By Wing Commander Chris McInnes
Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare being held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, Chris McInnes examines the case for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) to develop a fully integrated expeditionary air wing capability to deal with the challenges offered by high-intensity warfare.
In introducing Plan Jericho to the world in 2015, then Chief of the RAAF Air Marshal Geoff Brown argued that the Royal Australian Air Force:
[n]eed[s] to evolve our techniques, tactics and procedures to work as a champion team, not a team of champions.
Brown’s distinction between a champion team and team of champions is a particularly important one for small air forces to consider as they ponder the requirements of high-intensity operations in a changing world. The tempo, complexity, and costs of high-intensity operations will sunder the seams of a team of champions.
Small air forces have had mercifully limited experience of this pressure because larger forces, generally the United States Air Force (USAF), have absorbed much of it. For the RAAF, a lacklustre command experience in the Second World War has been followed by niche contributions that operated as part of US-led combat air operations but in isolation from each other in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Australian officers have led these contributions and regional coalition operations, such as East Timor in 1999, and gained valuable knowledge as embeds in larger US headquarters. However, as a collective, Australia’s airmen have had little exposure to building a champion team to withstand the pressures of high-intensity warfare.
This is why Operation Okra’s air task group is so important. The dispatch of a self-deploying, self-sustaining air task group to the Middle East in September 2014 marked a departure from Australia’s experience of combat air operations. For the first time since the Second World War, Australian air power– the E-7A airborne early warning and control aircraft, KC-30A tankers, F/A-18F fighters, C-130J transports, air base, and enabling elements – contributed to the wider US-led operation as a coherent Australian team.
This team came together despite the lack of a common organisational concept or a well-prepared headquarters to facilitate their integration as an Australian champion team. The aircraft and air bases mentioned above reported to three separate chains of command: Air Task Group 630 commanded the E-7A, KC-30A, and F/A-18 elements while Joint Task Force 633 retained command, as separate units, of the C-130J aircraft and the air base elements in the Middle East. This organisational fragmentation was not helped by the fact that, according to the commander of the initial air task group and now Air Commander Australia Air Vice-Marshal Steve Roberton, the principal headquarters element responsible for integrating the separate capabilities ‘formed over there; [it] was not stood up before we deployed. In fact, people hadn’t even met.’
The friction-induced by the ad-hoc organisation and an under-prepared headquarters in September 2014 was overcome through the cooperation of quality personnel in stressful but controlled circumstances. These favourable conditions are unlikely to be present in high-intensity operations, and self-inflicted friction will only exacerbate uncontrollable external challenges, delaying and potentially preventing an Australian team of champions becoming a champion team when it matters most.
This article argues that invigorating and embedding the concepts and capabilities needed to operate as an expeditionary air wing is critical if Australian air power is to meet Brown’s challenge when it matters most. The article will argue that the wing is the critical expeditionary echelon for small air forces like the RAAF in high-intensity operations, outline why building expeditionary air wings may be difficult for the RAAF and draw upon British and Canadian experiences over the past decade to suggest some ways forward as a means of stimulating broader discussion.
First, ‘wing’ in this post means the lowest air power command echelon with the necessary resources – command, flying, maintenance, base services, and other enablers – to generate, apply, and sustain air power autonomously. The core concept of a wing is that it is the collective of multiple capabilities under a single commander that generates air power, not a specific number of aircraft, squadrons, or personnel. This historically-proven concept of a wing is flexible, scalable, and modular; not all wings need the full suite of enabling services, and it is entirely possible to have a wing with no permanent flying units. Importantly, wings can be defined by function or by geography depending on the circumstances – the Australian Air Component in the Middle East formed in 2009 was, in essence, a reorganisation of existing independent units to form a wing. Army personnel would recognise the concept of a wing as a combined arms formation, similar to a brigade.
The wing is the critical echelon for small air forces precisely because it is the lowest echelon capable of autonomous operations and command, either as part of a coalition force or independently. Even when an air and space operations centre (AOC) is available, the wing is where indispensable but often overlooked tactical planning, integration, and assessment occur to turn the AOC’s higher direction into executable plans. Much of the planning on operations and exercises, such as Red Flag and Diamond Storm – the RAAF Air Warfare Instructor Course’s (AWIC) final exercise – happens at the wing level because it is focused on integrating multiple capabilities to achieve a mission. In operations led by a larger partner, such as Okra, a wing enables a small air force to present a coherent, readily identifiable, force package that reduces integration costs on both sides. In more modest operations in which a small air force may lead a joint or combined force a wing headquarters can provide the command and control core, potentially obviating the need for a separate AOC. This latter point is especially crucial for small air forces whose expeditionary resources may mean a separate AOC is unaffordable and unnecessary, particularly in high-intensity operations that generate substantial homeland defence tasking and thereby limit the assets available for expeditionary operations.
High-intensity warfare reinforces the criticality of the wing for small forces because of the need for flexibility, agility, and resilience. When then-Commander US Pacific Air Forces, General Hawk Carlisle, argued for greater distribution of command and control functions that would see ‘the AOR [area of responsibility] […] become a CAOC,’ part of his vision, according to Lieutenant General David Deptula (ret’d) , was that wings would play a ‘role much more integral to a distributed [command and control] system than simply their historical force-provider role.’ Resilience is boosted by reducing air power’s dependence on a single node and allowing operations to continue despite degraded communications. Enhancing command and control capabilities at multiple points increases flexibility because each node is better able to integrate different forces or adapt to new missions. Agility is fostered by supporting concurrent and locally-focused activity across many organisations; USAF exercises indicate this distributed planning model can significantly accelerate the air operations planning process.
These rationales are apparent in Britain and Canada who have developed expeditionary air wings since 2006. The two countries have taken different paths, but both have made wings the foundations of their expeditionary forces, with required capabilities plugging into the wing framework as required. Britain has multiple standing expeditionary air wings drawn directly from Royal Air Force (RAF) stations, while Canada maintains two expeditionary wings at any given time. The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) has a permanent high-readiness expeditionary wing for contingency operations drawn from 2 Wing and one focused on longer-term operations that are drawn from the Air Force’s remaining wings on a rotating basis. An RAF colleague at the Australian Command and Staff College viewed the wing framework as so fundamental to expeditionary air operations that, after a presentation on the initial Okra deployment highlighted that capabilities were deployed without such a framework, he opined that “you Aussies do this air power thing upside down. Is that because you’re from the southern hemisphere?”
Australia’s apparently inverted approach to expeditionary air operations stems from a structure that is optimised for managing discrete capabilities rather than producing integrated air power packages. As Air Vice-Marshal (ret’d) Brian Weston has pointed out, the force element group (FEG) construct has many positives, and FEG played a crucial role in ensuring that the team of champions were ready for Operation Okra. However, the capability-defined FEG and their similarly defined subordinate wings mean that no two FEG or wings are alike and no FEG or wing is structured for, or practised in, leading an integrated expeditionary team in combat. The rise of FEG-aligned control centres and divisions in Australia’s standing AOC reinforces this separation because it drives cross-FEG integration up to the AOC (at least in a formal sense). These structural barriers to integration are reinforced by a cultural one that arises because personnel tend to ‘grow up’ through their own FEG and could reach very senior ranks with limited exposure to ‘other FEG.’ The lack of a ready and rehearsed wing headquarters for Operation Okra stemmed directly from a disaggregated organisation that is optimised for generating individual champions.
So how then to build the champion team necessary for high-intensity warfare? As Okra and other operations have demonstrated, almost all the pieces of an Australian expeditionary air wing already exist. The establishment of the Air Warfare Centre (AWC) to champion integration and develop the techniques and procedures for integrated tactics is an important step forward. Much work is already underway through Plan Jericho initiatives, the establishment of an Air Warfare School and AWIC, and integration-focused exercises such as the Diamond series and Northern Shield.
Integrated tactics and training courses, however, will count for little in high-intensity operations if they are executed by ad hoc organisations using personnel that have not met and whose usual focus is on managing the routine activities of individual capabilities. The RAAF’s positive steps towards integration must be complemented by efforts to build a collective organisational framework for expeditionary air power and the command and control capabilities at the core of that framework. An expeditionary operating concept and expeditionary headquarters focused on generating, applying, and sustaining integrated air power – a champion team – are essential to complement the disaggregated FEG construct that is so adept at building individual champions.
The articulation of a clear expeditionary operations concept with the expeditionary air wing at its heart would appear to be a relatively simple task. In 2016 the RCAF included a chapter in its capstone doctrine articulating how it delivers air power to joint or coalition commanders and in domestic or expeditionary settings. This chapter, which was not present in the 2010 edition, includes an air task force concept with an expeditionary air wing as its central operational element and discusses how these frameworks can be tailored to suit specific circumstances. Publicly available articles build on the doctrine chapter to explain the RCAF’s concept and rationale. The RAF explains expeditionary air wings on its public website and emphasises their central role in projecting British air power around the globe. The RAF declares that:
[t]he aim of [expeditionary air wings] is to […] generate a readily identifiable structure that is better able to deploy discrete units of agile, scalable, interoperable and capable air power.
Because of this investment in expeditionary air wings, British air power is expected to:
- To achieve greater operational synergy, delivering focused operational effects from the outset of a deployment;
- To generate a more cohesive trained audience;
- To engender more widely a greater understanding of the capability of air power;
- To achieve a more inclusive formation identity.
By contrast, Australian air power doctrine, including a 2009 publication focused on command and control, devotes more attention to the workings of the RAAF’s garrison structure than operational considerations and tends to description rather than explication. There is no distinction between expeditionary and domestic organisational considerations; ‘expeditionary’ appears only six times scattered across the 245 pages of the RAAF’s Air Power Manual, usually to describe units or capabilities. Discussion on air power command and control is confined to stating a preference for a senior airman to command air power and describing operational-level headquarters. The reader is left with a sense that the RAAF either does not have a clear idea of how it wants to organise integrated air power for a joint or coalition commander or is reluctant to express a view. This is undoubtedly implicit knowledge for many, but high-intensity warfare is not the time to discover that your implicit knowledge differs from the person next to you.
The RAAF should explicitly articulate its force presentation and organisation preferences, similar to the Canadian example. An outline of how future air task groups – centred on expeditionary air wings – would function and be organised, the available options, and the considerations that influence choices is necessary. Expressing a clear view on how to best organise and present an integrated air power team for operations in domestic and expeditionary settings is professional, not parochial. This conceptual framework should be widely accessible, preferably in a public document, to maximise the spread of this concept to Australian airmen and colleagues from other Services, agencies, and countries. A clear, and readily accessible, organisational concept underpins the ability of Australian air power to build a champion team quickly, particularly in the face of the pressure and friction of high-intensity operations.
The final element needed to rapidly form a champion team from the RAAF’s tactical champions is the commander and, crucially, staff. Commanding an expeditionary air wing is a problematic and vitally important challenge – particularly in high-intensity operations – that must be addressed by a coherent command crew that is trained and exercised to high levels of proficiency. Developing outstanding individuals to serve as commanders is vital but insufficient; they must be supported by adept staff to enable and execute their command responsibilities. Britain and Canada conduct training and exercises to build the expeditionary air wing headquarters team and equip the personnel in that team with the necessary skills and experience. They do so in a coherent and structured fashion to build teams that endure and are available to form the core of a headquarters for expeditionary operations. As a result, the RAF and RCAF are unlikely to confront the situation encountered by Australia’s air task group in 2014.
Generating these headquarters elements is likely to pose the greatest challenge for the RAAF to realise a coherent expeditionary air wing capability. The RAF and RCAF approaches will not transfer easily across because the personnel and capabilities needed to lead an expeditionary air wing must be drawn from multiple FEG, and no current RAAF headquarters aside from the AOC focuses on cross-FEG operational coordination. Current Australian practice for expeditionary air operations – the practice used for Operation Okra – is to nominate a commander for deploying forces, build a headquarters structure, and then endeavour to fill the identified positions with personnel on an individual basis. This ad-hoc approach to structures, processes, and staffing for expeditionary headquarters is how Roberton came to be equipped with a headquarters ‘that formed over there […] [with] people that hadn’t even met.’
There are many options to meet this requirement that require evaluation, but all will come at a cost. If dedicated organisations are not feasible, one approach that may minimise cost is to generate a standardised expeditionary headquarters staff structure and then fill the positions on a contingency basis with personnel from a single RAAF base. Each major base – Amberley, Williamtown, and Edinburgh – has the necessary personnel to form a viable headquarters element and aligning them by base would facilitate team building while reducing the impact on in-garrison duties. Rotating the responsibility around bases would spread the burden further. A standardised construct would enable training to be baselined and increase redundancy by enabling personnel from other bases to more readily supplement deploying teams. A permanent high-readiness wing, similar to the RCAF, could be considered to address short-notice contingencies and build expeditionary command and control expertise. RAAF Base Amberley’s resident air mobility and air base elements provide a sound basis for this high-readiness element.
However, the personnel needed belong to multiple FEG and have day jobs. Explicit direction from very senior levels would be necessary to ensure these cross-FEG teams can be formed, trained, exercised, and maintained in the face of competing priorities. These teams could be trained and given experience through a structured series of exercises and activities similar to the RAF and RCAF. They could also be given responsibilities for leading major exercises, such as the Diamond series, Pitch Black, and Talisman Sabre as certification activities. The force generation cycles of key expeditionary air wing elements – such as the headquarters, air base, and communications elements – could be aligned to maximise an expeditionary wing’s coherence upon deployment. This building block approach is similar to the Australian Army’s combat brigade force generation cycle, providing an opportunity to align force generation cycles and enhance readiness across the joint force.
Invigorating and embedding expeditionary air wing concepts and headquarters capabilities in Australian air power are essential for the RAAF to turn its team of champions into a champion team. An ability to deploy and fight as an expeditionary air wing from day one is vital for small air forces in high-intensity operations because combat effectiveness, resilience, and flexibility across multi-national forces must be optimised while national control and identity are assured. The RAAF’s history, structure, and culture presents challenges to this task, but there are ways forward, with much good work already underway. Clearly articulating how the RAAF intends to organise expeditionary air elements and building expeditionary leadership teams are the next steps needed to ensure the RAAF’s fifth-generation champions can fight and win as a champion team when it matters most.
Wing Commander Chris ‘Guiness’ McInnes is an officer in the Royal Australian Air Force and an editor of the Central Blue. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.
Header Image: An RAAF E-7A Wedgetail is silhouetted by the setting sun at the main logistics base in the Middle East during Operation Okra. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)
 Air Marshal Geoffrey Brown in Royal Australian Air Force, Plan Jericho: Connected – Integrated, (Canberra: Royal Australian Air Force, 2015), p. 1.
 Alan Stephens described the RAAF’s command and organisational experience in Europe during the Second World War as ‘an institutional disaster’ while he devoted an entire chapter (out of 16 in the book) to ‘The RAAF Command Scandal’ in the South West Pacific, see: Alan Stephens, The Australian Centenary History of Defence – Volume II: The Royal Australian Air Force (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 98, pp. 109-25. Further detail on the RAAF’s command performance in the South West Pacific is available in Norman Ashworth’s fittingly titled two-volume account: Norman Ashworth, How Not to Run an Air Force! The Higher Command of the Royal Australian Air Force during the Second World War – Volume 1 and Narrative (Canberra: Air Power Studies Centre, 2000).