elaborate transportation mechanism for bullets, radio waves transport ideas and transport helicopters are definitely transporting something. We all implicitly know that these things are not transport in the RACT sense, but the reasons we base this on seem to be arbitrary and vary by person.

The second applies a much more contextual definition, which has had a lot more influence on Army thinking over the past few decades. It is understood that Transport, in the Army context, refers exclusively to operating a transport network for administrative movement, primarily for things which belong to the Royal Australian Army Ordnance Corps (RAAOC). If movement is not entirely administrative, or the goods are not procured by RAAOC, then it’s not transport in the RACT sense. This has never been entirely true of RACT or its predecessors in any conflict and it also imposes an arbitrary definition that relies on a dichotomy that doesn’t exist in the real world – the idea that all movement is either entirely administrative or entirely non-administrative.

The problem with both of these, even together, is that there isn’t any non-arbitrary point or area that we can pick to say 'Army-owned transport to the left of this is RACT, and to the right of it is not RACT.' Neither of them even suggest a satisfactory definition that would explain the function of the RACT within the context of Army.

Taken together, the two suggest that we have structured our corps using some kind of implicitly understood hierarchy of functions. If something sits in a number of categories, we apply an order of precedence in determining in which category it will be placed. From this we learn that transport has a very low order of functional precedence. For example, transport (utility) helicopters are not RACT for the same reason Armed Reconnaissance Helicopters are not Royal Australian Armoured Corps (RAAC) - Rotary Wing Aviation has one of the highest orders of functional precedence so if something fits the definition of a transport or armoured fighting vehicle (AFV) but also fits the definition of a helicopter, it will be Australian Army Aviation Corps (AAAvn). This is a perfectly satisfactory method of rationalising mustering for existing capabilities, it’s a very poor way of conceptualising capability in future operations, since it gives very little information about the employment of capabilities that by definition don’t yet exist. This is a problem for RACT going to the Employment Category Review Meeting (ECRM), since RACT can be functionally understood as being some kind of transport network composed of Army owned equipment operated by trades.

I will now give my own view cribbed from some strategic documents that weren’t specifically talking about RACT. [1][2]

The role of the RACT is 'to maximise manoeuvre options for force commanders by providing higher order mobility to personnel and materiel; by providing protection and limited direct fire support; by traversing all land and littoral environments'.

I’ll focus on one thing only in this description, and leave the rest to be picked apart and argued on its own.
'Higher order' - what is meant by this is that RACT’s specific function is to organise, control or execute transport that exists at the 'next level' of war - the same concept as Special Forces but in reverse. Special Forces conduct tactical actions for operational and strategic effect, transport forces provide the operational mobility necessary for tactical effect and the strategic mobility necessary for operational effect. This is a blunt explanation, because there are almost certainly lots of sub-levels in military operations that we don’t talk about doctrinally. For example, a battlegroup (BG) commander is operating at a different level to a combat team (CT) commander, and the BG commander must enable the tactical actions of the CT commanders in various ways in order for the CT commanders to aggregate effects for the BG - but all of this is at the tactical level.

This definition is highly imperfect, but I like it because it’s meaningful. It describes the limitations on the mustering of what is conceivably an almost infinitely broad function, while also implying actual tasks and a purpose that can be conceptualised in ways that are useful for future operations and capabilities which don’t yet exist. I think this is important because transport has changed a lot more quickly than we’ve been mentally prepared for, such as:

  • Our incoming vehicles have levels of mobility, protection, firepower and communications that are generally commensurate with what we would have expected of AFV two generations ago.
  • The Defence White Paper (DWP) has directed the raising of a riverine patrol capability from 2022 that logically nests entirely within the Water Transport trade along the same (but less special) lines as the US Special Warcraft Combatant Craft (SWCC) trade.
  • The acquisition of C27-J Spartan will reintroduce air-dispatch to our conventional operations after a very long hiatus where our land tactics and operations have undergone tremendous change.

A definition like this lets us conceptualise how each of these things fit into the whole of Army.

If for some reason we were to raise a mountain or ski-infantry capability, or re-raise a full airborne-infantry capability, our current conceptual understanding of the RACT wouldn’t allow us to intuitively grasp its implication far enough in advance to structure trades and training to meet the requirements. This change of definition would allow for this future view.

I think Army must undergo some intense and challenging introspection about RACT and transport prior to the ECRM, or we risk having a lot of under exploited or underdeveloped (even stillborn) capabilities in the next ten years.