2018: An Australian Space 2.0 Odyssey

2018: An Australian Space 2.0 Odyssey

By Squadron Leader Michael Spencer

These spacecraft are able to gather remote sensing information with radios and cameras, and are the sort of innovative space capability that can help meet many ground-based needs in ways that make sense for Australia. Because they have re-programmable software defined radios on board, we can change their purpose on the fly during the mission, which greatly improves the spacecraft’s functional capabilities for multiple use by Defence.[1]

Professor R Boyce, Chair for Space Engineering, UNSW Canberra (2017)

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and Defence Science Technology Group (DST) of the Australian Department of Defence have separately established partnerships with University of New South Wales (UNSW) Canberra which has resulted in a space program with one DST space mission already in orbit, one RAAF mission about to be launched. Additional follow-on missions are planned for each of RAAF and DST for launch in the near future. A combination of disruption in space technology, associated with ‘Space 2.0’ that makes space more accessible, and a commitment by UNSW Canberra to develop a space program, has delivered M1 as the first Australian space mission for the RAAF. These small satellite missions will provide research that will give a better understanding, for the current and future Defence workforce, of the potential opportunities for exploiting the space domain using Space 2.0 technology. As such, this article explores the move away from Space 1.0 to Space 2.0. While discussed in more detail below, broadly speaking, Space 2.0 relates to the reduced costs of accessing space and conducting space missions with commercial-off-the-shelf satellite components for lower-cost small satellites and mission payloads.

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A lunch-box sized satellites (CubeSats) for the Buccaneer and Biarri space missions. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)

The objective of the ADF’s employment of the space domain is to support a better military situation for the joint force in operations planned and conducted in the air, sea, ground, and information domains. Currently, ADF joint warfighting operations are critically dependent on large and expensive satellites that are owned and operated by commercial and allied service providers. As such, a Defence-sponsored university program is currently underway to explore the potential benefits of employing microsatellites as a lower-costing option to augment the capabilities traditionally fulfilled by the large-sized satellites. Furthermore, orbiting space-based sensors can view much larger areas of the Earth in a single scan than are possible with airborne sensors. Thus, a space-supported force element can observe, communicate, and coordinate multiple force elements dispersed over large areas in multiple theatres of operations. Finally, the transmission of signals above the atmosphere enables better communications between satellites, performed over long distances over the horizon without atmospheric attenuation effects, to enable better inter-theatre and global communications.

In the twentieth century, space missions were only affordable through government-funded projects. Government sponsored organisations and missions continued to grow in size and their capabilities. In retrospect, government agencies and space industry now refer to these large-sized, expensive, and complex mission systems as ‘Space 1.0’ technology.[2] As national space agendas drove the development of bigger space launch vehicles able to carry and launch larger payloads with one or more large satellites, changes in government funding priorities away from space lift services began to stifle innovation in space technology which remained as high-end and expensive technology. Recently, in the twenty-first century, the large government agencies looked to commercial industries to find ways to innovate and develop cheaper alternatives for launching and operating space missions. This resulted in the commercialisation of affordable access to space, now commonly referred to as Space 2.0; an industry-led evolution that is generating more affordable commercial alternatives for space launch services and operations management, reusable space launch vehicles and, significantly, miniaturised satellite technology.[3] For example, in 1999, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and Stanford University’s Space Systems Development Lab developed the CubeSat standard, prescribed for the pico- and nanosatellite classes of microsatellites.[4] The CubeSat initiative was initially pursued to enable affordable access to reduce the barriers for university students to access space. CubeSat was initially designed to offer a small, inexpensive, and standardised satellite system to support university student experiments.

CubeSat modules are based on building up a satellite with a single or a multiple number of the smallest unitary 10cm cube module, referred to as a ‘1U’ CubeSat, i.e. a picosatellite.[5] This basic building block approach has enabled a standardisation in satellite designs and launchers. Each 1U can weigh up to 1.5 kg[6]; a ‘6U’ CubeSat, i.e. a nanosatellite, measures 30cm x 20cm x 10cm, six times a 1U and weighs up to twelve kilograms[7]. Microsatellites are typically comprised of a standardised satellite chassis and bus loaded with an onboard computer, ‘star tracker’ subsystem to measure satellite orientation, hardware to control satellite attitude and antenna pointing in orbit, solar power subsystem, communications subsystem, a deployable mechanism actuator for unfolding the solar panels and antennas, and the mission payload, i.e. mission-related sensors, cameras, radio transmitter/receiver and the suchlike.

Microsatellite projects exploit commonly available Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) technology to reduce costs and development schedules, even in military mission systems. The use of COTS technology enables a simplified plug-and-play approach to microsatellite engineering and design. By having pre-made, interchangeable and standardised components, microsatellite designs can be rapidly assembled, tested, evaluated, and modified until an acceptable solution is realised. Agile manufacturing methods such as 3D printing can further reduce the time taken to engineer and manufacture a viable operational microsatellite design.[8]

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The Buccaneer miniature satellite CubeSat at the UNSW Canberra satellite research laboratory at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra on 17 October, 2016.(Source: Australian Department of Defence)

The CubeSat model has become a commonly accepted standard for low-cost, low-altitude orbit, and short duration space missions. Microsatellites are relatively cheaper, more flexible in mission designs, and can be built more rapidly when compared to larger satellites, and can be replaced on-orbit more frequently, thereby taking advantage of recent technological innovation. Their small size can also exploit spare spaces in the payload section of the launch vehicles that are scheduled and funded mainly for larger satellites. This is commonly referred to as a ‘rideshare’ or ‘piggyback.’ The challenge for the designers of such ‘piggyback’ missions is to find a suitable launch event with a date and planned orbit that matches the readiness and mission of the microsatellite.

Space 2.0 evolution has realised commercial alternatives to the traditional space mission designs that used heavy satellites launched from heavy rockets. These smaller and cheaper rockets have been specifically designed to launch lighter payloads of microsatellites. In 2017, an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle using a PSLV-C37 heavy-lift rocket set a world record in lifting 104 small satellites into orbit in a single space launch event. As the Times of India reported:

India scripted a new chapter in the history of space exploration with the successful launch of a record 104 satellites by ISRO’s [Indian Space Research Organisation] Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle in a single mission. Out of the total 104 satellites placed in orbit, 101 satellites belonged to six foreign countries. They included 96 from the US and one each from Israel, the UAE, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Kazakhstan.[9]

The growing maturity and expanding capabilities of CubeSat systems have seen a growing acceptance beyond university users. For example, DST and UNSW Canberra are designing, building, and testing microsatellite designs for space missions to meet Defence needs in Australia.

Space 2.0 standards and microsatellites are not intended to replace the traditional large satellites deployed into higher altitude orbit missions. Large and small-sized satellites each offer different benefits and limitations. Large satellites can collect information with higher fidelity when configured with bigger optical and radiofrequency apertures, with room available for better pointing control subsystem, larger and more powerful on-board computing systems, and multiple mission, all needing a larger power subsystem. Alternatively, disaggregating space missions across different small satellites, deployed into a large constellation, may be more survivable to environmental hazards and resilient to interference in a contested environment.

Small satellite missions can now fulfil the potential mission needs of military, commercial operators, scientists and university students. Microsatellites have already been employed for communications, signals intelligence, environmental monitoring, geo-positioning, observation and targeting. They can perform similar functions as larger satellites, albeit with a much smaller power source and reduced effective ranges for transmitters and electro-optical devices. They are easier and cheaper to make and launch for a short-term, low-Earth orbit mission. This is ideal for employing space missions to improve ADF capabilities on the ground.

Defence has partnered with UNSW Canberra, including ‘UNSW Canberra Space’ – a team of space academics and professionals – to collaborate in space research, engineering, and mission support services with Space 2.0 satellite technology in space missions for DST and RAAF. When combined with new and agile manufacturing techniques, these microsatellite missions provide the ADF with opportunities to test and evaluate potential options for operationally responsive space capabilities.

UNSW Canberra has already built the ‘Buccaneer Risk Mitigation Mission’ (BRMM) as its inaugural microsatellite space mission, in partnership with DST.[10] In November 2017, NASA successfully launched BRMM from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. BRMM is a collaboration, in both the project engineering project and space mission management, between DST and UNSW Canberra to jointly fly and operate the first Australian developed and operated defence-science mission. BRMM is currently operational in low-Earth orbit, at a height above the ionosphere which is a dynamic phenomenon that changes with space weather effects and the Sun’s position.

The importance of this orbit is that the RAAF is dependent on the ionosphere to enable functioning of its Jindalee Operational Radar Network (JORN) systems, which is a crucial component of a national layered surveillance network that provides coverage of Australia’s northern approaches.[11] The JORN coverage and system performance are critically dependent on the ionosphere. The BRMM satellite is configured with a high-frequency receiver to measure the JORN signal that passes through the ionosphere. These signal measurements allow DST scientists and engineers to study the quality of JORN’s transmitted beam and signal, and the propagation of High Frequency (HF) radio waves that pass skywards through the ionosphere. BRMM was planned with a one-year mission-life but could stay in orbit for up to five years, depending on space weather effects and atmospheric drag.[12] BRMM is also a risk reduction activity for the ‘Buccaneer Main Mission’ (BMM) as a follow-on space mission.[13] BRMM will provide space data on how spacecraft interact with the orbital environment, to improve the satellite design for BMM, and also provide mission experience that can be used to improve the operation of the BMM. The BMM will also be used to calibrate the JORN high-frequency signals but will use an improved payload design, based on a heritage of BRMM. BMM is planned for a launch event in 2020.

This space odyssey pursued by UNSW Canberra is also bringing direct benefits to RAAF. The UNSW Canberra space program includes parallel efforts to develop three CubeSats, funded by RAAF, for two separate missions in separate events. These space missions will support academic research into the utility of microsatellites, configured with a small-sized sensor payload, for a maritime surveillance role. The first mission, ‘M1,’ will deploy a single CubeSat, currently scheduled to share a ride with a US launch services provider in mid-November 2018.[14] UNSW Canberra will continue the program and develop a second mission, ‘M2,’ which is planned to deploy two formation-flying, with inter-satellite communications, in a single space mission in 2019. The M1 and M2 missions will support research and education for space experts in Defence, and UNSW Canberra, to further explore and realise new possibilities with Space 2.0 technologies.

To conclude, the advent of Space 2.0 has reduced cost barriers and complexity to make access to space missions and space lift more affordable for more widespread uses. The increased affordability of space technology has helped to demystify mission systems and increase the interests and understanding of the potential opportunities for Space 2.0 missions as alternatives to more expensive and more complex space missions. Additionally, Space 2.0 enables agility in the design phase for the rapid development of new and viable concepts for space missions hitherto not possible with Space 1.0 technology. Space 2.0 evolution makes it possible for ADF to consider affordable space options; UNSW Canberra’s knowledge and technical achievements in space engineering and operations, with DST for Buccaneer and RAAF for M1 and M2, will provide critical research for considering the potential for new space missions for Australia.

Squadron Leader Michael Spencer is an Officer Aviation (Maritime Patrol & Response), currently serving in the RAAF Air Power Development Centre, analysing potential risks and opportunities posed by technology change drivers and disruptions to the future employment of air and space power. His Air Force career has provided operational experiences in long-range maritime patrol, aircrew training, and weaponeering, and management experiences in international relations, project management in air and space systems acquisitions, space concepts development, and joint force capability integration. He is an Australian Institute of Project Management certified project manager and also an Associate Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defence, Royal Australian Air Force, or the Government of Australia. The Commonwealth of Australia will not be legally responsible in contract, tort or otherwise, for any statements made in this document.

Header Image: Lunch-box sized satellites (CubeSats) used for the Buccaneer and Biarri space missions. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)

[1] UNSW Sydney, ‘RAAF invests $10 million in UNSW Canberra Space missions,’ UNSW Newsroom (2017).

[2] F. Burke, ‘Space 2.0: bringing space tech down to Earth,’ The Space Review, 27 April 2009.

[3] Ibid.

[4] NASA, ‘CubeSat 101 – Basic Concepts and Process for First-Time CubeSat Developers,’ NASA CubeSat Launch Initiative, NASA Website, 2017.

[5] ‘What are SmallSats and CubeSats?,’ NASA Website, 2015.

[6] Cubesat, 1U-3U CubeSat Design Specification, Revision 13, The CubeSat Program, 2014.

[7] Cubesat, 6U CubeSat Design Specification, Revision 1.0, The CubeSat Program, 2018.

[8] European Space Agency, ‘Ten Ways 3D Printing Could Change Space,’ Space Engineering & Technology, 2014.

[9] U. Tejonmayam, ‘ISRO creates history, launches 104 satellites in one go,’ The Times of India, 15 February 2017.

[10] H. Kramer, ‘Buccaneer CubeSat Mission,’ eoPortal Directory, 2017.

[11] Royal Australia Air Force, ‘Jindalee Operational Radar Network,’ 2018.

[12] Kramer, loc cit.

[13] Ibid.

[14] UNSW Canberra, ‘M1 satellite on track for September launch,’ 2018.

#BookReview – Routledge Handbook of Air Power

#BookReview – Routledge Handbook of Air Power

By Dr Ross Mahoney

John Andreas Olsen (ed.), Routledge Handbook of Air Power. Abingdon: Routledge, 2018. References. Index. xix + 405 pp. Hbk.

Hanbook of Air Power

It is often challenging to name a single person who is a critical figure within any discipline, and as I reflected here, this is also the case with air power studies if such a discipline exists. Despite this, one individual who has made an indelible impact on air power studies over the past couple of decades is Colonel Professor John Andreas Olsen. As well as publishing several studies on Operation DESERT STORM and Colonel John Warden III, Olsen has successfully published a series of edited works that have focused on several aspects of air power. The importance of these works is that Olsen has been able to bring together leading scholars to write about critical themes concerning the use and development of air power. In this latest edited volume, Olsen has, once again, brought together a line-up of prominent scholars and military practitioners who are at the forefront of researching air power.

This book seeks to ‘improve knowledge of and insight into the phenomena of aerospace power.’ (p. 8) Indeed, as Olsen reflects, air power is more than just ‘aircraft, weapons systems and bombing.’ (p. 5) Recognising this, Olsen further notes that any analysis of air power must also encompass, though not limited to, issues such as ‘training, education, values, rules of engagement, leadership, adaptability, boldness in execution, and a range of other factors, tangible and non-tangible, that influence a military operation.’ (p. 5) It is around this broad definition that this book is designed. The book’s design reflects Sir Michael Howard’s sage words that military history, and by default military affairs in general, should be studied in breadth, depth, and context. As such, the book is split into five sections that in turn deal with themes related to Howard’s advice. In providing a coherent pedagogical purpose to the book, Olsen has at least tried to provide some form and flow to the volume, which can often be a challenging prospect with any edited book.

The first section deals with the essence of air power and provides the breadth aspect for this volume. The section consists of six chapters dealing with air power anatomy, theory, history, high command, science and technology and ethics and international law. Each author is well placed to write their respective chapters, and each provides a useful overview of his subject. For example, Peter Gray provides an excellent strategic overview of the critical trajectory of air power history (pp. 70-80) while Philip Meilinger (pp. 35-45) discusses some of the essential themes evident in one hundred years or so of air power theory.

The second and third sections provide the depth to this volume by exploring critical aspects related to the delivery and application of air power. It is in these sections where we see the greatest mix between academics and military practitioners in the volume. Of the 12 contributors to these sections, seven are currently serving officers ranging from a two-star officer, Air Vice-Marshal Richard Knighton of the Royal Air Force (RAF) through to two Wing Commanders from the Royal Australian Air Force, Travis Hallen and Chris McInnes.  The first section on delivering air power focuses on issues such as control of the air, command and control and logistics. It is good to see the latter included as it is clear, as Knighton concludes, that the logistical requirements of air power are not ‘well understood.’ (p. 151) The section on applying air power deals with the integration of air power with the other domains including space and cyber and each provides a good overview of the issues related to these topics.

Exercise Pitch Black 18
A Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18F Super Hornet from No. 1 Squadron (top) in formation with a SU-30MKI Flanker aircraft from the Indian Air Force during Exercise Pitch Black 18.(Source: Australian Department of Defence)

The final two sections provide the context to this volume by exploring issues related to the political-social-economic environment in which air power operates as well as a section on national case studies. The latter section includes some interesting selections including chapters on Indian, Pakistani, Brazilian and Japanese air power. Some might argue that chapters should have been included that dealt with, for example, the US, UK, and other European nations. However, this book needs to be read in conjunction with other edited volumes by Olsen, such as Global Air Power (2011) and European Air Power (2014) where you will find chapters dealing with these nations. As such, it makes a refreshing change to see other examples included in this volume. The section on the political-social-economic environment includes some exciting chapters dealing with the political effect of air power and coercive diplomacy. As Michael Clarke (p. 237) argues, air power is a potent weapon but needs to be used carefully to help achieve a political effect. This view is mirrored by Karl Mueller who notes that ‘aerial bombing was not a panacea for preventing wars.’ (p. 252) Indeed, perhaps the critical criticism of air power thinkers has been their overestimation of the capability available to them as well as the place of military aviation within the toolbox of national power.

While there is much to praise in this work, there are no doubt some gaps that require some reflection. The first is a comment on authors, and this is not so much a direct criticism of the book but rather a comment on the state of the discipline at this moment in time. The book has been authored entirely by male academics or serving officers who, as already noted, are eminently qualified to write their various contributions. However, the lack of female contributors is disappointing especially as there are female academics and serving personnel writing about air power. Indeed, the issue of male dominance of the discipline is one we are well aware of here at From Balloons to Drones – all the editors and assistant editors are men. Indeed, at From Balloons to Drones we hope to continue to offer opportunities for all to contribute to the discussion about air power. Building on the above reflection is also the fact that each of the authors in this volume has some form of relationship with the military. They are either serving or retired officers, teach, or have taught within the professional military education (PME) ecosystem, or work for a think-tank associated with the military, such as RAND. If this sample of authors in this volume is indicative of the discipline, then the study of air power still struggles from the problem identified 20 years ago by John Ferris who wrote that:

[those studying air power are either] the children of airmen, have been military personnel themselves, and have been employed at a historical office or service school in Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, or the United States.[1]If this remains the case, there remains an open question as to how we broaden out the discipline to avoid accusations such as the weaponisation of the past. Linked to this, of course, is the question of what a broader and more diverse perspective on air power would bring to the discipline.

Regarding content, several areas could have further strengthened this volume. For example, it is curious that the quote above concerning what encompasses the study of air power begins with training and education; however, neither subject is present in this volume. Concerning education, its omission is even more curious given the focus on the so-called conceptual component in programmes such as the RAF’s Thinking to Win, Plan Jericho in Australia, and the Royal Canadian Air Force’s Airpower in Formation. Interestingly, and perhaps indicative of the perceived importance of this volume, there is a paperback version of this book that has been produced in conjunction with the RAF’s Centre for Air and Space Power Studies and includes the Thinking to Win logo. However, as Meilinger reflected in his chapter, ‘[N]eeded are airmen well grounded in all aspects of air warfare, including the theoretical.’ (p. 44) If this is the case, then it follows that the provision of high-quality air power education is critical, and a chapter on this subject would have been valuable. Other chapters that could have been included include the culture of air forces and leadership as opposed to Stephens’ (pp. 24-34) focus on high-command. Indeed, it is often remarked that air forces are somehow different to army and navies in their outlook. If this is the case, then an examination of the culture of air forces and issues such as leadership would have further enriched this volume.

Overall, despite my criticisms above, this is an excellent and essential contribution to our understanding of air power. As noted, the pedagogic layout of the book helps give the volume purpose that leads the reader through many critical issues related to air power. As such, while the book’s primary market will undoubtedly be serving air force personnel involved in PME and training activities, there is enough in this volume that other interested readers will gain much from this collection.

[1] John R. Ferris, ‘Review Article – The Air Force Brats’ View of History: Recent Writing and the Royal Air Force, 1918–1960,’ The International History Review, 20:1 (1998), p. 119

Dr Ross Mahoney is the Editor of From Balloons to Drones and is an independent historian and defence specialist based in Australia. Between 2013 and 2017, he was the resident Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum, and he is a graduate of the University of Birmingham (MPhil and PhD) and the University of Wolverhampton (PGCE and BA). His research interests include the history of war in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, air power and the history of air warfare, and the social and cultural history of armed forces. To date, he has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.

Header Image: An RAF F-35B Lightning from No. 617 Squadron stationed at RAF Marham. This aircraft is performing a hover manoeuvre during the Royal International Air Tattoo in 2018. (Source: UK MoD Defence Imagery)

The Role of History in Educating Air Power Strategists

The Role of History in Educating Air Power Strategists

By Dr Ross Mahoney

Editorial Note: On 19 September 2018, our editor, Dr Ross Mahoney delivered a paper on the subject of ‘The Role of History in Educating Air Power Strategists’ at a seminar organised by the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) Air Power Development Centre in Canberra. A precis of this paper was published in the Pathfinder bulletin issued by APDC, which can be found here. The Pathfinder series covers a range of issue from strategy, historical analyses, operations, administration, logistics, education and training, people, command and control, technology to name a few. Irrespective of the subject though, Pathfinders will always be focused on the relevance to air power; they are not intended to be just a narrative but deliver a measure of analysis. Apart from the addition of some minor changes to make this precis applicable to From Balloons to Drones as well as the inclusion of footnotes and further reading suggestions, this article appears as published in Pathfinder. We are grateful to APDC for permission to re-publish the piece, and the views in this article and the associated Pathfinder are not necessarily those of the RAAF.

‘[t]he study of military history lies at the foundation of all sound military conclusions and practice.’

Rear-Admiral A.T. Mahan, ‘The Naval War College,’ The North American Review, (1912)[1]

‘The word history carries two meanings […] It refers both to what actually happened in the past and to the representation of that past in the work of historians.’

John Tosh, The Pursuit of History, Third Edition, (1999)[2]

What is history? What is its relevance to an air power strategist? These are important questions; however, as Richard Muller, a senior member of the faculty at the US Air Force’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, reflected in 2016, ‘as a rule air forces have not embraced historical study to the same extent as have their army or navy counterparts.’[3] Nevertheless, in 1912, a year after an Italian aeroplane dropped the first ‘bomb’ over Libya, noted US naval historian and strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan reflected on the link between military history and ‘sound military conclusions.’ However, history does not provide clear lessons. Nevertheless, the study of the past does offer a lens through which to analyse, understand and reflect on the challenges currently faced by modern air forces.

Air Corps Tactical School
The Air Corps Tactical School (created as the Air Service Field Officers School in 1920) went beyond its mandate of training officers to also become an engine for air power theory development in the interwar period. (Source: US Air Force Air University)

This article considers some of the issues related to applied military history beginning with an outline of the purpose of history and the challenges of applying the past to the present. It also considers how air forces have used the study of the past as a tool for education while concluding with some tentative thoughts on how history can be used to educate strategists in the continuing challenge to achieve professional mastery.[4]

To start with, the term ‘education’ is used in this narrative in a broad context and incorporates both formal and informal learning. Similarly, the term ‘strategist’ is used in a collegiate manner and assumes that modern air forces seek personnel who are professional masters, well-versed in the core knowledge that underpins the application of air power.

As the British historian John Tosh reflected, the term history is ambiguous at best. Is history a collection of facts related to what has happened or is it the scholarly discussion and representation of the past? If the latter statement is accepted as being correct, then it can also be assumed that the interpretation of the past is an argument without an end. While a hackneyed observation, history is a dynamic field of study, one where historians continually re-examine evidence and reinterpret the past. Linked to this is the extent of historical information available to historians and, by default, strategists who seek to apply lessons from the past to the present. The archival records and evidence that underpin the interpretation of the past are normally incomplete. For example, the National Archives of Australia only preserves a small amount of the material generated by the Australian Government.

Moving beyond the above understanding of history, the field of military history can be split into three subfields: popular, academic, and applied history.[5] There is a degree of overlap between the latter two. The main criticism of applied military history is that it is a form of weaponising the past to cater for the present.[6] Underpinning this criticism is a view that those writing such history do so without sufficient understanding of the context in seeking to deduce lessons learnt. Unfortunately, this criticism is currently directed at academics working at institutions delivering professional military education. These institutions use history to illuminate and provide context to the ambiguous challenges that officers attending them are likely to confront in the future.

Historically, the criticism of weaponising the past does carry some weight, and therefore air power strategists could be criticised for the poor use of history to support their arguments. Indeed, as Sir Michael Howard, a distinguished military historian, noted in his 1961 lecture on ‘The Use and Abuse of Military History’:

[W]hen great [interwar] pioneers of air war…advocated striking at the homeland and at the morale of the enemy people…they were basing their conclusions on their interpretation of past wars’. (emphasis added)[7]

Warden

More recently, Colonel (retired) John Warden III’s book, The Air Campaign, has been criticised for his use of a selective reading of history to fit the theory being propounded in it.[8] Admittedly, Warden is not a historian. However, such selective use of history becomes problematic to the broader task of delivering professional education when such texts appear in, for example, Staff College reading lists where they can reinforce a narrow, and at times wrong, understanding of some of the officers they are meant to educate. Despite this criticism, it is clear that many air power thinkers have recognised the value of a broad reading of history. For example, in a 1921 article on ‘Strategy and Air Strategy,’ Group Captain John Chamier of the Royal Air Force reflected on the challenge of deducing appropriate principles for the use of air power given the brief history of air warfare till then. Nevertheless, Chamier recognised that ‘strategic principles are derived from the study of history’, and he recognised that examples from ‘naval and military strategy’ could provide the necessary framework for a discussion of ‘air strategy.’[9]

While history and the application of its lessons by air forces is fraught with challenges, its importance as a didactic tool for the military cannot be underestimated. Indeed, the study of history has been, and remains, an element of the curricula at educational establishments of most air forces. However, considered in a broad manner, the study of history has been unbalanced. For example, in the late-1940s and 1950s, history and related subjects featured little on the curriculum at the RAAF College. As Alan Stephens has noted, the RAAF of this period identified itself as a ‘narrow technocracy’ with knowledge of the Air Force’s core business to be deduced from its ‘technical components’ rather than a ‘study of its history and ideas.’[10]

To conclude, there are several areas where the contemporary study of history plays a key role in the education of air power theorists and strategists. Perhaps most important is that a deep and contextual study of history provides an important understanding for military personnel seeking to gain professional mastery of the profession of arms. Indeed, if it is accepted that the aim of learning is to develop the cognitive ability to understand and deal with ambiguity, rather than to provide clear-cut answers to current problems, then the study of history has a role to play.

The skills associated with historical analysis refines human cognitive areas such as the ability to make considered judgements. An important contributor to the effectiveness of this learning process has been the increasing civilianisation of the academic delivery at institutions catering to professional military education. At a practical level, the use of Staff Rides as a learning tool could also ensure that history could be used as a means to explore ideas outside of the confines of the traditional education environment. However, this process also has its own challenges.[11] In the final analysis, Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely’s remark that the study of history needs to form an essential part of a ‘balanced diet’ of education for the military professional in order for them to develop the knowledge to be effective, rings completely true.[12]

Key Points

  1. Even though history may not provide clear lessons, the study of the past offers a lens through which to analyse, understand and reflect on the challenges currently faced by modern air forces;
  2. History could be considered a rather dynamic field of study, one where historians continually re-examine evidence and re-interpret the past;
  3. It is recognised that ‘strategic principles are derived from the study of history.’

Further Reading

  • Gray, Peter, ‘Why Study Military History?,’ Defence Studies, 5:1 (2005), pp. 151-64.
  • Muller, Richard R., ‘The Airpower Historian and the Education of Strategists’ in Bailey Jr., Richard J., Forsyth Jr., James W., and Yeisley, Mark O., (eds.), Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016).
  • Murray, Williamson, and Sinnreich, Richard Hart (eds.), The Past as Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Dr Ross Mahoney is the editor and owner of From Balloons to Drones as well as being an independent historian and defence specialist based in Australia. He is a graduate of the University of Birmingham (MPhil and PhD) and the University of Wolverhampton (PGCE and BA). His research interests include the history of war in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, air power and the history of air warfare, and the social and cultural history of armed forces. To date, he has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. He is an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.

Header Image: An Architect’s perspective drawing of the proposed RAF (Cadet) College at Cranwell. (Source: © IWM ((MOW) C 1081))

[1] Rear-Admiral A.T. Mahan, ‘The Naval War College,’ The North American Review, 196:680 (1912), p. 78.

[2] John Tosh, The Pursuit of History: Aims, Methods and New Directions in the Study of Modern History, Third Edition (Harlow: Pearson Education, 1999), p. viii.

[3] Richard R. Muller, ‘The Airpower Historian and the Education of Strategists’ in Richard J. Bailey Jr., James W. Forsyth Jr., and Mark O. Yeisley (eds.), Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016), p. 113.

[4] On professional mastery in air forces, see: Sanu Kainikara, ‘Professional Mastery and Air Power Education,’ Working Paper, 33 (Canberra: RAAF Air Power Development Centre, 2011).

[5] John A. Lynn III, ‘Breaching the Walls of Academe: The Purposes, Problems, and Prospects of Military History,’ Academic Questions, 21:1 (2008), p. 20.

[6] Kim Wagner, ‘Seeing Like a Soldier: The Amritsar Massacre and the Politics of Military History,’ in Martin Thomas and Gareth Curless (eds), Decolonization and Conflict: Colonial Comparisons and Conflicts (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), pp. 25-7.

[7] Michael Howard, ‘The Use and Abuse of Military History (lecture),’ Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, 107:625 (1962), p. 10.

[8] John Andreas Olsen, John Warden and the Renaissance of American Air Power (Washington DC: Potomac Books, 2007), pp. 78-9. In a similar vein to Warden, Colonel John Boyd’s work ‘cherry-picked’ history ‘to provide illustrations and empirical validation for patterns he observed in combat.’ However, it should be recognised that Boyd was an airman who was a general strategist rather than an air power thinker per se, though his ideas do have applicability to the air domain. See: Frans Osinga, ‘The Enemy as a Complex Adaptive System: John Boyd and Airpower in the Postmodern Era’ in John Andreas Olsen (ed.), Airpower Reborn: The Strategic Concepts of John Warden and John Boyd (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2015), pp. 53-4.

[9] Group Captain J.A. Chamier, ‘Strategy and Air Strategy,’ Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, 66 (1921), p. 641.

[10] Alan Stephens, The Australian Centenary History of Defence: Volume II – The Royal Australian Air Force (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 188.

[11] On the challenges associated with staff rides, see: Brigadier R.A.M.S. Melvin British Army, ‘Contemporary Battlefield Tours and Staff Rides: A Military Practitioner’s View,’ Defence Studies, 5:1 (2005), pp. 59-80,Nick Lloyd, ‘Battlefield Tours and Staff Rides: A Useful Learning Experience?,’ Teaching in Higher Education, 14:2 (2009), pp. 175-84.

[12] John P. Kiszely, ‘The Relevance of History to the Military Profession: A British View’ in Williamson Murray and Richard Hart Sinnreich (eds.), The Past as Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 32.

The Downfall of the Red Baron: Lessons Learned from the First World War ‘Ace of Aces’

The Downfall of the Red Baron: Lessons Learned from the First World War ‘Ace of Aces’

By Squadron Leader Michael Spencer

Baron Manfred von Richthofen was killed in air combat on 21 April 1918. He was unequalled in having shot down 80 enemy aircraft in aerial combat during the First World War to become the most famous ‘Ace of Aces’ in the early history of air combat. He was the pride of the German Imperial Army and respected by military aviation historians as the ‘Red Baron.’ A study of Richthofen’s aerial victories highlights the importance of critical thinking to identify and repeat the rules for success in aerial dogfighting. Evidence-based analyses of his behaviours and medical forensics in the months before his death indicate how the war may have been exacting an increasing toll on his judgement and decision-making abilities. The combination of seemingly discrete events that occurred during on 21 April triggered his abnormal behaviours and poor decisions, which had an accumulative effect that led to his ultimate downfall.

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Flying officers attached to Rittmeister Manfred Freiherr Von Richthofen’s squadron, Jasta 11, c. April 1917. Richthofen himself is seated in the Albatros D.III. aircraft. From left to right: standing: unidentified (possibly Leutnant Karl Allmenroeder); Hans Hintsch; Vizfeldwebel Sebastian Festner; Leutnant Karl Emil Schaefer; Oberleutnant Kurt Wolff; Georg Simon; Leutnant Otto Brauneck. Sitting: Esser; Krefft; Leutnant Lothar von Richthofen, younger brother of Manfred. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

Manfred von Richthofen and Learning Lessons

The British called him the ‘Red Baron’, the French scorned him as the ‘le diable rouge’ (Red Devil) while his 1917 autobiography was called Der Rote Kampfflieger, which broadly translates as the ‘Red Battle Flyer.’[1] F.M. Cutlack, the official historian of the Australian Flying Corps (AFC), described him as the ‘star of stars in the German Air Force.’[2] On 21 April 1918, Richthofen pursued a Royal Flying Corps Sopwith Camel low over enemy-controlled territory, breaking one of his fundamental air combat maxims, and was fatally wounded. Until then, Richthofen had strictly followed Dicta Boelcke and his critical-thinking of air combat to be scorned, feared, and respected as the highest scoring air ace of the First World War.[3]

The quality of the box matters little. Success depends upon the man who sits in it.

Manfred von Richthofen, ‘The Red Battle Flyer,’ para. 182.

One of the reasons behind his significant success in air combat was his adherence to doctrinal maxims that guided his judgements in deciding when and how he would enter an action in the battlespace and engage a target. The Dicta Boelcke was named after their developer: Oswald Boelcke, Germany’s first air ace, with a total of forty victories. While early aircraft commanders were still seeking to understand roles for aircraft as the newest war machines to enter the battlespace, Boelcke is recognised as being one of the first fighter aces to apply critical thinking to air combat. Boelcke drew on his observations in air combat, reviewed his successes and failures, and critically analysed them to identify the critical decision points, ethical behaviours, and practical tactics that he considered would lead to repeated successes in the air. Boelcke tested and evaluated his air combat rules before recommending them as ‘rules for success’ that should be applied by other German pilots when flying into air combat as individuals or as a group in a squadron.

Boelcke promoted his lessons-learned as dicta to increase the chance of success in air combat by the pilots under his command, especially those who were new and inexperienced. His aerial warfighting principles were endorsed by the German Army to all its airmen, as Dicta Boelcke. After Richthofen was assigned to serve in Boelke’s squadron, Boelke became Richthofen’s mentor, instructor, squadron commander, and close friend. Richthofen became a keen practitioner of Dicta Boelcke.

We were all beginners. None of us had had a success so far. Consequently, everything that Boelcke told us, was to us, gospel truth.

Manfred von Richthofen, ‘The Red Battle Flyer,’ para. 109.

Richthofen fully embraced Dicta Boelcke and, after gaining his own experiences in aerial combat, he learned to apply his critical-thinking to identify his maxims to improve and complement his list of successful air combat tactics doctrine. One of his doctrinal maxims to complement Dicta Boelcke was to ‘never obstinately stay with an opponent’ or, having initiated a dogfight in favourable circumstances, know when to break off the attack when the situation has changed and is no longer favourable. He did not adhere to this principle, later, in his final mission.

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General von Falkenhayn and Richthofen inspecting a Fokker triplane. Mr A.H.G. Fokker is seated in the cockpit and General von Falkenhayn is on his right. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

Richthofen’s Final Mission

On 21 April 1918, Richthofen pursued a British Sopwith Camel piloted by novice Canadian pilot, Lieutenant Wilfrid May of No. 209 Squadron. May had just fired on the Richthofen’s cousin, Lieutenant Wolfram von Richthofen. On seeing his cousin being attacked, Richthofen flew to aid his cousin and engaged May, causing the latter to disengage from his dogfight with Wolfram. In turn, Richthofen was attacked by another Sopwith Camel piloted by Canadian Captain Arthur ‘Roy’ Brown. Richthofen successfully evaded his attacker and, even though his Spandau machine guns had now jammed and could only be fired manually, resulting in single shots, he decided to resume his pursuit of May.

Richthofen was known to be very calculating in his observations of air battles before deciding when and whom to engage. Engagement only occurred when circumstances were likely to result in a favourable outcome. On this day, Richthofen’s judgment might have been affected by wanting to pursue the attacker who threatened his cousin, despite the circumstances – going against the aforementioned dicta that he considered critical for air combat success. Additionally, Richthofen had a reputation of being a skilled hunter on the ground with a single-shot rifle, and he may have decided that a victory with a single-shot Spandau machine gun be well within his capabilities and would significantly enhance his reputation and the morale of his flying Jasta.

May sought to escape Richthofen by rapidly descending to fly low across the front line into Allied-held territory. May later explained that his aircraft guns had jammed while being pursued and unable to out-manoeuvre Richthofen, he decided to fly low across the ridge into friendly territory, to ‘make a dash for a landing as his only hope.’[4] Eyewitness accounts reported seeing the Richthofen pursue May down to rooftop heights over the nearby village, which had a church with a bell-tower, and hearing the repeated cracking sounds of single gunshots coming from the aerial pursuit as the aircraft passed.

Richthofen appeared to decide to break one of his fundamental rules that he had previously applied so consistently in air combat by persisting in chasing May without regard for the new dangers arising around him. Richthofen was now flying low over Allied-held territory, with a strong easterly wind causing his aircraft to drift further behind enemy lines, and he was now flying low enough to be within the range of the Australian machine-gunners watching from the trenches. Richthofen seemed to have lost his situational awareness in focusing on May. Richthofen was then observed by the gunners in the trenches to fly up suddenly as if suddenly recognising the new dangers around him and only then decided to break off his pursuit of May – but it was too late. While pulling-up to ascend to a higher altitude above the trenches and ground troops, Richthofen was fatally struck by a single .303 round

He who gets excited in fighting is sure to make mistakes. He will never get his enemy down.

Manfred von Richthofen, ‘The Red Battle Flyer,’ para. 137.

Mortally wounded, Richthofen managed to execute a controlled crash landing, on the Australian-held battleground, before dying in the cockpit. Australian soldiers were quick to attend the crash site and seek to recover Richthofen.

Medical forensic analysis has indicated that Richthofen seemed to suffer from an uncharacteristic episode of ‘target fixation’, breaking his own rule to ‘never obstinately stay with an opponent.’ Medical researchers considered that this uncharacteristic error in judgement might be attributed to a persistent head injury from a head wound caused by a machine gun projectile ricocheting from his head during a dogfight that occurred nine months earlier.[5]

There has been controversy over multiple claims as to who was responsible for the fatal shot that brought down Richthofen; was it fired from a pursuing aircraft or one of the machine-gunners in the trenches? Although Brown was initially credited with the victory, medical forensic analyses of the wound ballistics, conducted in detail in later years, have indicated that Richthofen was struck in the chest by groundfire and not from an airborne shooter. Australia’s Official Historian, C.E.W. Bean, gathered eyewitness accounts from the battlefield that indicate it was most probable that Sergeant Cedric Popkin, an Australian Vickers machine gunner in the trenches, had fired the fatal shot that brought down Richthofen.[6]

Members of No. 3 Squadron, AFC, assumed responsibility for Richthofen’s remains as it was the Allied air unit that was located nearest to the crash site. Richthofen was buried in a military cemetery in France, with full military honours, by members of No 3 Squadron. A British pilot flew solo over the German air base of Jasta 11 to airdrop a message to respectfully inform them of the death of their celebrated commander, Baron Manfred von Richthofen on 21 April 1918.

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The funeral cortege of Baron Manfred von Richtofen moving along to the cemetery at Bertangles, 22 April 1918. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

Enduring Lessons for Modern-Day Aerospace Professionals

While accepting the challenges associated with extrapolating lessons from a historical example, Richthofen’s development and experience as a fighter pilot in the First World War does, however, highlight several enduring lessons for those flying in today’s operating environment. A key lesson is the need to develop critical thinking amongst military professionals who can effectively analyse their operating environment and develop solutions to challenges.

Boelcke was one of the first air aces to apply critical thinking to air combat and draw out best-practices as a way to increase the probability of success for other pilots, especially new and inexperienced ones. This was something that Richthofen built on, and he recognised the need for what in the modern vernacular might be referred to as a system-of-interest whereby in the operation of aerospace systems, the air vehicle, operator, and operating procedures and tactics need to work effectively in combination to achieve success. However, the recognition that a weapon, such as an aeroplane, was only as good as the person who operated it, and the training, tactics and procedures used by that individual, was only one part of the critical thinking process.

It was also necessary for the likes of Richthofen to capture lessons learned in the combat environment and regularly test and evaluate critical systems to improve performance. This also required pilots such as Richthofen to learn from personal mistakes and those of critical peers through ongoing discourse with both subordinates and superiors. The next step in this process was the ability to apply them in operation. Nevertheless, these lessons learned processes were all for nothing if not usefully applied as evidenced by Richthofen’s final flight where we see the significance of high-consequence decision-making and the failure to reduce risk.

The accumulation of seemingly small discrete decisions made by Richthofen on his last flight, where each decision had a seemingly minor consequence when reviewed in isolation, resulted in an accumulative effect that ultimately resulted in catastrophe. As such, it is essential that organisations need to develop the right culture, management systems, and training programs to reduce catastrophic risks to a minimum. Indeed, in Richthofen’s case, arguably, someone should have ensured that he did not fly on that fateful day as he was neither in the right physical or mental condition to fly effectively. Pilots and aircrew are expensive assets to train and maintain, and unnecessary losses such as Richthofen’s impact on operational effectiveness. Richthofen’s state on 21 April 1918 affected his judgement as he ignored one of his critical dicta – to never obstinately stay with an opponent.

Finally, it is worth reflecting that innovation and inventiveness never rest. Sometimes it is beneficial to study the past before looking to the future and look for opportunities to build on the experiences and inventiveness of others rather than starting at an experience level of zero. As Richthofen himself reflected:

Besides giant planes and little chaser-planes, there are innumerable other types of flying machines and they are of all sizes. Inventiveness has not yet come to an end. Who can tell what machine we shall employ a year hence in order to perforate the atmosphere?

Manfred von Richthofen, ‘The Red Battle Flyer,’ para. 222.

Squadron Leader Michael Spencer is currently serving in the Royal Australian Air Force at the Air Power Development Centre in Canberra, analysing potential risks and opportunities posed by technology change drivers and disruptions to the future applications air and space power. His Air Force career has provided operational experiences in long-range maritime patrol, aircrew training, and weaponeering, and management experiences in international relations, project management in air and space systems acquisitions, space concepts development, and joint force capability integration. He is an Australian Institute of Project Management certified project manager and also an Associate Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Royal Australian Air Force or the Australian Government.

Header Image: The remains of Baron Manfred von Richthofen’s plane and the two machine guns. Most of these officers and men are members of No. 3 Squadron Australian Flying Corps. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

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[1] Der Rote Kampfflieger was first published in 1918. The quotes in this article are taken from the 1918 translation by T. Ellis Barker, with a preface and notes by C.G. Grey, editor of The Aeroplane. This edition published by Robert M. McBride & Co. can be found on the Gutenberg.org site.

[2] F.M. Cutlack, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 – Volume VIII: The Australian Flying Corps in the Western and Eastern Theatres of War, 1914-1918, 11th Edition (Sydney, NSW: Angus and Robertson, 1941), p. 215.

[3] R.G. Head, Oswald Boelcke: Germany’s First Fighter Ace and Father of Air Combat (London: Grub Street, 2016), pp. 97-8.

[4] Cutlack, The Australian Flying Corps, p. 251.

[5] P. Koul, et al, ‘Famous head injuries of the first aerial war: deaths of the “Knights of the Air”,’ Neurosurgical Focus, 39:1 E5 (2015).

[6] ‘Appendix 4 – The Death of Richthofen’ in C.E.W. Bean, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 – Volume V: The Australian Imperial Force in France during the Main German Offensive, 1918, 8th Edition (Sydney, NSW: Angus and Robertson, 1941), pp. 693-701.

#BookReview – Drones and the Future of Air Warfare: The Evolution of Remotely Piloted Aircraft

#BookReview – Drones and the Future of Air Warfare: The Evolution of Remotely Piloted Aircraft

By Wing Commander Travis Hallen

Michael P. Kreuzer, Drones and the Future of Air Warfare: The Evolution of Remotely Piloted Aircraft. New York, NY: Routledge, 2016. Index. Figures. Tables. Appendices. Glossary. Hbk. 258 pp.

‘Drones’ are the air power topic de jour. Unfortunately, much of the discussion taking place in the media, and even in some academic circles, displays a lack of nuanced understanding of what is a complicated subject. The use of the term ‘drone’ to refer to platforms from the networked high-altitude long-endurance MQ-4 Triton to small tactical hand-held systems such as the Black Hornet conflates vastly different capabilities in the mind of the public. Similarly, the statement made in a recent article by a professor at the Swedish Defence University that remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) can ‘strike targets with greater precision to avoid collateral damage’ when compared with inhabited systems highlights that even academics in the field do not appreciate what distinguishes inhabited from uninhabited systems.[1] With the subject often overly simplified and the claims at times unrealistic, it is little wonder that policymakers do not understand RPAs well enough to make informed and effective decisions about their acquisition, development, and employment. This is a problem.

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Sailors prepare an MQ-8B MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned helicopter before performing ground turns aboard the USS Coronado in the South China Sea, 10 February 2017. (Source: US Department of Defense)

A few academics and military professionals are working to clarify the reality of RPA. Michael P. Kreuzer’s 2017 book Drones and the Future of Air Warfare: The evolution of Remotely Piloted Aircraft is one such example. In a compact 218 pages, Kreuzer, a serving US Air Force officer with a PhD from Princeton, places RPAs in their organisational, operational, strategic, and technological context, enabling the reader to reframe their understanding of RPA away from the hype towards an appreciation grounded in facts and logic.

Kreuzer aims the book at:

[t]hose who are active or have an interest at the level of national policy, and for those who have an interest in understanding the macro-effects of RPAs in modern warfare to understand to what extent they can be used to achieve strategic objectives, and what are the true hazards of their use. (p.22)

On this, the book delivers.

The first step is to address the curious definitional problem contained within the book’s title: is it ‘drones’ or ‘remote piloted aircraft’? Kreuzer’s approach to defining the subject is simple yet effective. He states unequivocally that RPA is the preferred term; ‘drone’ when used appears in quotation marks. He then distinguishes between ‘tactical’ RPA and ‘networked’ RPA, with the distinguishing characteristic being the integration of the sensors and weapons of the latter into a global network. Network connectivity has enabled RPAs such as Reaper to conduct ‘strategic bombing against non-fixed targets such as individuals’ (p.7). This, Kreuzer asserts, has made a significant impact on the conduct of air warfare: ‘The network, rather than the platform itself, is key to this innovation’ (p.7)

Kreuzer makes clear that he does not consider RPAs to be revolutionary in isolation; they are an enabling capability for a broader ‘targeting revolution’. To support his claim, he disentangles the often-conflated concepts of technological revolution, major military innovation, and revolution in military affairs:

A technological revolution is marked by a major change in technology with widespread effects across all sectors of society, a major military innovation is a major change in the conduct of warfare that increases the efficiency with which capabilities are converted to power often stemming from the technological revolution, and a revolution in military affairs is a shift in the character of warfare fuelled by a transformation of military systems. (p.8)

The proliferation of drones is undoubtedly a technological revolution; commercial and civilian RPA applications are already affecting airspace management, privacy laws, and delivery services. RPAs are also increasing the efficiency of military operations for both state and non-state actors. ‘Drone strikes’ conducted by the Western countries in the Middle East and South Asia, and the use by ISIS of commercial drones in surveillance and attack roles evidences a shift in the way military operations are being conducted, the rise of the so-called ‘remote control warfare’. RPAs are not, however, causing the changes in the character of air warfare which Kreuzer refers to as the targeting revolution, they are only contributing to it. Kreuzer’s point here is subtle but well made.

Precision munitions and intelligence are given as the key enablers of the targeting revolution. Guided weapons provide the ability to strike targets precisely; the development of networks enables the processing, exploitation, and dissemination of information to know where the targets are. These are the foundations of Kreuzer’s targeting revolution. What RPAs have provided is persistence, allowing improvements in the timeliness of targeting information. The addition of precision munitions on networked RPAs has marked a culmination of an evolutionary process.

[t]he main revolutionary capabilities have come about when RPA serve as critical nodes in a broader system of warfare enabling networked intelligence collection, global communication, near real time processing, target development, decision support, and strike operations. (p.80)

Technology has played a significant role in driving this revolution, but Kreuzer also highlights the importance of doctrine and organisational factors in realising the benefits of RPAs. He looks at two separate but related organisational issues: the organisational challenges in developing an RPA capability, and the influence of organisational capacity on a state’s ability to develop an RPA capability.

According to Kreuzer, the ‘human challenges’ of RPA are:

[s]ome of the greatest faced by states and organisations seeking to employ such weapons and will be the greatest barrier to successful employment. (p.89)

Unfortunately, these challenges are rarely examined in any great depth. This book addresses this deficiency in the literature.

Integrating RPA operators within a culture and hierarchy that favours pilots of manned platforms are proving difficult. Kreuzer draws attention to the disparity in promotion rates for RPA pilots and the controversy surrounding the Distinguished Warfare Medal as examples of how the United States is struggling to integrate RPA systems into existing culture.

The problem faced here is that ensuring the right people are attracted to and employed in RPA operations will be a crucial determinant of their operational success. Similarly, the development of an emerging capability is dependent mainly upon the promotion of RPA operators into positions of influence and power within the organisation. Kreuzer quotes from Stephen Rosen’s 1991 work on innovation arguing that it occurs ‘only as fast as the rate at which young officers rise to the top’ (p.110). This is appropriate, and in this regard, this, and his subsequent discussion on the implications of the ‘tribes of airmen’ and existing organisational culture on the integration of RPAs into the USAF is as applicable to other air forces investigating the development of an RPA capability.

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An MQ-1B Predator sensor operator assists a MQ-1B pilot in locating simulated targets during a training mission conducted inside the simulators at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada. Both are assigned to the 11th Reconnaissance Squadron, USAF. (Source: US Department of Defense)

The capacity for militaries to adapt organisationally to the opportunities offered by RPAs will also determine the diffusion and proliferation of the capability. This is one of the most important points raised in the book. Drawing on Michael Horowitz’s adoption-capacity theory, Kreuzer predicts the rate of diffusion of RPA technology and the type RPA likely to be developed by states based on the state’s ‘financial intensity and organisational capacity available to implement major military innovations’ compared with their ‘perceived strategic imperative to develop innovation’ (p.157). His prediction is succinctly captured through an analogy with established air power capabilities: ‘it is easier to think of networked RPAs like strategic bombers (which few countries adopted) and tactical RPAs like attack helicopters, which are common worldwide’ (p.5). The organisational and financial costs of acquiring and maintaining networked RPAs creates high barriers to entry for this capability. Unless a state has compelling operational/strategic requirements or is willing to invest in a prestige capability, as some states have done with aircraft carriers, networked RPA proliferation will be limited to only a few states (p.184). Kreuzer’s logic is sound and well-argued; as with all predictions it may eventually prove to be wrong, but his matrix of probable RPA diffusion provides an excellent starting point for the discussion of RPA proliferation.

Overlaying questions of innovation and organisational adaptation is the contribution RPAs make to air warfare. Much has been written and discussed about the impact of RPAs on the conduct of military operations, but the majority of this discussion conflates platform with strategy. As Kreuzer puts it:

Too often, debates over RPAs ignore or write off counterfactual means of military intervention and criticise RPAs for traits that would be similarly exhibited by alternative means of conflict. In many cases, attacking the RPA becomes a substitute for attacking the underlying policy, which is an unnecessary distraction from the real debate which should be made. (Emphasis added) (p.21)

The question of RPAs impact on air power permeates all aspects of the book, which is not surprising given the book’s title; however, the way in which Kreuzer does this provides the book with utility beyond the narrow subject of RPA.

In discussing the importance of RPAs in the realisation of the targeting revolution, Kreuzer explores and analyses the strategic implications of targeted killings and signature strikes. His analysis goes beyond the use of armed RPAs and is just as applicable to the employment of manned platforms. Kreuzer highlights, quite correctly, that the developments of information age air warfare are challenging existing international legal treaties and norms, but to focus solely on RPAs is a distraction as these are issues of modern warfare generally which go beyond the question of having a human in the cockpit. The legality and ethics of these types of operation is a vexed issue, but the book’s treatment is balanced, considered, and informative.

Operationally, the employment of RPAs has already raised several questions relating to sovereignty, and the implications of airspace violations and the subsequent shoot-down of RPAs operating in sovereign or disputed airspace. Recent events in Israel have raised this issue in the public consciousness. Kreuzer’s examination of this topic looks beyond the usual case studies of US operations in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (though these are also discussed) to include RPA operations in the Caucasus and the Middle East. The use of RPAs by Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Hiz’ballah, and their subsequent shoot-downs by the Russians, Armenians, and Israelis respectively, provided test cases for the international community to consider the legal and strategic ramifications of airspace violations by uninhabited systems. The shoot-down of relatively expensive RPAs followed by reprimands from the international community for airspace violations demonstrate that RPAs have not changed the existing norms of airspace sovereignty. This does raise the question of US operations in Pakistan, but this subject is also well covered by Kreuzer.

Finally, Kreuzer addresses one of the perennial problems for airmen which has been exacerbated by the development of RPA: people just don’t get air power.

For all the attention airpower receives in modern war, it remains one of the least understood systems of war for outside observers […] for the average reader with a basic interest in what airpower means the subject is abstract, complex, and often subject to detailed debates about tactics and airframes rather than broader strategic implications. (p.198)

The lesson for air power professionals, scholars, and advocates is clear: more needs to be done to improve the way that air power is explained and articulated to the public. Kreuzer’s book is an excellent example of how this can be done.

Drones and the Future of Air Warfare is a must read for anyone involved in the decision to acquire, develop, and/or employ RPAs as it lays the conceptual foundation which should inform any decision to invest in an RPA capability. It would be wrong, however, to view the book solely as a treatise on RPAs. By placing the subject within their broad operational and organisational context, Kreuzer also provides insightful and informative commentary on military innovation, organisational design, capability development, and air power strategy. Accordingly, Drones and the Future of Air Warfare can rightfully be considered an analysis of the current state and future evolution of air power. It will, therefore, make an excellent addition to any air power professional’s reading list.

Wing Commander Travis Hallen is an Air Combat Officer currently serving as Deputy Director – Air Power Development at the Royal Australian Air Force’s Air Power Development Centre. He is also a Sir Richard Williams Foundation Scholar. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, the Australian Government, or the Williams Foundation. He can be found on Twitter at @Cold_War_MPA.

Header Image: The MQ-4C Triton unmanned aircraft system completes its first flight on 22 May 2013 from the Northrop Grumman manufacturing facility in Palmdale, California. The 80-minute flight successfully demonstrated control systems that allow Triton to operate autonomously. Triton is designed to fly surveillance missions up to 24-hours at altitudes of more than 10 miles, allowing coverage out to 2,000 nautical miles. The system’s advanced suite of sensors can detect and automatically classify different types of ships. (Source: Wikimedia)

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[1] Arash Heydarian Pashakanlou, ‘Air power in humanitarian intervention: Kosovo and Libya in comparative perspective,’ Defence Studies, 18:1 (2018), p. 52.

The Challenges of Fifth-Generation Transformation

The Challenges of Fifth-Generation Transformation

By Wing Commander André Adamson and Colonel Matthew Snyder

Plan Jericho, published in 2015, outlined a strategy that would transform the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) into a fifth-generation air force by 2025 which, if delivered on schedule, would make it the world’s first. This transformation is not based on merely the possession of the next generation of aircraft technology including the F-35A, P-8 Poseidon, EA-18G Growler and E-7A Wedgetail, but on a reconceptualisation of the RAAF as an integrated, networked force. Significantly, this new operating concept is based on working in a highly collaborative manner with the Australian Army, Royal Australian Navy, industry, and allies – especially partners in the F-35 programme – to achieve the full potential of the new technologies, and to ensure that the networked force can work effectively with them.

The Australian plan has given many air forces pause for thought. That an air force comprising fewer than 15,000 regular personnel is seeking to transition to an entirely fifth-generation air force within the next decade to meet its strategic and security objectives demonstrates an undertaking to conduct future air operations in a conceptually different way. The commitment to a similar transformation among other F-35 partners is firmly underway – both the US Air Force (USAF) and Royal Air Force (RAF) have pledged to transition to fifth-generation air forces.[1] In contrast, for air forces that are not committed to a fifth-generation programme, or the transformational concepts that underpin it, the time is rapidly approaching where a hard-nosed evaluation and decision will need to be made on where they want to be as an air force in the next 10-15 years. The choice is tactical, strategic, and political.

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An E-7A Wedgetail from No. 2 Squadron RAAF sits on the tarmac at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, during Exercise Red Flag 18-1. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)

Since the inception of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) precursor of the F-35 in the mid-1990s, there has been a broad, often polarised, and inevitably highly charged debate surrounding the programme. Over the past decade, as the first prototypes took to the air, this debate focused on cost – perhaps unavoidably given that it is the most expensive military project in history. As the aircraft subsequently moved into its production phase, attention shifted to technical problems with engines, software, and its data fusion capabilities. More recently, however, supporters of the F-35, not least the international partners themselves, have highlighted successes that indicate that the programme may have now turned a corner. These successes include the declaration of initial operating capability (IOC) by the US Marine Corps and USAF, production rates steadily increasing, encouraging feedback from the increasing number of F-35 pilots, and an impressive performance in exercises.

Although these positive developments may not entirely amount to a ‘game changer’, they arguably represent significant steps forward in the delivery of the fifth-generation capability. It is, therefore, useful to frame the debate regarding a new template: that of a capability that is, if not yet fully validated, nonetheless in the process of being delivered to partners, tested in increasingly challenging scenarios, and moving towards full operational capability (FOC). This article analyses some of the stakes involved as this capability increasingly acts as a driver for fifth-generation transformation, and to consider some of the implications for air forces that have committed to fifth-generation programmes and, perhaps more significantly, for those that have not.

Defining Fifth Generation

Most people are now familiar with the term fifth-generation as the naming convention most often used when discussing this next generation of fighter aircraft. Although there is no specific or formal definition of what constitutes a fifth-generation fighter, it is routinely accepted that those aircraft that are designed and capable of operating in highly contested operational environments. To be able to do so it is accepted that the platforms must have not only low-observable features inherent in the design of the aircraft but also onboard radar and sensor features that include low-probability of intercept and low-probability of detection. They also must possess highly sophisticated self-protection and jamming systems combined with advanced avionics and powerful computers. This integration has allowed the evolution of a capability to fuse both onboard and off-board data without the involvement of the pilot. These aircraft are, therefore, able to feed real-time information autonomously into the joint operational network, significantly increasing the awareness and reducing the decision time of commanders. It is, therefore, essential to define a fifth-generation system not just as a fighter but as a system able to operate in a networked and integrated manner. Fifth-generation systems fundamentally revolve around powerful fusion capabilities which enable fusion of data to create a highly accurate picture of the battlespace independently of an operator.

These new systems present clear operational advantages over older platforms. In the ever-increasing high-threat environment characterised by modern integrated air-defence systems (IADS), fifth-generation platforms can operate where non-fifth-generation platforms cannot. Their ability to work cooperatively and talk with other platforms in the battlespace transforms even a limited number of assets into significant force multipliers and force enablers. Thus, the F-35 is not only an air asset; it is also a collection platform which can interact with, and provide data to, both ground and maritime forces. However, possession of such an advanced platform comes at a considerable price. It is complicated to take a non-stealth platform and make it stealthy. Therefore, not only does a country need to sign up to make a significant financial commitment to purchase a fifth-generation platform such as the F-35, but significant investment is required elsewhere, such as in new maintenance facilities and the robust data networks that are necessary to exploit its full capabilities. It is worth briefly reviewing the reasons for the decision to commit to the F-35 programme for those states that have joined.

The Partners and Why they Joined the F-35 Programme

Nine countries originally signed up as partners to the JSF programme, the precursor to the F-35: the US; the UK; Australia; Canada; Italy; The Netherlands; Norway; Turkey; and Denmark. Three others committed through Foreign Military Sales: Israel; Japan; and South Korea. As the most expensive military development and procurement plan in history, the F-35 has attracted a great deal of controversy since the development contract was signed in November 1996. From its conception, the JSF was to be an international co-development programme, a decision that was driven by several factors. All the partners were either NATO countries and/or close US allies, and there was, from the outset, a clear imperative for interoperability and interconnectivity in coalition-based air operations. The partners had been operating a range of different platforms of varying levels of capability, and the F-35 enabled them to operate the same aircraft with all the evident advantages that it brings regarding interoperability, training, logistics, among others. Furthermore, the partners were all involved, to varying degrees, in the design, building and testing of the aircraft. This was a unique element of the programme that helped maintain domestic hi-tech military industries. The UK, for example, was the only Tier 1 partner and is responsible for 15 percent of the aircraft, worth an estimated £30 billion over the lifetime of the programme sustaining 24,000 jobs. The European F-35 production facility in Cameri, Italy, is projected to bring $15.8 billion of economic benefit to the Italian economy.[2]

The F-35 programme and the cooperative and industrial advantages it confers are, however, as described above, more than the next-generation platform conceived at the outset of the JSF programme. The F-35 represents a commitment by the partner air forces to exploiting a range of new, highly advanced capabilities that constitute a step change in the gathering, processing, and sharing of information, particularly in contested environments. Indeed, it is the recalibration of strategic and operational thinking that has been driven by the requirement to operate in those increasingly contested environments, and against near-peer adversaries, which has proved so persuasive in winning the argument for the fifth-generation partners. It has required a shift in thinking and a reconceptualisation of the conduct of air operations in the joint and combined environment through the significantly enhanced surveillance, command and control, and information sharing that fifth-generation capabilities provide. It also compels fifth-generation air forces to integrate and network with land and maritime forces in an unprecedented way – next-generation air forces will require next-generation joint forces.

F-35 sortie
An F-35 Lightning II performs a maneuvre on 12 September 2016 over Luke Air Force Base. This sortie marked the 10,000th flying hour for the F-35 program at Luke. (Source: US Department of Defense)

The countries that committed to the F-35 programme did so over 15 years ago following the first flight of the prototype X-35B. As described above, motivations at the time were primarily centred on the requirement of those air forces to replace their legacy fleets, or to run those fleets alongside platforms that exploited the latest technological developments, including stealth. The potential of those technologies has evolved significantly over the subsequent years, often beyond the original expectations and understanding, and those air forces which are part of the programme are now beginning to take delivery of a capability that represents a genuine generational change. The geopolitical context has also evolved over that period and, following 15 years of assumed air superiority in Iraq and Afghanistan and the counterinsurgency operations that followed, the air forces that will be using the F-35 are discovering that they have a capability that is credible in contested environments. However, most of those air forces have equally begun to realise that having a fifth-generation aircraft does not merely equate to having a fifth-generation capability as defined above. Although the US Marine Corps declared IOC in 2015 and the USAF in August 2016, there are still significant challenges to be addressed, both technically and conceptually, before the declaration of a genuinely fifth-generation FOC. Furthermore, there are undoubtedly continuous and continuing problems in the development of the F-35 itself, as might be expected in a programme of such size and complexity and the programme is, by some order of magnitude, the costliest in the Department of Defense’s history.[3]

Implications for F-35 Partners of Integrating Fourth- and Fifth-Generation Fighters

F-35 deliveries are now firmly underway with over 200 jets flying, most of the partners operating their aircraft and production rates scheduled to exceed 60 per year soon. This puts considerable pressure on those partner countries and Foreign Military Sales customers to prioritise the elements that will allow them to realise the full force-multiplier potential of the aircraft. This includes the enhanced data management, connectivity and bandwidth upgrades required to operationalise and fully exploit the capability that fifth-generation aircraft offers for information-centric warfare and cross-platform connectivity.

In this regard, the F-35 has a ‘forcing function’ for militaries looking to adopt a fifth-generation standard. Naval and ground forces stand to benefit significantly from the network-centric, cross-platform, multiple-shooter concept of operations of which the F-35 will form such a significant element. As Justin Bronk suggested, given the almost unlimited scope of connecting the F-35 to every system in the battlespace, joint force commands will be compelled to invest in the connectivity and bandwidth for the platforms that stand to provide the most significant increase in combat power and flexibility.[4] This will drive the development of fifth-generation joint forces, a concept that has significant potential, particularly in contested environments. It also is a critical element of underpinning programmes such as Plan Jericho – the transformation to an integrated networked joint force that has combat power much more significant than the sum of its parts.

Whereas the RAAF is looking to upgrade its entire legacy fleet over the next decade, most of the F-35 partners, including the USAF, will need to run their legacy fleets alongside their fifth-generation platforms for some years beyond that. The RAF and Italian Air Force, for example, possess the highly capable Typhoon, a fourth-generation aircraft with high performance, an active scan radar, Link 16, and a comprehensive air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons suite. As Bronk pointed out, in such cases investment in the F-35 and Typhoon should not be seen as a binary choice as ‘each aircraft offer strengths to complement the other’s capabilities. The combination of F-35 and Typhoon can be far more potent than a force composed entirely of either type in many operational scenarios’.[5]

As a US-led, but highly collaborative, programme, development of the F-35 has drawn the partners together. The sharing of technologies, concepts, tactics, training, maintenance, logistics, and procedures represent a significant opportunity for fifth-generation air forces. With the F-35 being operated by so many states there are also substantial prospects for tactical, technical, and conceptual innovation which will allow the aircraft to be highly ‘future-proof’ without compromising issues such as sovereignty, national defence industries or strategic autonomy. All these elements contribute to powerful forces drawing the F-35 partners into what might be described as a fifth-generation ‘club’. The level of international cooperation is unprecedented, with pilots training together at the F-35 multinational pilot training centre at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, maintenance facilities being developed in Italy, Turkey, Norway and The Netherlands, and a global logistics supply chain. The result is a deepening of cooperation between the partner air forces, many of whom already possess a strong ability to do so through links forged over the years through NATO and operating in coalitions since the end of the Cold War.

Implications of Integrated Fourth- and Fifth-Generation Air Forces for Countries that are not F-35 Partners

Air forces that have not yet committed, or do not have current plans to transition to fifth-generation systems, will need to consider the operational and strategic implications of such decisions. Four areas should be considered considering future military operations: the ability to engage near-peer adversaries in a high-intensity environment; the military status and political parity with allied countries; the integration and collaboration capabilities with partner forces; and the potential limitation of the depth and breadth of defence technological innovation.

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One of the UK’s first F-35B Lightning II aircraft takes off from Eglin Air Force Base, c. 2014. (Source: UK Ministry of Defence)

As previously discussed, fifth-generation systems are not merely about employing stealth attributes, but rather about harnessing the substantial advancements in processing ability and data fusion capabilities inherent in such systems. Tellingly, the aim is to create and operate a networked environment where the lines are seamless between sensors, shooters, and operators. As a result, air forces that do not possess these capabilities are likely to find themselves increasingly relegated to a supporting rather than a leading role in planning for, and executing, future contingency operations. Countries that are not able to contribute and operate effectively in high-threat environments will potentially find themselves not on an equal footing with their coalition partners, a position that may compromise their role in military operations and, increasingly, political decision-making. Except for Australia, all the original nine partner countries are NATO members, allowing the smaller air forces of the Alliance – such as Spain and Belgium – to mitigate the limitations of their continued reliance on fourth-generation assets by optimising the capabilities of the F-35 with their legacy platforms in a NATO context. For larger Western countries not in the F-35 programme – such as France and Germany – there will be pressure to prioritise the optimisation of their existing platforms with the capabilities of the F-35. France faces the challenge of preserving its much-valued strategic autonomy, continued global aspirations and protection of its defence industrial base in the context of fifth-generation transformation. In his evidence to French MPs last year the Chief of the French Air Force, General Lanata, warned that, in less than five years, the F-35 would become the standard for operating in the most demanding operational scenarios, and that it would bring to a head the decision as to whether an air force can engage in those scenarios in the future.[6]  In short, without fifth-generation aircraft, an air force risks being in a supporting role in a coalition air environment and will require a fifth-generation partner to provide mission success against a near-peer adversary.

Finally, the benefits of privileged access to the highest level of military technology enjoyed by the F-35 are substantial. The highly collaborative nature of the programme ensures that technology transfer occurs at an unprecedented scale and provides a wealth of opportunities for hi-tech defence industries across the partner countries. The fact that so many states will operate the F-35 will also boost the opportunities for innovation in disciplines such as engineering and avionics, as well as tactics and concepts. For air forces outside of the programme, technological advances can, of course, be pursued at the national level but they will not benefit from the exchange of ideas, concepts and innovation that are generated by this collaborative programme.

Conclusion

This article has articulated some of the critical implications for air forces committed to a fifth-generation programme centred on the F-35 and for those that have not. After a decade and a half of delays, setbacks, and bad press, the F-35 programme and the technological advancements linked to it are gathering momentum. The programme is driving the partner states not just to unprecedented levels of military cooperation and convergence but also developing the networked joint forces necessary to operate in an increasingly contested environment. For states that have chosen to not participate in the fifth-generation programme, the challenges will be tactical, strategic, and political.

At a tactical level, operators of legacy fleets will struggle to interoperate effectively with the F-35 and other fifth-generation assets and indeed may degrade the effectiveness of coalition operations centred on fifth-generation systems. Furthermore, they may well be restricted to operating only in semi-permissive environments with a low IADS threat. At a strategic level, air forces that do not operate fifth-generation platforms may face the challenge of not being considered on an equal footing with the F-35 partners who, within a decade, are likely to have developed means to fuse, process, distribute and exploit data that will out-pace anything that even updated legacy fleets can match. At a political level, the range of credible options available to a national executive in the context of a highly contested environment against a peer competitor risk being limited. There will, therefore, be an increasing onus on air forces not operating fifth-generation platforms to articulate a credible and conceptually coherent ‘offer’, what they can contribute to a fifth-generation-led coalition, for example, to justify their status at each level. This will be a point that will not be lost on many who look to avoid the risk of fourth-generation air forces being restricted to a supporting role in the air environment against a near-peer.

Furthermore, partners in fifth-generation system development are pushing the boundaries of collaborative networked systems and transforming military operations. The ‘forcing function’ – the incentives generated by the F-35 for further technological developments and integration – provides a potent impetus for change and innovation among the fifth-generation partners. Conversely, countries not actively involved in fifth-generation transformation are starting to face a capability gap that will only continue to widen over the next decade. Other means – political, financial, or industrial – will be needed to drive the change necessary to mitigate the divergence or offset its effects. Set against these challenges, these air forces might argue that their national security priorities over the next 10-15 years are perfectly well met by remaining outside the F-35 programme and the fifth-generation capabilities of which it is a core element. An approach such as this relies on updating fourth-generation assets in the short term and developing other solutions either nationally or in collaboration with other partners for deployment beyond the 2035 timeframe. They might also credibly contend that legacy assets are inherently less vulnerable to disruption of the networks on which fifth-generation platforms rely and that the significant costs associated with the programme could be more effectively apportioned elsewhere to meet those national priorities.

The arguments presented in this article suggest, however, that the implications of this approach in the longer-term are potentially severe and that there will be, eventually, a cost regarding capability, operational effectiveness, technological superiority, and status. Writing in 1989, William Lind et al. wrote that ‘whoever is first to recognize, understand, and implement a generational change can gain a decisive advantage. Conversely, a nation that is slow to adapt to generational change opens itself to catastrophic defeat.’[7] Although he was writing in the context of the end of the Cold War, Lind’s observation remains apposite and is at the core of the conceptual leap being undertaken by Australia, the US, the UK and the other F-35 partners. These are increasingly clear strategic choices that will have implications for all air forces, and they will soon discover whether the price will have been worth paying.

N.B. This article is derived from the author’s work as published in The RUSI Journal. See: André Adamson and Matthew Snyder, ‘The Challenges of Fifth-Generation Transformation,’ The RUSI Journal, 164:4 (2017), pp. 60-6.

Wing Commander André Adamson is an officer in the RAF and was until recently liaison officer for the Plans Bureau with the French Air Staff in Paris. Colonel Matthew Snyder is an officer in the USAF and strategic partnership exchange officer for the Plans Bureau with the French Air Staff in Paris. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not represent the official position of their respective organisations.

Header Image: An F-35 Lightning II departs RAAF Base Amberley for the Avalon Air Show, c. 2017. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)

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[1]  The RAF has decided to refer to a ‘next generation’ air force in its recently published strategy to emphasise the concept of integration and to reduce the risk of the strategy being seen to be platform based. See RAF, Royal Air Force Strategy: Delivering a World-Class Air Force, (London: Royal Air Force, 2017).

[2] PWC, ‘Italian F-35 Lightning II Program: Economic Impact Assessment,’ February 2014.

[3] By way of comparison, the estimated cost of the US Navy’s first four new Gerald R Ford-class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers will cost approximately $50 billion and the costs for modernising all three components of US nuclear forces will cost approximately $350 billion over the next decade. See, Congressional Budget Office, ‘Projected Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2017 to 2026,’ February 2017.

[4] Justin Bronk, ‘Maximum Value from the F-35: Harnessing Transformational Fifth-Generation Capabilities for the UK Military,’ RUSI Whitehall Reports, 1-16 (February 2016), p. viii.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Franck Delétraz, ‘Le cri d’alerte du général Lanata,’ Présent, 8 August 2017.

[7] William S. Lind, Colonel Keith Nightengale (USA), Captain John F. Schmitt (USMC), Colonel Joseph W. Sutton (USA), and Lieutenant Colonel Gary I. Wilson (USMCR), ‘The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation,’ Marine Corps Gazette, (October 1989), p. 22.

Unpacking the Black Box: Air Force Culture and #HighIntensityWar

Unpacking the Black Box: Air Force Culture and #HighIntensityWar

By Dr Ross Mahoney

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 held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this last article in the series, Dr Ross Mahoney, editor of From Balloons to Drones, considers the need to understand the culture of air forces as a starting point for analysing the challenges they face in preparing for future warfare.

To say that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ is a hackneyed quote is an understatement. Indeed, the critical problem here is that the phrase is used so often that it has increasingly lost any meaning to be useful as a lens through which to analyse organisational behaviour. What do we mean by culture? Why does it eat strategy for breakfast? What is the relevance of culture to air forces and how can we conceptualise its meaning for a force structure seeking to grapple with the challenge of high-intensity warfare.

Broadly speaking culture is the values, beliefs and assumptions that shape the behaviour of a group. Culture exists at several levels and finds its outgrowth in both ideational and materialist areas. Regarding levels of culture, authors often discuss strategic, organisational, sub- and countercultures as critical areas of analysis, though not often together. However, while understanding the culture of an organisation is useful for conceptualising the ideas that underpin the behaviour of a group, the term is not without its challenges. Primarily, the issue of definition remains contested, and the term culture has become malleable and nebulous. Added to this is the unwillingness of some to engage deeply with the anthropological origins of culture.  Nonetheless, several of the articles in this joint high-intensity war series run by From Balloons to Drones and The Central Blue have alluded to the importance of establishing the ‘right’ culture in an organisation. As such, this article, which forms part of a larger project by the author on the culture of small air forces, seeks to offer some thoughts on the meaning of culture and unpack its ‘black box’ of tricks.[1]

Sources of Culture

Broadly, military culture is derived from two sources. ‘First, culture is derived from what individuals bring to the military from broader society and second, it is a consequence of military experience and training.’[2] Concerning the former; social, educational, and economic backgrounds are essential frames of reference. For example, due to the social background of its officer class, many of the ideas underpinning early Royal Air Force (RAF) culture, such as honour, strength of character, sympathy, resolution, energy, and self-confidence found parallels with those present in public schools of the period. This was because it was from this source that the RAF sought its preferred recruits. The latter issue of operational experience is especially critical for small air forces, such as the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), as they typically operate in a coalition context. As such, it is axiomatic that large air forces with whom small air forces operate will have influenced their cultural evolution. Indeed, in the RAAF, and other Commonwealth air forces, we see a degree of mimetic isomorphism in their evolution at both the ideational and materialist levels with regards to the influence of the RAF. However, in more recent years, the US military has become a more pervasive influence, and this is especially noticeable in areas such as the such as operating American military hardware.

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F-111s from No. 6 Squadron, RAAF Base Amberley, arrive over Melbourne on the eve of the Australian International Airshow at Avalon, c. 2005. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)

As well as societal factors and experience, broader environmental considerations also influence culture. Specifically, the environment in which air forces operate has helped shaped their culture. As Ian Shields reflected, the conception of time and space by air force personnel is different from those of the other services, in part, because of the nature of the air domain. Characteristics such as speed, reach and height are seen as defining the use of the air domain, and factors such as the large area of operations, flexibility, tempo, and the number of personnel directly involved in the delivery of air power continue to shape the culture of many air forces.[3] While it is possible to suggest that this is a parochial single service observation, it is worth considering that this is not limited to air force personnel. For example, Roger Barnett, a retired US Navy Captain, has suggested that the US Navy thinks different to its sister services, in part, because of its maritime context.[4] However, while differences do exist, there are often shared aspects of culture between the services, which have been underexamined.

A Transnational Air Force Culture?

National air forces have, like any other organisation, their own inherent culture and ethos. The ideas underpinning air force culture frames the way in which air forces view their role in a countries national security structures. It is the values and ethics of these organisations that make them distinct. These values are often derived from a countries national character and influenced by sources such as social background. For example, in 1919, Air Marshal Sir Hugh Trenchard espoused the RAF’s values as that of the ‘Air Force spirit.’[5] Underpinning this value was a recognition that for the RAF to develop and survive, there was a need to generate a culture commiserate with the organisation’s defence mission. For Trenchard, central to this process was the development of the RAF’s social capital through the ‘Extreme Importance of Training.’

While national character and environmental factors have influenced the values of air forces, it is possible to suggest that there are several broad ideas that can be seen to transcend national barriers when it comes to discussing the culture of air forces. Specifically, the belief in command of the air and assumption of independence pervades the structure of air forces to a greater or lesser degree depending on national proclivities. Command of the air stems from the belief that to enable the effective use of the battlespace requires control of the air. This view is as much cultural as it is conceptual as it resonates with the idea that to command air power efficiently requires a force well versed in the employment of aviation at the strategic level. However, this is an idea that increasingly became associated with strategic bombing rather than a broader conception of the strategic use of the air domain to achieve effect. This is unfortunate as while bombing may have for a time been seen as the means through which to employ air power it ignores broader thinking on its application often evident in doctrine. Indeed, if doctrine is not only a guide on how to apply military force but also an illustration of how military organisations think, then a careful analysis of these critical ‘stories’ illustrates a more nuanced way of thinking than often suggested. For example, AP1300, the RAF’s capstone doctrine of the interwar years, dealt with more than just bombing. Moreover, while written in the context of a period when the RAF provided Britain’s strategic nuclear deterrent, the fourth edition of AP1300, published in 1957, recognised the need for a balanced air force to deal with different contingencies.[6]

The assumption of independence has become the cornerstone of most air forces and has been a contentious area for debate amongst the services and external parties. Indeed, some have viewed the emergence of independent air forces as an impediment to national security. For example, as Robert Farley has written, ‘The United States needs air power, but not an air force.’[7] While it is true that the emergence of a third service in many countries has generated tension between the services, it is overstating the argument to lay much of this blame at the door of air forces. For example, many of the interwar debates between the RAF and its sister services can be seen as an issue of control and the desire of the British Army and Royal Navy to see returned what they perceived as their air arms. However, if military aviation is to be efficiently utilised in any future conflict, then there is a need to have personnel well versed and educated in the strategic application of air power who can sell its relevance and use in the joint sphere to both the other services and policymakers. Indeed, in many respects, it is this idea that underpins recent developments in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). It can be argued that since unification in 1968, while Canada had military aviation, it did not do air power thinking at the strategic level.[8] This has begun to change.

The Need for Strategic Builders

CH 10979
Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Trenchard visiting Royal Canadian Air Force Fighter squadrons at their airfields in the UK, c. 1943. Left to right – Group captain D.M Smith, Squadron Leader R.A Dick Ellis, Wing Commander E.H Moncrieff, Trenchard, Air Vice-Marshal W.F Dickson, Squadron Leader H.P ‘Herbie’ Peters. (Source: © IWM (CH 10979))

While the ideas underpinning the culture of an air force has many sources, senior leaders are central to driving the development of the organisation. A crucial role of the senior leader is that of the strategic builder, in that they set the vision and pace for an organisation’s development. Senior leaders provide the necessary architecture that ensures an organisation moves in a consistent direction and is fit for purpose.[9] The clearest example of a strategic builder in the development of an air force’s culture comes from the experience of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Viscount Trenchard. When Trenchard returned as the RAF’s Chief of the Air Staff (CAS) in 1919, he had to deal with several crucial strategic challenges as the Service transitioned from wartime to peace. First, Trenchard had to deal with demobilisation, which linked to the second challenge of establishing the permanency of the RAF. This, of course, was also linked to the final issue of finding a peacetime role for the RAF. Trenchard quickly recognised the utility of aerial policing in the British Empire as a means of ensuring the final challenge. However, to ensure the longevity of the RAF, Trenchard espoused the value of the ‘Air Force spirit,’ which focused and the development of the Service’s personnel. Central to this was the establishment of three key institutions that helped transfer the RAF’s culture and ethos. These were the RAF (Cadet) College at Cranwell, the RAF Staff College and the apprentice scheme at RAF Halton. Through these institutions and other schemes such as Short Service Commissions, Trenchard ensured the RAF’s independence. As the RAF noted in 1926 a ‘spirit of pride in [the RAF] and its efficiency permeates all ranks.’[10] However, this was not without its problems.

Modern air forces also face numerous challenges in a disruptive world ranging from issues of retention to dealing with the changing geostrategic environment while still operating in persistent counterinsurgency operations. To deal with these challenges, air forces such as the RAF, RCAF, and the RAAF have launched several initiatives to reinvigorate themselves and promote cultural change in their organisations. For example, the RAAF’s Plan Jericho, launched in 2015, seeks to:

[t]ransform [the RAAF] into a fifth-generation enabled force that is capable of fighting and winning in 2025; a modern, fully integrated combat force that can deliver air and space power effects in the information age.[11]

Such a forward-looking aim will not only need to see a change in the way the RAAF works and operates but also supportive strategic builders who will provide the support and architecture that will lead the project to fruition and success. Indeed, Trenchard’s advantage over his modern-day counterparts is that he served as CAS for just over a decade and was able to leave the RAF when he felt it was safe to do so. In the modern era, no air force chief serves for such a tenure. As such, it will be necessary for the successive chiefs to buy into the vision created by their predecessors to ensure cultural change is not only generated but becomes established in the way air forces think and operate. For example, the ideas promulgated this series on the need for Australian expeditionary air wings and exploitation of the electromagnetic spectrum will require the support of senior leaders who not only support such ideas but can communicate their effectiveness to the other service and government departments. This, as Randall Wakelam suggested, will need air force officers who emerge into senior leadership positions to be well educated in the profession of arms and air power.

Power and Consent

The maintenance of a culture that allows air forces to fulfil their stated defence mission requires not only strategic builders but also the development of a power and consent relationship between the many ‘tribes’ that make up these organisations. Air forces consist of several different subcultures, or tribes, such as pilots, aircrew, and ground crew. The emergence of such cultures can potentially affect the performance of air forces. As such, it is a crucial role of strategic builders to ensure that the challenges created by the existence of these different ‘tribes’ in air forces are managed to ensure the organisation is fit for purpose. All personnel need to feel as if they are members of the same organisation seeking to achieve shared goals. It is arguably for this reason why we have seen the emergence of management phrases such as the ‘Whole Force’ in modern air forces such as the RAF. However, such constructs are made challenging by the dominance of pilots who only make up a small proportion of air force personnel but dominate senior leadership positions. As Air Marshal Sir John Curtiss reflected, ‘It’s a pilots air force,’ and ‘pilots have always been more equal than others.’[12] Curtiss was the Air Commander during the Falklands War and a navigator in RAF Bomber Command during the Second World War. Curtiss’ reflection neatly sums up the ethos of the RAF and many other air forces with their focus on pilots and flying. For the RAF, this ethos was codified by the emergence of the General Duties Branch in the interwar years and that, apart from professional branches, officers had to be pilots and then specialise.[13] While this model became increasingly untenable and a bifurcation of the RAF branch system emerged, pilots remain the Service’s preferred senior leaders. This remains true of many air forces. For example, while the RAAF have had an engineer as their CAS, Air Marshal Sir James Rowland was required to transfer to the General Duties (aircrew) Branch to take up his position thus illustrating the power of this construct.[14] Rowland had also served as a pilot during the Second World War. The United States Air Force has taken this model even further with senior leaders being broadly split between the so-called ‘Bomber Barons’ during the Service’s early years and then the emergence of the ‘Fighter Generals’ after the Vietnam War.

CF 248
Pilots of No. 67 Squadron RAF sitting in a jeep in front of ‘Mary Ann,’ the commanding officer’s Supermarine Spitfire Mark VIII, at Akyab, Burma, on the day after a section led by the OC shot down five Nakajima Ki 43s from a force of Japanese aircraft which attacked the port following its reoccupation. (Source: © IWM (CF 248))

There are undeniable examples, such as in the early years of the RAF, where the development of an ethos framed around pilots and flying was essential both for the maintenance of independence and for maintaining the focus of air forces on the delivery of air power. However, a critical question that needs to be asked by modern air forces is whether this ethos needs to change so that they remain effective in the twenty-first century. While having an aviator as the professional head of an air force makes a degree of sense, that person need not necessarily be a pilot. They need to have experience in the delivery of air power and have professional mastery of the subject but does the number of hours flown make them well suited for senior positions? Also, are aviators, in general, the right people to run, for example, the personnel department of an air force? Indeed, there is a need to change the organisational models used by air forces to broaden the base of power and consent and diversify the opportunities for all tribes by efficiently managing talent. This will require a change in culture to ensure air forces remain effective.

Summary – Why does this Matter?

Culture remains a complex and contested area of study, and some might argue whether it matters in the modern world. However, in a disruptive world where military forces are called on to operate in increasingly complex environments, having the right culture is paramount. Moreover, while this series of articles have focused on the requirements of so-called high-intensity warfare, the reality is that while future warfare is likely to be a case of Another Bloody Century, conflicts will be conducted in and across all domains utilising both conventional and unconventional means. Additionally, as the UK Ministry of Defence’s Future Air and Space Operating Concept noted in 2012, the ‘future operating environment is likely to be congested, cluttered, contested, connected and constrained.’[15] As such, air forces will need to adapt to the changing character of warfare and ask some complicated questions about both their culture and organisation to be effective and fit for purpose. For example, should air forces be the controlling agencies for the overall management of the space and cyber domains? Alternatively, does the management of these domains by air forces move them away from their primary task of generating air power? To answer these questions, it is imperative that air forces understand their culture and from whence it comes as it shapes how they confront and adapt to emerging challenges. This is not something that air forces, and the military more broadly, has been good at and that needs to change.

Dr Ross Mahoney is an independent historian specialising air power and the history of air warfare. He is the editor of From Balloons to Drones, an online platform that seeks to provide analysis and debate about air power history, theory, and contemporary operations. Between 2013 and 2017, he was the resident Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum in the United Kingdom, and he is a graduate of the University of Birmingham (MPhil and PhD) and the University of Wolverhampton (BA (Hons) and PGCE). To date, he has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. In 2016, he was elected as a member of the Royal Historical Society, and in 2011 he was a West Point Fellow in Military History at the United States Military Academy as part of their Summer Seminar in Military History programme. He is an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group

Header Image: RAF Remotely Piloted Air System ‘Wings’, which differ from the current RAF pilot badge by having blue laurel leaves to identify the specialisation. (Source: UK MoD Defence Imagery)

[1] For this author’s discussion of early RAF culture, see: Ross Mahoney, ‘Trenchard’s Doctrine: Organisational Culture, the ‘Air Force spirit’ and the Foundation of the Royal Air Force in the Interwar Years,’ British Journal for Military History, 4:2 (2018), pp. 143-77.

[2]Ibid, p. 146.

[3] Ole Jørgen Maaø, ‘Leadership in Air Operations – In Search of Air Power Leadership,’ RAF Air Power Review, 11:3 (2008), pp.39-50.

[4] Roger Barnett, Navy Strategic Culture: Why the Navy Thinks Differently (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2009).

[5] The National Archives, UK (TNA), AIR 8/12, [Cmd. 467], Permanent Organization of the Royal Air Force, A Note by the Secretary of State for Air on a Scheme Outlined by the Chief of the Air Staff, 11 December 1919, p. 4.

[6] AP1300 – Royal Air Force Manual: Operations, Fourth Edition (London: Air Ministry, 1957), p. 24.

[7] Robert Farley, Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (Lexington, KT: University Press of Kentucky, 2014), p. 1.

[8] Brad Gladman et al, ‘Professional Airpower Mastery and the Royal Canadian Air Force: Rethinking Airpower Education and Professional Development,’ Royal Canadian Air Force Journal, 5:1 (2016), p. 10.

[9] David Connery, ‘Introduction’ in David Connery (ed.), The Battles Before: Case Studies of Australian Army Leadership after the Vietnam War (Newport, NSW: Big Sky Publishing, 2016), pp. x-xi.

[10] TNA, AIR 8/97, The Organisation of the Royal Air Force, 1919-1926, p. 5.

[11] Anon, Jericho: Connected, Integrated (Canberra, ACT: Royal Australian Air Force, 2015), p. 3.

[12] Air Marshal Sir John Curtiss, ‘Foreword to the First Edition’ in Wing Commander (ret’d) C.G. Jefford, Observers and Navigators: And Other Non-Pilot Aircrew in the RFC, RNAS and RFC, Updated and Expanded Edition (London: Grub Street, 2014), p. vii.

[13] The RAF did at one point have airman pilots in the interwar years and during the Second World War.

[14] Alan Stephens, The Australian Centenary History of Defence: Volume II – The Royal Australian Air Force (Melbourne, VIC: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 296.

[15] Development, Concept and Doctrine Centre, Joint Concept Note 3/12 – Future Air and Space Operating Concept (London: Ministry of Defence, 2012), para. 202.