Hybrid Warfare, the Electromagnetic Spectrum, and Signposts for #highintensitywar

Hybrid Warfare, the Electromagnetic Spectrum, and Signposts for #highintensitywar

By Squadron Leader Jimmy

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 article, Squadron Leader James Owen of the Royal Australian Air Force examines the importance of fully exploiting the electromagnetic spectrum in future high-intensity war.

The introduction in 1915 of the so-called ‘interrupter’ gear allowed pilots to fire a machine gun through the propeller arc of First World War combat aircraft. This was a decisive change; pilots could now find and track targets in their field of view, assess their situation, manoeuvre their aircraft and engage threats with some degree of accuracy. Find, track, assess, manoeuvre and engage.

This critical development turned aircraft into competent air-to-air combat machines that could have a significant effect in their contemporary battlespace. Presently, and moving into the future, high-intensity warfighting operations against a peer adversary will require a level of dynamic joint and combined integration in the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) that is akin to an organisational interrupter gear. The electromagnetic interrupter gear will need to synchronise spectrum requirements for communications, radars and precision navigation and timing as well as requirements for understanding what the similar threat systems are doing, and the conduct of offensive electronic warfare to degrade and disrupt the threat’s use of the spectrum. The Australian Defence Force (ADF) and its allies will need to be able to find and track threats in the EMS, assess their future courses of action, manoeuvre both physically and in the EMS and engage through the most appropriate warfighting domain. Find, track, assess, manoeuvre and engage.

Potential threat nations learned from the West’s way of war after the 1990-1991 Gulf War, and the 1999 Kosovo air campaign; the strength of Russian, Iranian, and Chinese integrated air defence systems are a testament to this. Similarly, potential threat actors have observed the West’s recent campaigns and adapted to meet them. Threat actors are exploiting the ‘grey zone’ that precedes a declared conventional war; they have sophisticated approaches for leveraging multi-domain effects to achieve their objectives. Experiences from Syria, Ukraine and the South China Sea demonstrate that the ‘unconventional’ and hybrid are now conventional and will be part of the reality of high-intensity warfare. The presence of proxy, paramilitary or deniable forces of little green men or little blue men, an array of remotely controlled or robotic threats and a complex multi-pronged contest in the EMS should now be assumed in high-intensity warfare, and the grey zone of conflict escalation that precedes it. It is therefore valuable to review some significant themes in recent campaigns to identify signposts for the role of EMS operations in high-intensity warfare.

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EA-18G Growlers from No. 6 Squadron RAAF arrive at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, for Exercise Red Flag 18-1, 2018. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)

Manoeuvre in the Electromagnetic Spectrum can be Decisive in the Physical Domain

Much has been written elsewhere over the last decade about the ‘unconventional’ threat that western militaries faced in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Western militaries were caught on the hop by the proliferation of improvised threats that exploited the EMS, particularly during the initial counter-insurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Remote controlled improvised explosive devices (IEDs) had a huge impact on the approach to manoeuvre by western forces. IEDs targeted the strategic centre of gravity of the West; casualty numbers. Arguably the constraints that these devices placed on the ability of western forces to manoeuvre at will in the physical domain and engage freely with the population had a strategic impact on the course of those wars. Behind the explosions, there was an unforeseen and dynamic battle of cat and mouse in the EMS. There is a significant amount written elsewhere about the importance of being able to ‘manoeuvre in the Electromagnetic Spectrum’; the IED contest is a useful and tangible lesson in what that phrase means. As IED makers developed new means of activating IEDs remotely, western forces developed jammers to defeat those devices; the IED makers then quickly adapted to another remote device in another part of the spectrum, and the dance continued.

Control of the Air depends on Control of the EMS – Examples from Hybrid Warfare

The Air Power Manual, AAP-1000D, Australia’s current capstone air power doctrine, defines Control of the Air as ‘the ability to conduct friendly operations in all three dimensions without effective interference from enemy air power.’ Recent and ongoing conflicts have demonstrated that the air is now contested through an array of remotely controlled and robotic devices; to defeat those devices requires an equivalent ‘Control of the EMS’.  The following examples will explore some recent examples that signpost the requirements of EMS operations in a high-intensity conflict.

In January 2018, non-state actors conducted a co-ordinated strike mission against Russia’s Khmeimim air base in Syria with a total of 13 improvised unmanned air systems (UAS). According to the Russian Ministry of Defence, all the UAS were ‘detected […] at the safe distance (sic) from the base’ and neutralised without hitting their target. Control of some of the UAS was ‘seized’ by Russian ‘Electronic Warfare hardware’ which forced them to land; short-range air defence systems destroyed some. The Russian Ministry of Defence indicated that they used a layered system of multi-domain air defence that integrated EW and air defence batteries.

Ironically, this kind of unconventional targeted strike seems to have learned from and built upon the tactics recently employed with devastating success against ammunition dumps in Eastern Ukraine. In those instances, the actor that conducted the attack is not clear or declared. The attacks were reportedly conducted by unidentified drones which dropped Russian thermite grenades onto their targets.  The results indicate that the Ukrainian armed forces either could not find and track these drones, or the ability to engage them to prevent the successful conduct of their missions. It is possible that they had neither.

In both examples non-state, proxy, or deniable forces demonstrated intent and capability to deliver effects through the air to disrupt logistics and operations in depth. In the Syrian example, the Russians demonstrated that control of the EMS contributes significantly to control of the air in hybrid warfare; the Ukrainian example demonstrates that the absence of at least one essential part of the EMS interrupter gear undermines control of the air.

In February 2018, an Iranian ‘Saeqeh’ UAS conducted an incursion into Israeli airspace and was engaged and destroyed in around 90 seconds after crossing the border by AH-64 Apaches. This event has an interesting history that is very useful for understanding the relevance of effective EMS operations in high-intensity warfare. The ‘Saeqeh’ UAS itself is a clone of the US RQ-170 UAS. This cloning was made possible for Iranian defence and industry through an opportunity to reverse engineer a US RQ-170 low observable UAS that landed in Iran while on a reconnaissance mission in 2011. The Iranians claim that they forced that RQ-170 to land through a combination of datalink jamming and GPS spoofing by their EW Force, which fooled the RQ-170 into landing in Iran. Regardless of the truth in that event, the techniques that the Iranians claim to have used are plausible and point again to the role of EMS operations in control of the air.

Following the reverse engineering of the RQ-170 outlined above, the subsequent clone, called the ‘Saeqeh,’ conducted an incursion of Israeli airspace on February 18. The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) reported that they were able to track the ‘Saeqeh’ throughout its mission from its launch site near Palmyra in central Syria. It is not clear how this tracking was achieved, but it was almost certainly through the EMS through an electronic signature. Based on this tracking information the IDF assessed the route of the UAS and manoeuvred AH-64 Apaches to wait for it when it crossed into Israel. The Apaches engaged and destroyed the Saeqeh. Based upon the active exploitation of information from the EMS and integration with operations the IDF was able to find, track, assess, manoeuvre and engage in neutralising this UAS; in this case with kinetic effects.

These RQ-170 and Saeqeh examples took place in the legal and political grey zone of armed conflict; the US and Israel, Iran and Syria are not in a formally declared war, and the borders are static. In both cases, it is likely that the defenders knew enough about the presence and nature of the UAS in question to have anticipated its activity and prepared a response; one kinetic, one non-kinetic but both appropriate responses based upon the fact that the engagements took place in the defender’s airspace. These scenarios were very predictable for all sides and not a complex or dynamic operational EMS challenge. In both circumstances, the ‘penetrating’ nation attempted to exploit low-observability and control of UAS through the EMS to achieve control of the air sufficient to achieve their mission. In both cases, the superior exploitation of the EMS by the defending force enabled them to maintain control of the air in their airspace.

It is apparent from the examples above that both the Russians and the Israelis demonstrated control of the air sufficient to defeat the threat that they faced. They both demonstrated that they have been able to manoeuvre both physically and, in the EMS, to meet their threat. They were able to find, track, assess and engage with EW or kinetic effects. It is apparent that the Ukrainian armed forces did not have Control of the Air sufficient to defeat the UAS attack through either kinetic or EMS effects and suffered the devastating success of the attack as a result.

The Russian and Israeli EMS ‘interrupter gears’ in these situations demonstrated an ability to anticipate and address threat manoeuvre in the EMS. It is important to recognise that the EMS environment that these defensive systems faced were essentially predictable and informed by several opportunities to understand the pattern of activity and character of their threat in the EMS. Aside from the UAS involved, the defensive forces that were involved or affected by these EMS operations were also largely static and well established. The respective Iranian and Israeli EMS command and control then only needed to deal with an EMS threat that could evolve or change over time periods such as weeks or months.

EMS Operations in High-Intensity Warfighting

In future high-intensity warfare, EMS operations are likely to be more complex than the scenarios above, but they will be an extension of the same themes and activities. The operating environment itself is likely to be more dynamic with a broad range of manoeuvring actors in the area. A peer adversary is likely to attempt to conduct multiple coordinated incursions into friendly airspace and territory with a broad range of remote weapon systems, many of which will use data links, sensors and transmitters that are hard to detect, characterise and track. The joint force will need to counter these across a coalition through integrated command and control of effects across the EMS and the warfighting domains. High-intensity warfighting will place extraordinary demands on the EMS interrupter gear, which will be critical to the success of operations by the joint and combined force.

A Way Ahead for ADF EMS operations

The solution for EMS operations is not just a technological one; effective EMS operations will also require significant evolutions in doctrine, organisation and training. For the former, the US has developed a doctrinal concept that they call ‘Joint Electromagnetic Spectrum Operations’ (JEMSO). JEMSO is a strategic ‘top-down’ concept. JEMSO should create a common lexicon and a joint ‘umbrella’ framework for the US services to integrate their service-specific structures and approaches to EMS into a common command and control system at the joint force level. The ADF will similarly need an ability to conduct this integrated command and control of EMS operations on its own and to be interoperable with the US framework.

Organisationally, the ADF will need to adapt the joint force so that it can integrate, plan, and execute EMS operations. To properly exploit the potential of the EA-18G Growler and future electronic warfare (EW) capabilities, the ADF will need EMS Operations cells in operational and tactical level joint and single-domain headquarters. High-intensity warfare will demand that this capability is networked and synchronised throughout the joint force.

Innovation, Acquisition, and the EMS

It is not just the operational force that requires adaptation to meet the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the EMS. Threat evolution requires rapid development, acquisition, and integration of new technologies into the force. Intelligence will need to be geared to keep ahead of this threat and to inform the direction of capability management. To keep ahead of the threat, technological development and innovation will need to leverage the ideas of industry, academia and Australia’s own Defence Science and Technology Group; threat capabilities and warfighter requirements should lead this, not the availability of technology. To achieve sufficiently cutting-edge technology, this requires an agile acquisition system. A heavy appetite for innovation risk will be required; we should be prepared for projects to ‘fail’ when developing cutting-edge technologies, without seeing the activity as a failed effort.

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Hunter killer group of F-105G Wild Weasels and F-4Es take fuel on the way to North Vietnam for a LINEBACKER strike in the summer of 1972. (Source: National Museum of the US Air Force)

Innovation and technological solutions will need to be lockstep with the warfighter to ensure that the appropriate training, tactics, and procedures (TTPs) are developed by services or the joint force to introduce them to service. My previous review of The Hunter Killers highlighted the incredibly high casualty rate suffered by the first Wild Weasel surface-to-air missile hunting squadrons; half of the aircrew of the first squadron was killed-in-action. Within the early Wild Weasel programmes, technological developments were poorly integrated with intelligence for the warfighter which manifested in weak tactics development before their initial deployments. The high mortality rate is a testament to this lack of integration. To avoid a similar fate, the joint force will need a means of rapidly developing, prototyping, and fielding new technologies and a coherent means of integrating intelligence-led TTPs development to employ them effectively.

Train the Force to Operate in the EMS

Technological solutions can enable us to move EW effects to the frequency band that the threat is in, but only education and training can deliver the ‘skill and care’ necessary for effective EMS manoeuvre. The effective conduct of EMS operations needs educated warfighters that understand not just the technical aspects of this contest, but the operational concepts and inter-relationship with the other warfighting domains.

The Russian military has integrated EW capabilities throughout their forces:

It’s found throughout every arm of service, every branch of service, it’s almost impossible to avoid EW capability, which very much contrasts to western militaries.

Russian EW activity is integral with but not subordinate to signals intelligence, cyber and conventional combat capabilities. Along with the distinct operational advantages of EW integration into combined arms units and formations, this has a significant second-order effect; Russian officers become familiar and comfortable with the integration and use of EW at a very early stage of their career. They train to fight in and with it. Education provides warfighters with the understanding to identify operational changes and adapt promptly; most significantly it enables warfighters with the ability to adapt to unique and unforeseen circumstances in an innovative but logical fashion.

The ADF does not have such familiarity with EW within the joint force. It will require a new cadre of EW generalists throughout the force that can assist in the integration of EW at the lowest level; it will also require specialist planners at the tactical and operational levels.

Summary

The examples above demonstrate clear patterns in the exploitation of the EMS by state and non-state actors in hybrid warfare; use of remote devices in land and air to attack high profile and high payoff targets at the front line and in the rear area should be assumed to be the new baseline threat in hybrid warfare. Non-state actors increasingly have access to ever more sophisticated capabilities. However, it is apparent that conventional forces in future high-intensity warfare will use a broad spectrum of remotely controlled devices in land, sea and air that have much better range, are much faster, agiler in the EMS and more destructive than their non-state peers.

JEMSO offers the ADF a suitable model to develop an organisational EMS interrupter gear and a vector for the supporting capability management and force generation structures that are required to underpin it. Dynamic joint force acquisition and capability management will be a vital element of preparing the ADF to win the EMS contest in high-intensity warfighting; however, and while it has not been considered in this article, it remains a truism that the human component is likely to be the key to winning or losing. Ultimately, the ADF will need appropriately educated and trained warfighters able to anticipate, integrate and exploit the EMS. Warfighters empowered with education in operations in and through the EMS will be the foundation of victory in #highintensitywar.

Find, track, assess, manoeuvre and engage.

Squadron Leader Jimmy is an officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.

Header Image: Technicians from No. 6 Squadron RAAF perform an after flight inspection on an EA-18G Growler at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, during Exercise Red Flag 18-1, 2018. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)

Tactical Reconnaissance Redux? The Requirement for Airborne Tactical Reconnaissance in #HighIntensityWar

Tactical Reconnaissance Redux? The Requirement for Airborne Tactical Reconnaissance in #HighIntensityWar

By Squadron Leader Rodney Barton

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 article, Squadron Leader Rodney Barton examines and discusses the importance of tactical level reconnaissance in support of operations in a contested environment. In examining the importance of such a capability, Barton makes a case for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) to reacquire the ability to undertake such missions.

The Australian Defence Force (ADF) has not maintained an airborne tactical reconnaissance capability since the retirement of the reconnaissance variant of the F-111 in 2010. Instead, the ADF has shifted focus to ‘traditional’ intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms such as the P-8 Poseidon and G550 Gulfstream aircraft, with unmanned ISR capabilities soon to follow. These platforms are not designed to operate in a contested environment; a degree of air superiority is required to ensure optimised collection. The ADF has been comfortably reliant on satellites to penetrate denied areas that require imagery collection, but the emergence of counter-space capabilities now puts this access at risk. This article will discuss the role of airborne tactical reconnaissance, why it still exists, why the ADF needs a tactical reconnaissance capability and the innovative methods of applying tactical reconnaissance in small air forces like the RAAF.

For as long as airframes have existed – the airborne reconnaissance role has existed. From the very first balloons in the nineteenth century through to the modern age, aircraft have flown in the vicinity of the adversary to understand their posture and intentions. Tactical reconnaissance aircraft have developed gradually with speed and altitude to penetrate defended airspace and gain access to sensitive areas. These aircraft were typically unarmed to maximise their operating speed, height, range and most importantly, survivability. At times during the Second World War, a lack of dedicated tactical reconnaissance assets necessitated modifications to existing fighter aircraft to meet the collection requirement. This specific mission was known as ‘dicing’ – short for ‘dicing with death’ – due to the risk the aircraft faced while conducting the mission, particularly the post-strike bomb assessment. During the Cold War, the tactical reconnaissance mission took on a strategic reconnaissance focus epitomised in the US by the U-2 Dragonlady and SR-71 Blackbird respectively. The advent of a satellite imagery capability led to less reliance on these platforms for strategic collection – although the U-2 remains in service and high demand, albeit in permissive airspace.

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A vertical serial reconnaissance photograph, taken from 24,000 feet, showing the St Jean district of Caen, France. This area was destroyed by two heavy raids on the city by aircraft of No. 5 Group, RAF Bomber Command, on the nights of 6/7 and 12/13 June 1944. The Bassin Saint-Pierre is at bottom left and the River Orne flows from upper right to middle left. The church of St Jean, damaged but still standing, is visible towards the middle of the lower-right quarter of the photograph. Another badly damaged area can be seen across the river in the Vaucelles district, to the right of the main railway station (top left). (Source: © IWM (HU 92977))

Despite the developments of space-based imagery and high-altitude collection platforms, the requirement for tactical reconnaissance in the US remained evident during the Vietnam War and the First Gulf War. The US Air Force (USAF) operated several modified fighter aircraft (RF-101 Voodoo and RF-4C Phantom) and aircraft-launched drones during the Vietnam War, particularly for the collection of target intelligence and post-strike assessment. RF-4C Phantom aircraft continued to serve through the First Gulf War providing vital intelligence on Republican Guard movements and Iraqi Air Force disposition. They were also misused to a certain degree, in the bid to find and fix Iraqi mobile missile launchers. The inability to view or disseminate the imagery real-time from the venerable Phantoms no doubt compounded this issue. The USAF retired the RF-4C in 1995 and has not sought a replacement since – most likely due to the emergence of unmanned ISR platforms and reliance on space-based assets.

Advances and growth in satellite imagery collection, along with the increasing sophistication of ground-based air defences, have challenged the utility of tactical reconnaissance. Not only do imagery satellites collect more persistently against denied areas, but they are not subject to air defence systems which increasingly have greater reach and lethality. The shoot-down of a Turkish RF-4E in Syrian airspace in 2012 highlights the threat that air defence systems pose. Despite these factors, countries with small air forces still invest and implement airborne tactical reconnaissance capabilities. Why? The simple answer is cost, access and availability. Not every country has access to satellite imagery. Even when they do, the imagery may not be available when it is required due to weather, communications, or other priorities. Given satellite’s strategic nature and scarcity, a local commander’s tactical requirements may be lost amongst national strategic priorities. Tactical reconnaissance missions can be employed locally and responsively to support immediate requirements.

Local control and accessibility are two key reasons why the US Navy (USN) still operates a tactical reconnaissance capability through the Shared Reconnaissance Pod (SHARP) carried on the F/A-18F Super Hornet aircraft. For a deployed carrier battle group operating in a potentially contested environment, satellite imagery will not be on tap for perusal. Many European and Middle-Eastern nations have also invested in tactical reconnaissance capabilities due to their low cost and accessibility of the imagery collected. Podded electro-optical/infra-red sensors such as the DB-110 (a tactical derivative of the U-2 sensor) have proven popular in these countries due to their platform agnostic versatility with carriage options on the F-16 Fighting Falcon, GR-4 Tornado, or F-15 Eagle. The DB-110 can collect almost 26,000 square kilometres of imagery per hour from a stand-off range of 150 kilometres. Low cost, seamless pod integration onto fighter platforms and flexibility of use provide significant benefits to small air forces that cannot afford to invest heavily in ISR space or air-breathing assets.

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A Shared Reconnaissance Pod (SHARP), installed on the bottom of an F/A-18F Super Hornet assigned VFA-41, is positioned on the USS Nimitz’s flight deck waiting to be launched during the next cycle of flight operations, c. 2003. SHARP is a multi-functioned reconnaissance pod, adaptable to several airborne platforms for tactical manned airborne reconnaissance. It is capable of simultaneous airborne and ground screening capabilities and was designed to replace the US Navy’s Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance Pod System. (Source: Wikimedia)

Further advances in tactical reconnaissance sensor capability also provide value for money. Take for example the development of multi-spectral sensors for detection of camouflaged and concealed targets at longer stand-off ranges. Additionally, tactical reconnaissance sensors now have datalink connectivity resulting in an ability to pass image chips forward via airborne assets for early exploitation and analysis. Tactical reconnaissance vendors are also promoting requirements for expeditionary processing, exploitation, and dissemination (PED) cabin for deployed operations. Expeditionary PED is critical to the tactical reconnaissance mission, particularly if it is likely that communications bearers are at risk. Furthermore, the transmission of terabytes of imagery through a communications bearer for analysis may not be viable due to bandwidth constraints on protected networks.  The significant volume of imagery data collected from tactical reconnaissance pods will necessitate a form of ‘triage’ of the imagery to focus analytical efforts on priority information requirements. Therefore, sending analysts closer to the fight may be required to overcome the effects of a contested communications environment.

In a future high-intensity war, ADF will not have the unfettered use of space and Electromagnetic Spectrum (EMS) to which it has become accustomed. Near-peer adversaries such as China and Russia have made their intentions clear regarding the denial of space and communications bearers for the US and its allies during any potential conflict. Therefore, the ability to carry an imagery collection sensor on an aircraft that can penetrate and survive in contested airspace, conduct a tactical reconnaissance mission, and return the imagery for exploitation is vitally important. Early phases of a high-intensity war against a sophisticated integrated air defence system (IADS) will see our traditional ISR assets operating at significant stand-off ranges that will degrade their operational utility. The F-35 can penetrate IADS; however, the sensor suite is not optimised for long-range, wide field-of-view imagery collection. The high-end battle may require traditional reconnaissance methods to get the job done. This is particularly important for targeting intelligence and post-strike assessment – to ensure the commander apportions the right platforms and weapons against the right target sets to achieve the desired effects at the lowest risk available.

For a small but technically advanced air force like the RAAF, the acquisition of imagery sensors that can be carried in a fast jet-configured pod would provide a low-cost capability for imagery collection for use during high-intensity war, complementing available satellite and larger airborne imagery collection systems. The tactical reconnaissance pods can also be utilised in permissive environments when tasked and could be considered for use to support the full spectrum of operations. The most likely candidate platform for the ADF tactical reconnaissance capability would be the F/A-18F Super Hornet, given the already demonstrated role with the USN and SHARP. The flexibility of a podded sensor allows the fighter aircraft only to carry the pod when required vice having a permanently fixed sensor with inherent penalties of sensor carriage. An airborne tactical reconnaissance capability could provide responsive, survivable, and high-quality imagery to the joint force a range of scenarios.

Imagery collection capabilities are facing increasingly sophisticated threats across the air, electromagnetic, space and cyber domains. The development of an ADF airborne tactical reconnaissance capability would add another layer to Australia’s tactical imagery collection requirements while also enhances its self-reliant military capability and its value as a contributor to coalition ISR operations. Tactical reconnaissance provides necessary redundancy, survivability, and responsiveness required when the high-intensity war means commanders cannot access strategic collection capabilities – due to access or priorities – and reduces the information gush to a trickle. In high-intensity war and pulling the digital ‘wet-film’ imagery from a pod-equipped fighter jet may be the only viable reconnaissance method available to reveal adversary posture and intent.

Squadron Leader Rodney ‘Neville’ Barton is an officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.

Header Image: An RAF Tornado GR4 from RAF Marham in Norfolk with a RAPTOR airborne reconnaissance pod fitted beneath the fuselage, c. 2009. The images received by the pod can be transmitted via a real-time data-link system to image analysts at a ground station or can be displayed in the cockpit during flight. The imagery can also be recorded for post-flight analysis. The RAPTOR system can create images of hundreds of separate targets in one sortie; it is capable of autonomous operation against preplanned targets, or it can be re-tasked manually for targets of opportunity or to select a different route to the target. The stand-off range of the sensors allows the aircraft to remain outside heavily-defended areas, to minimise the aircraft’s exposure to enemy air-defence systems. (Source: UK Ministry of Defence)

Observations on the Character of Future #highintensitywar

Observations on the Character of Future #highintensitywar

By Squadron Leader Jenna Higgins

Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare being held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, Squadron Leader Jenna Higgins examines some of the possible characteristics that may define high-intensity warfare in the future.

High-intensity war is often equated with conventional or regular war, as after the Middle Ages, this was the ‘usual’ type of war. However, high-intensity war has somewhat fallen from the regular discourse. Being replaced by what is ironically known as irregular war. However, as was highlighted in the opening post to this series, this is starting to change. High-intensity war has become a distinct possibility in the near future, so we must prepare for and try an understand what that means for us. This article aims to explore the possible characteristics of future high-intensity war as a crucial step in preparing ourselves for it.

An attempt to control a domain typifies high-intensity warfare.[1] In recent decades, the requirement and ability to control the air domain has been somewhat of a non-issue. Recent conflicts have instead been labelled irregular or low intensity, and seeks to hurt, harass or demoralise the enemy; there is less of an intent, or perhaps a requirement, to control a domain. In looking to the future, we need to consider the context in which control of a domain, which in the case of this article is air, is required before any further action.

The ability to forecast when and where this high-intensity war will occur with any accuracy is challenging to say the least. However, with that said, why should we have to predict such an occurrence? If western air forces were able to maintain a seamless mastery of the full spectrum of operations, then the finer detail such as whether it was to be high or low intensity, would not matter. We would be prepared regardless. However, as Austin Long, an Associate Professor at Columbia University asserted ‘no military has been able to achieve this goal.’[2] In preparing for high-intensity warfare, the best we can do is outline potential realities with the aspiration that they will, in some way, prepare us through the generation of discussion and preparedness of the mind.

One. Displacement, trauma and bloodshed are unavoidable. According to The Economist, in:

[2040] two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities. The number of megacities with populations of more than 10 million has doubled to 29 in the past year, and each year nearly 80 million people are moving from rural to urban areas.[3]

So, while the exact location of future conflict is unknown, it is safe to assume, high-intensity war will be fought in an urban environment.  More significantly, these urban areas will be more densely populated than any time in history. High-intensity warfare in such an environment will be confronting to the moral sensibilities of a western society conditioned to small-scale conflict in less populated areas. This will be further compounded as scenes of mass destruction are broadcast over media networks worldwide. One needs only to recall the recent global outcry over the Syrian civil war as an illustration. The humanitarian disaster that unfolded in the wake of the Syrian civil war would be nothing compared to high-intensity conflict in a modern mega city. Syria had a pre-civil war population of 22 million, but only two cities with a population more than one million. One can only imagine the implications of a war in a city with a population ten times that of a Syrian city.

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The city of Raqqa after fighting in the city during 2017. (Source: Wikimedia)

Civilian death, displacement and trauma are not the aims of modern democratic governments, noting that there have been some historical exceptions, but are unfortunately unavoidable. Combine a high-intensity conflict and a significant population centre, and the scale of destruction is exponentially increased from anything witnessed in recent history. The effect of a large-scale humanitarian catastrophe will be two-fold. There will be a requirement to prevent the overflow of conflict and refugees into surrounding nations and potentially cause further unrest. However, secondly, as these images are broadcast into our living room, it will be the responsibility of the government to maintain a supportive domestic base in the face of such horrific scenes. The morality of this scenario is complex and must be considered prior to its eventuality.

Two. Competition with near-peers will challenge our resilience and capacity. For the first time in 10 years, the United States has released a new National Defence Strategy in which it outlines strategic competition to be the ‘central challenge to US prosperity and security as Russian and Chinese military capabilities expand’. This document highlights that great power competition is now the focus. Given the accelerating regional military modernisation that is occurring in the Asia Pacific region, Australia too must focus resources on overcoming the challenges that the growing confidence of China or Indonesia poses. The fight against a near-peer offers several challenges not experienced in the preceding decades. One such example is the effect of a significant loss of platforms, refer to Rex Harrison’s post on attrition. There are assets in the Australian order of battle that will not be able to enter a contested environment without a high probability of loss, and to do so would deplete capability at an untenable rate.

Should we lose aircraft at an untenable rate, we also face the prospect of losing our highly specialised aircrew. With such a small air force relative to our potential adversaries, we lack the capacity and redundancy offered by larger forces. To win the high-intensity war, an organisation needs enough people who are willing to commit their lives to the higher objective. Unfortunately, due to the small population of our nation, we lack the recruitment pool to both enlist personnel at a high rate in the case of war or prepare adequately through the employment of additional personnel in times of peace for redundancy.

Three. High-intensity war will be fought through a multi-domain construct. One hundred years ago there was debate as to the utility of an independent air force. With the acceptance that land and maritime control could not exist without control of the air; an independent, specialised air force was born.  In 2018, the same argument must be made for the cyber and space domains. Without control of the cyber and space domains, we do not control the air domain. Greater knowledge of the benefits and limitations of these domains must be established and socialised within the broader warfighting community if success in a high-intently war is to be achieved. In fighting a high-intensity war, warfighters cannot continue to think from a domain-first perspective. Success in high-intensity war will need to:

[f]eature militaries capable of complex combined arms operations, as well as lethal offensive threats. These conflicts will engage US allies and disrupt the ability of the future joint force to move within operational reach of the adversary.[4]

In analysing the ‘Context of Future Conflict and War,’ Jeffrey Becker explained that:

[t]hreats will transcend tidy categories, cutting across land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace, while being distributed across military domains and/or reaching across broader geographic range and scope.[5]

It is not only Western militaries that are faced with this realisation. Chinese military publications also indicate that war is no longer a contest between units or specific services. The Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) refer to this concept at systems confrontation [体系对抗]. Systems confrontation is:

[w]aged not only in the traditional physical domains of land, sea, and air, but also in outer space, nonphysical cyberspace, electromagnetic, and even psychological domains. Whereas achieving dominance in one or a few of the physical domains was sufficient for war fighting success in the past systems confrontation requires that “comprehensive dominance” be achieved in all domains or battlefields.[6]

This inevitably leads to the question as to the suitability of the current organisational structure, and if we are truly ready to fight the joint fight. However, that is a whole other post.

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The Royal Australian Air Force’s first P-8A Poseidon flies down the St Vincent Gulf coastline near Adelaide in South Australia, c. 2016. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)

Four. Implications for capability transition. From an Australian air power perspective, we are both blessed and disadvantaged by the new capabilities entering service. In the coming five years, the RAAF will see several new platforms enter service. Platforms such as the F-35 Lightning, EA-18G Growler and P-8 Poseidon enable greater integration with coalition forces, while also enhancing connectivity with command. However, while the RAAF may have exceptional new, high-end capability, if these assets cannot fully integrate into the joint fight, or, if the wider warfighting community does not fully understand their capabilities, then their effectiveness is partially lost. With capability transition must come education. Air power practitioner’s need to emphasise the effects of their platforms rather than just assume the joint force knows what each platform brings to the fight. High-intensity warfighting must emphasise effects-based operations.

Five. We cannot rely purely on advanced technology to win; we need a contest of ideas.  Given the intricacies of the new, high-end capabilities as well as a large number of unknowns within the new domains, it will take everyone, from airmen and women to the Chief of Defence Force to achieve success in an effects-based operation. No one person, organisation or government holds the panacea to predicting and defeating an adversary in a high-intensity war. It is vital members at all levels are engaged and given the freedom to voice their ideas and concerns. It is through the contest of ideas that innovation is realised. This concept was aptly summarised by Air Marshal Leo Davies, Chief of Air Force, when he states that:

It is far, far better that we should respectfully engage in that contest than to hide our thoughts, only to find them wanting when it matters most.[7]

It is only through engagement and conversation that we become truly prepared for the future.

The five observations mentioned above about the character of future high-intensity warfare are in no way to be considered an exhaustive list. However, a common thread can be identified. Education and discussion into the broader warfighting community are vital. Future high-intensity war cannot be considered from a single-domain perspective, and consequently, a greater knowledge of all domains and capabilities is required.

Squadron Leader Jenna Higgins is an Air Combat Officer in the Royal Australian Air Force and editor at The Central Blue. She can be found on Twitter @jenna_ellen_ The opinions expressed are hers alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.

Header Image: A Royal Australian Air Force F-35A flies in formation with a US Air Force F-35 during trial flights from Luke Air Force Base in Phoenix Arizona, c. 2016. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)

[1] Michael Muehlbauer and David Ulbrich, Ways of War: American Military History from the Colonial Era to the Twenty-First Century (New York: Routledge, 2014), p. 3.

[2] Austin Long, ‘Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence – The U.S. Military and Counterinsurgency Doctrine, 1960-1970 and 2003-2006,’ RAND Counterinsurgency Study – Paper 6 (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2008), p. 28.

[3] Matthew Symonds, ‘The Future of war – The new battleground,’ The Economist, 25 January 2018.

[4] Jeffrey Becker, ‘Contexts of Future Conflict and War,’ Joint Forces Quarterly, 74 (2014), p. 18.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Jeffrey Engstrom, Systems Confrontation and System Destruction Warfare: How the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Seeks to Wage Modern Warfare (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2018)

[7] Editorial, ‘A Central Blue debrief with Air Marshal Leo Davies, AO, CSC – Chief of Air Force,’ The Central Blue: The Blog of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation, 20 August 2017.

The Champion Team to Fight and Win #highintensitywar: The Case for Australian Expeditionary Air Wings

The Champion Team to Fight and Win #highintensitywar: The Case for Australian Expeditionary Air Wings

By Wing Commander Chris McInnes

Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare being held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, Chris McInnes examines the case for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) to develop a fully integrated expeditionary air wing capability to deal with the challenges offered by high-intensity warfare.

In introducing Plan Jericho to the world in 2015, then Chief of the RAAF Air Marshal Geoff Brown argued that the Royal Australian Air Force:

[n]eed[s] to evolve our techniques, tactics and procedures to work as a champion team, not a team of champions.[1]

Brown’s distinction between a champion team and team of champions is a particularly important one for small air forces to consider as they ponder the requirements of high-intensity operations in a changing world. The tempo, complexity, and costs of high-intensity operations will sunder the seams of a team of champions.

Small air forces have had mercifully limited experience of this pressure because larger forces, generally the United States Air Force (USAF), have absorbed much of it. For the RAAF, a lacklustre command experience in the Second World War has been followed by niche contributions that operated as part of US-led combat air operations but in isolation from each other in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.[2] Australian officers have led these contributions and regional coalition operations, such as East Timor in 1999, and gained valuable knowledge as embeds in larger US headquarters. However, as a collective, Australia’s airmen have had little exposure to building a champion team to withstand the pressures of high-intensity warfare.

This is why Operation Okra’s air task group is so important. The dispatch of a self-deploying, self-sustaining air task group to the Middle East in September 2014 marked a departure from Australia’s experience of combat air operations. For the first time since the Second World War, Australian air power– the E-7A airborne early warning and control aircraft, KC-30A tankers, F/A-18F fighters, C-130J transports, air base, and enabling elements – contributed to the wider US-led operation as a coherent Australian team.

Operation OKRA
An RAAF KC-30A Multi Role Tanker Transport, E-7A Wedgetail and an F/A-18F Super Hornet fly in formation as they transit to the airspace as part of Operation Okra. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)

This team came together despite the lack of a common organisational concept or a well-prepared headquarters to facilitate their integration as an Australian champion team. The aircraft and air bases mentioned above reported to three separate chains of command: Air Task Group 630 commanded the E-7A, KC-30A, and F/A-18 elements while Joint Task Force 633 retained command, as separate units, of the C-130J aircraft and the air base elements in the Middle East. This organisational fragmentation was not helped by the fact that, according to the commander of the initial air task group and now Air Commander Australia Air Vice-Marshal Steve Roberton, the principal headquarters element responsible for integrating the separate capabilities ‘formed over there; [it] was not stood up before we deployed. In fact, people hadn’t even met.’

The friction-induced by the ad-hoc organisation and an under-prepared headquarters in September 2014 was overcome through the cooperation of quality personnel in stressful but controlled circumstances. These favourable conditions are unlikely to be present in high-intensity operations, and self-inflicted friction will only exacerbate uncontrollable external challenges, delaying and potentially preventing an Australian team of champions becoming a champion team when it matters most.

This article argues that invigorating and embedding the concepts and capabilities needed to operate as an expeditionary air wing is critical if Australian air power is to meet Brown’s challenge when it matters most. The article will argue that the wing is the critical expeditionary echelon for small air forces like the RAAF in high-intensity operations, outline why building expeditionary air wings may be difficult for the RAAF and draw upon British and Canadian experiences over the past decade to suggest some ways forward as a means of stimulating broader discussion.

First, ‘wing’ in this post means the lowest air power command echelon with the necessary resources – command, flying, maintenance, base services, and other enablers – to generate, apply, and sustain air power autonomously. The core concept of a wing is that it is the collective of multiple capabilities under a single commander that generates air power, not a specific number of aircraft, squadrons, or personnel. This historically-proven concept of a wing is flexible, scalable, and modular; not all wings need the full suite of enabling services, and it is entirely possible to have a wing with no permanent flying units. Importantly, wings can be defined by function or by geography depending on the circumstances – the Australian Air Component in the Middle East formed in 2009 was, in essence, a reorganisation of existing independent units to form a wing. Army personnel would recognise the concept of a wing as a combined arms formation, similar to a brigade.

Expeditionary Air Wing
A generic expeditionary air wing organisational structure. (Source: Author)

The wing is the critical echelon for small air forces precisely because it is the lowest echelon capable of autonomous operations and command, either as part of a coalition force or independently. Even when an air and space operations centre (AOC) is available, the wing is where indispensable but often overlooked tactical planning, integration, and assessment occur to turn the AOC’s higher direction into executable plans. Much of the planning on operations and exercises, such as Red Flag and Diamond Storm – the RAAF Air Warfare Instructor Course’s (AWIC) final exercise – happens at the wing level because it is focused on integrating multiple capabilities to achieve a mission. In operations led by a larger partner, such as Okra, a wing enables a small air force to present a coherent, readily identifiable, force package that reduces integration costs on both sides. In more modest operations in which a small air force may lead a joint or combined force a wing headquarters can provide the command and control core, potentially obviating the need for a separate AOC. This latter point is especially crucial for small air forces whose expeditionary resources may mean a separate AOC is unaffordable and unnecessary, particularly in high-intensity operations that generate substantial homeland defence tasking and thereby limit the assets available for expeditionary operations.

High-intensity warfare reinforces the criticality of the wing for small forces because of the need for flexibility, agility, and resilience. When then-Commander US Pacific Air Forces, General Hawk Carlisle, argued for greater distribution of command and control functions that would see ‘the AOR [area of responsibility] […] become a CAOC,’ part of his vision, according to Lieutenant General David Deptula (ret’d) , was that wings would play a ‘role much more integral to a distributed [command and control] system than simply their historical force-provider role.’ Resilience is boosted by reducing air power’s dependence on a single node and allowing operations to continue despite degraded communications. Enhancing command and control capabilities at multiple points increases flexibility because each node is better able to integrate different forces or adapt to new missions. Agility is fostered by supporting concurrent and locally-focused activity across many organisations; USAF exercises indicate this distributed planning model can significantly accelerate the air operations planning process.

These rationales are apparent in Britain and Canada who have developed expeditionary air wings since 2006. The two countries have taken different paths, but both have made wings the foundations of their expeditionary forces, with required capabilities plugging into the wing framework as required. Britain has multiple standing expeditionary air wings drawn directly from Royal Air Force (RAF) stations, while Canada maintains two expeditionary wings at any given time. The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) has a permanent high-readiness expeditionary wing for contingency operations drawn from 2 Wing and one focused on longer-term operations that are drawn from the Air Force’s remaining wings on a rotating basis. An RAF colleague at the Australian Command and Staff College viewed the wing framework as so fundamental to expeditionary air operations that, after a presentation on the initial Okra deployment highlighted that capabilities were deployed without such a framework, he opined that “you Aussies do this air power thing upside down. Is that because you’re from the southern hemisphere?”

Australia’s apparently inverted approach to expeditionary air operations stems from a structure that is optimised for managing discrete capabilities rather than producing integrated air power packages. As Air Vice-Marshal (ret’d) Brian Weston has pointed out, the force element group (FEG) construct has many positives, and FEG played a crucial role in ensuring that the team of champions were ready for Operation Okra. However, the capability-defined FEG and their similarly defined subordinate wings mean that no two FEG or wings are alike and no FEG or wing is structured for, or practised in, leading an integrated expeditionary team in combat. The rise of FEG-aligned control centres and divisions in Australia’s standing AOC reinforces this separation because it drives cross-FEG integration up to the AOC (at least in a formal sense).  These structural barriers to integration are reinforced by a cultural one that arises because personnel tend to ‘grow up’ through their own FEG and could reach very senior ranks with limited exposure to ‘other FEG.’ The lack of a ready and rehearsed wing headquarters for Operation Okra stemmed directly from a disaggregated organisation that is optimised for generating individual champions.

So how then to build the champion team necessary for high-intensity warfare? As Okra and other operations have demonstrated, almost all the pieces of an Australian expeditionary air wing already exist. The establishment of the Air Warfare Centre (AWC) to champion integration and develop the techniques and procedures for integrated tactics is an important step forward. Much work is already underway through Plan Jericho initiatives, the establishment of an Air Warfare School and AWIC, and integration-focused exercises such as the Diamond series and Northern Shield.

Integrated tactics and training courses, however, will count for little in high-intensity operations if they are executed by ad hoc organisations using personnel that have not met and whose usual focus is on managing the routine activities of individual capabilities. The RAAF’s positive steps towards integration must be complemented by efforts to build a collective organisational framework for expeditionary air power and the command and control capabilities at the core of that framework. An expeditionary operating concept and expeditionary headquarters focused on generating, applying, and sustaining integrated air power – a champion team – are essential to complement the disaggregated FEG construct that is so adept at building individual champions.

The articulation of a clear expeditionary operations concept with the expeditionary air wing at its heart would appear to be a relatively simple task. In 2016 the RCAF included a chapter in its capstone doctrine articulating how it delivers air power to joint or coalition commanders and in domestic or expeditionary settings. This chapter, which was not present in the 2010 edition, includes an air task force concept with an expeditionary air wing as its central operational element and discusses how these frameworks can be tailored to suit specific circumstances. Publicly available articles build on the doctrine chapter to explain the RCAF’s concept and rationale. The RAF explains expeditionary air wings on its public website and emphasises their central role in projecting British air power around the globe. The RAF declares that:

[t]he aim of [expeditionary air wings] is to […] generate a readily identifiable structure that is better able to deploy discrete units of agile, scalable, interoperable and capable air power.

Because of this investment in expeditionary air wings, British air power is expected to:

  • To achieve greater operational synergy, delivering focused operational effects from the outset of a deployment;
  • To generate a more cohesive trained audience;
  • To engender more widely a greater understanding of the capability of air power;
  • To achieve a more inclusive formation identity.

By contrast, Australian air power doctrine, including a 2009 publication focused on command and control, devotes more attention to the workings of the RAAF’s garrison structure than operational considerations and tends to description rather than explication. There is no distinction between expeditionary and domestic organisational considerations; ‘expeditionary’ appears only six times scattered across the 245 pages of the RAAF’s Air Power Manual, usually to describe units or capabilities. Discussion on air power command and control is confined to stating a preference for a senior airman to command air power and describing operational-level headquarters. The reader is left with a sense that the RAAF either does not have a clear idea of how it wants to organise integrated air power for a joint or coalition commander or is reluctant to express a view. This is undoubtedly implicit knowledge for many, but high-intensity warfare is not the time to discover that your implicit knowledge differs from the person next to you.

The RAAF should explicitly articulate its force presentation and organisation preferences, similar to the Canadian example. An outline of how future air task groups – centred on expeditionary air wings – would function and be organised, the available options, and the considerations that influence choices is necessary. Expressing a clear view on how to best organise and present an integrated air power team for operations in domestic and expeditionary settings is professional, not parochial. This conceptual framework should be widely accessible, preferably in a public document, to maximise the spread of this concept to Australian airmen and colleagues from other Services, agencies, and countries. A clear, and readily accessible, organisational concept underpins the ability of Australian air power to build a champion team quickly, particularly in the face of the pressure and friction of high-intensity operations.

The final element needed to rapidly form a champion team from the RAAF’s tactical champions is the commander and, crucially, staff. Commanding an expeditionary air wing is a problematic and vitally important challenge – particularly in high-intensity operations – that must be addressed by a coherent command crew that is trained and exercised to high levels of proficiency. Developing outstanding individuals to serve as commanders is vital but insufficient; they must be supported by adept staff to enable and execute their command responsibilities. Britain and Canada conduct training and exercises to build the expeditionary air wing headquarters team and equip the personnel in that team with the necessary skills and experience. They do so in a coherent and structured fashion to build teams that endure and are available to form the core of a headquarters for expeditionary operations. As a result, the RAF and RCAF are unlikely to confront the situation encountered by Australia’s air task group in 2014.

Generating these headquarters elements is likely to pose the greatest challenge for the RAAF to realise a coherent expeditionary air wing capability. The RAF and RCAF approaches will not transfer easily across because the personnel and capabilities needed to lead an expeditionary air wing must be drawn from multiple FEG, and no current RAAF headquarters aside from the AOC focuses on cross-FEG operational coordination. Current Australian practice for expeditionary air operations – the practice used for Operation Okra – is to nominate a commander for deploying forces, build a headquarters structure, and then endeavour to fill the identified positions with personnel on an individual basis. This ad-hoc approach to structures, processes, and staffing for expeditionary headquarters is how Roberton came to be equipped with a headquarters ‘that formed over there […] [with] people that hadn’t even met.’

There are many options to meet this requirement that require evaluation, but all will come at a cost. If dedicated organisations are not feasible, one approach that may minimise cost is to generate a standardised expeditionary headquarters staff structure and then fill the positions on a contingency basis with personnel from a single RAAF base. Each major base – Amberley, Williamtown, and Edinburgh – has the necessary personnel to form a viable headquarters element and aligning them by base would facilitate team building while reducing the impact on in-garrison duties. Rotating the responsibility around bases would spread the burden further. A standardised construct would enable training to be baselined and increase redundancy by enabling personnel from other bases to more readily supplement deploying teams. A permanent high-readiness wing, similar to the RCAF, could be considered to address short-notice contingencies and build expeditionary command and control expertise. RAAF Base Amberley’s resident air mobility and air base elements provide a sound basis for this high-readiness element.

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A C-17 Globemaster III with engine maintenance stands in place and all engines open on sunset at No. 36 Squadron, RAAF Base Amberley, c. 2017 (Source: Australian Department of Defence).

However, the personnel needed belong to multiple FEG and have day jobs. Explicit direction from very senior levels would be necessary to ensure these cross-FEG teams can be formed, trained, exercised, and maintained in the face of competing priorities. These teams could be trained and given experience through a structured series of exercises and activities similar to the RAF and RCAF. They could also be given responsibilities for leading major exercises, such as the Diamond series, Pitch Black, and Talisman Sabre as certification activities. The force generation cycles of key expeditionary air wing elements – such as the headquarters, air base, and communications elements – could be aligned to maximise an expeditionary wing’s coherence upon deployment. This building block approach is similar to the Australian Army’s combat brigade force generation cycle, providing an opportunity to align force generation cycles and enhance readiness across the joint force.

Invigorating and embedding expeditionary air wing concepts and headquarters capabilities in Australian air power are essential for the RAAF to turn its team of champions into a champion team. An ability to deploy and fight as an expeditionary air wing from day one is vital for small air forces in high-intensity operations because combat effectiveness, resilience, and flexibility across multi-national forces must be optimised while national control and identity are assured. The RAAF’s history, structure, and culture presents challenges to this task, but there are ways forward, with much good work already underway. Clearly articulating how the RAAF intends to organise expeditionary air elements and building expeditionary leadership teams are the next steps needed to ensure the RAAF’s fifth-generation champions can fight and win as a champion team when it matters most.

Wing Commander Chris ‘Guiness’ McInnes is an officer in the Royal Australian Air Force and an editor of the Central Blue. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.

Header Image: An RAAF E-7A Wedgetail is silhouetted by the setting sun at the main logistics base in the Middle East during Operation Okra. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)

[1] Air Marshal Geoffrey Brown in Royal Australian Air Force, Plan Jericho: Connected – Integrated, (Canberra: Royal Australian Air Force, 2015), p. 1.

[2] Alan Stephens described the RAAF’s command and organisational experience in Europe during the Second World War as ‘an institutional disaster’ while he devoted an entire chapter (out of 16 in the book) to ‘The RAAF Command Scandal’ in the South West Pacific, see: Alan Stephens, The Australian Centenary History of Defence – Volume II: The Royal Australian Air Force (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 98, pp. 109-25. Further detail on the RAAF’s command performance in the South West Pacific is available in Norman Ashworth’s fittingly titled two-volume account: Norman Ashworth, How Not to Run an Air Force! The Higher Command of the Royal Australian Air Force during the Second World War – Volume 1 and Narrative (Canberra: Air Power Studies Centre, 2000).

Security Forces in #highintensitywar: A Look Back at Airfield Defence for a Future Consideration of the Royal Australian Air Force

Security Forces in #highintensitywar: A Look Back at Airfield Defence for a Future Consideration of the Royal Australian Air Force

By Sean Carwardine

Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare being held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, Sean Carwardine describes the development of Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) airfield defence policy and questions the adequacy of current policy in preparing the Air Force to defend its bases in a #highintensitywar situation.

Air power is generated from air bases. Therefore, in a high-intensity conflict, air forces should expect that their adversary will target their bases. Unfortunately, airfield protection in a high-intensity conventional conflict has attracted little attention in the development of the RAAF’s fifth-generation force. This article looks at the history of RAAF airfield defence, and in consideration of lessons learned, will propose critical questions for future tasking, capabilities, equipment, command and control, training, planning, scale, interoperability, and security force influence on the air domain.

Since 1929, the RAAF has had a single-service policy towards airfield defence, involving airmen providing low-level anti-aircraft and machine gun ground defence. Past RAAF airfield defence policy worked on the assumption of RAAF involvement in small localised, asymmetric or low-intensity warfare in a joint environment. The policy has developed in the context of operations involving rapidly deployed aircraft operating from forward bases secured by allied nations supplying the bulk of force protection. These bases have been in relatively secure rear-areas of sanctuary, with security focusing only on countering the threat of small incursions. In a modern high-intensity war situation, these sanctuaries may no longer provide a guarantee of safety or security. Accordingly, the RAAF and its airfield defence policy must evolve. RAAF airfield defence policy must consider force protection in a high-threat environment, and possibly without significant assistance from major allies.

The RAAF has never been in a position, apart from five months in the Second World War, to provide full airfield defence for its bases in a high-intensity war situation; it has been partly or wholly reliant on allied forces.

P02875.148
Three Aerodrome Defence personnel of No. 79 (Spitfire) Squadron RAAF digging gun pits for their tripod mounted .303 Vickers machine guns for firing at low flying Japanese attackers on Vivigani airfield. Boxes of ammunition for the guns can be seen on the right and in the background. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

During the Second World War, RAAF policy focused on the Australian Army providing low to high-level anti-aircraft defence and ground defence outside the wire. Within the wartime RAAF, there was a clear divide between RAAF Headquarters (the RAAF’s administrative command) and RAAF Command (the RAAF’s operational command) as to the workforce and organisation of airfield defence in the RAAF. The former believed small sections of Guards (20-30) could protect RAAF assets with technical airmen acting in the role as a secondary duty (a reactive defence). For RAAF Headquarters there was no requirement for a specific organisation to provide airfield defence. RAAF Command was against this ‘penny pinching’ policy and promoted a ‘RAAF Regiment’ of guards so that specialists focused on protection, and technical airmen focused on keeping aircraft in the air.

By 1945, the RAAF had the equivalent of five squadrons worth of guards (1,042 guards) in No. 2 Airfield Defence Squadron of the First Tactical Air Force (First TAF), five squadrons worth in the Northern Command (723 guards), four squadrons worth in Security Guard Unit/No. 1 Airfield Defence Squadron (570 guards) in the North-Western Area Command. Approximately, 1,900 guards (some cross-trained as war dog handlers and guard gunners) were also allocated to every aerodrome, inland fuel storage, radar/radio station, wharf/dock, RAAF chemical warfare storage, bomb and ammunition storage, civilian aerodromes and squadron in southern Australia. In addition to the guards, the Service Police had small units in every capital and small numbers on stations and in some squadrons. These forces provided the full scope of air base defence requirements for the RAAF.

At the end of the Second World War, the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS) removed airfield defence from the RAAF, six months before the official disbandment dates. RAAF Service Police strength was also reduced to fewer than 100 airmen across the nation. CAS stated, ‘I am not prepared to agree to any more of these specialised units.’[1] However, senior airmen argued against this. In 1945/46 senior officers such as Air Commodore Frank Bladin (Deputy Chief of the Air Staff), Air Commodore Frederick Scherger (Commander of First TAF), Air Vice-Marshal William Bostock (Air Officer Commanding RAAF Command) and Air Commodore John McCauley supported a proposal for a new airfield defence policy and the formation of an RAAF Regiment as put forward by Wing Commander George Mocatta.

Mocatta was Operation Staff Officer – Defence for the RAAF Command Headquarters Allied Air Force, a post which he held since 1942. He was a graduate of the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) Defence Officer course, and in 1944/45 Mocatta had studied the ground defence of airfields by the RAF Regiment in Europe and the Far East.

Mocatta’s proposal argued that the formation of a RAAF Regiment would see a reduction to around 2,000 guards and 300 police but would provide a full-time airfield defence force that included a ground fighting force, low level anti-aircraft force, airfield engineers, explosive ordnance disposal, mortars and armoured vehicles. Mocatta’s proposal was not progressed; it stayed in RAAF Headquarters un-actioned until the file was closed in 1949.

During the 1950’s, under the National Service Scheme, two aerodrome defence squadrons were formed to train reserve airmen as Ground Gunners. Early in the 1950’s a total of four Aerodrome Defence Officers, 25 Guards and a small number of Service Police were sent to Japan and Korea to provide squadron guard duty and security. Although low-level ground base air defence was considered a RAAF responsibility, the RAAF provided no ground-based air defence of any type on operations in Korea.

Between 1952 and 1955, the Air Staff Policy Memorandum No. 15 RAAF Ground Defence Policy (ASPM 15) highlighted the possibility of a conflict on a global scale against Communist forces. This possibility of high-intensity war would force the RAAF to establish its light anti-aircraft (LAA) defence units, thus releasing the Australian Army from this duty. The policy also raised the possibility of an attack by Communist ground forces, in either large-scale commando style or clandestine attacks. Under ASPM 15 active and passive defence of RAAF assets would be undertaken by six Rifle Squadrons, one Armoured Squadron and three LAA Squadrons of Guards or Ground Gunner reservists.

The 1950s saw another push for the formation of a single permanent Airfield Defence Squadron. The idea this time was similar to Mocatta’s 1945 proposal; however, this time the proposal focused on a single peacetime squadron as a nucleus for a war-time RAAF Regiment. Then in the late 1950’s, the RAAF Ground Defence Policy Chapter of Air Staff Doctrine listed no requirement for ground defence units and highlighted only the need for a few Ground Defence Officer’s, Aerodrome Defence Instructor’s and Guards, with National Service airmen training as Ground Gunners in the reserve.

By 1957, the policy of RAAF airfield defence changed in response to the evolving strategic situation. No major global war was foreseen. Therefore, there was no need for RAAF ground defence forces. The policy was that under an inter-service agreement, the Australian Army would provide all active and passive defence for RAAF assets. The only time the RAAF would require its active defence was when units were overseas, operationally deployed away from land forces or in an emergency. Also, RAAF commanders would initiate their ground defence force from airmen within their unit.

In the early 1960’s the RAAF trained Aircraft Hand/General Duty airmen and RAAF Service Police in infantry tactics to perform airfield defence for duty in Thailand. By 1965 the RAAF created a new mustering for airfield defence and guard duty; the Airfield Defence Guards (ADGs) were formed. Again, the idea of a RAAF Defence Squadron equipped with low-level air defence capability emerged, resulting in the acquisition of eight 40mm Bofors Anti-Aircraft Guns and 140 Oerlikon 20mm cannons for the proposed formation of a peace-time airfield defence squadron.  Interestingly, in the files, a staff officer queried this policy asking, ‘who are we going to shoot them at?’[2] The Bofors ultimately went to the Australian Army, and the Oerlikons stayed in storage.[3] The RAAF then introduced the Bloodhound missile defence program, by 1968 the system was outdated, and the project ended.

Throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s, RAAF policy on ground defence focused on limited war. Unsurprisingly, the ground defence policy for Vietnam focused on low-intensity warfare with an allocation of a 30-man flight of ADGs. At the time, RAAF Ground Defence policy (AAP 938) highlighted the RAAF’s responsibility to provide its own ground-based air defence units using equipment such as 20mm cannons and surface-to-air missile systems. One paragraph in AAP 938 indicates the RAAF did not have any of these systems and would have to acquire them from Britain, ‘when the war starts’.[4] This raises the concern that in a high-intensity conflict, waiting for equipment would be too late. By 1973, the RAAF officially removed anti-aircraft defence from RAAF capabilities, instead relying on the Australian Army’s ground-based air defence (GBAD) systems or aircraft to provide air defence.

The 1980’s and 1990’s saw separate Rifle Flights of ADGs around the country, undertaking guard duty and exercises. During this period, however, the reformation of No. 2 Airfield Defence Squadron and eventually combined all Rifle Flights into one squadron in one location. Operation Warden, the Australian-led intervention in East Timor, in 1999 highlighted the capabilities and the benefits of having a dedicated, air-minded, air force security force in a low-intensity environment. However, having one full time and one partly-staffed reserve unit (No. 1 Airfield Defence Squadron), demonstrated the need for a force protection restructure.

In the subsequent shift to the asymmetric conflicts of Iraq and Afghanistan, RAAF security forces have integrated with Australian Army units and law enforcement agencies to protect aircraft in Aircraft Security Operations, protect air force detachments and take responsibility for the defence of international airfield defence duties. This is the basis of airfield defence policy that still defines RAAF Security Force approach.

Group Captain Jeremy Parkinson, an RAF officer from NATO’s Joint Air Power Competence Centre stated ‘Firstly, because of a lack of understanding of how [Force Protection] is provided, it is all too often seen in capitals and headquarters as little more than a static guarding task and as such is not perceived as contributing to the actual delivery of the mission’.[5] He also stated, commanders, have a lack of understanding of how complex and resource intensive force protection is, and one should not assume that ‘the host nation will provide’ airfield protection for deployed forces.[6] Considering Parkinson’s statement, it is fair to ask: does the current RAAF Security Force structure cater for all air base defence requirements, does it have an absolute, definite intent of potential operational tasking?

In a high-intensity conflict in the future, it is likely the Australian Army would deploy a brigade, which would likely include GBAD for the field force. The RAAF would deploy an Air Task Group to operate from a coalition airfield. What is unclear is if deploying as part of a coalition force, and with US or NATO units in place, would Australia be required to supply a Security Force Squadron? Would Australian GBAD systems automatically attach to the forward air base as stated in the 2016 White Paper? What capability does a current RAAF Security Force bring to the table?

I believe that the RAAF has been guilty of turning a ‘Nelsonian blind eye’ to the need for its own air base defence capability. History shows the RAAF has a lack of understanding of the specialist nature of all air base protection as it has developed a reliance on others, an aversion to committing fully to the airfield defence role and does not appropriately resource airfield defence. Are we learning from history, or following it?

Some questions need to be asked if the RAAF is to prepare to defend its operating bases in a high-intensity conflict. Does the RAAF insist Australian Army GBAD systems be permanently on every air base or will they be allocated to the RAAF after the start of combat operations? Does the RAAF have dispersed hardened or underground shelters, its own air-minded specialist protection force, or does current policy remain extant and we will rely on allies or host nations for our protection?

Analysts will discuss the pros and cons of the Australian Defence Force being a versatile and flexible force that can fight in low and high-intensity conflicts. However, the current legacy RAAF Security Force Squadrons remain established as a ‘small-war’ force, ill-equipped and lacking ground intelligence capabilities to protect air bases, overseas and at home, in a future high-intensity war?

Australia needs a RAAF specialist security protection force that is equipped and trained to respond across the spectrum of future conflict scenarios. A fifth-generation air force must be able to defend the bases that generate its air power.

Sean Carwardine joined the RAAF in 1986 as an Airfield Defence Guard and retired in 2007. Sean served at No. 2 Airfield Defence Squadron, No. 1 Central Ammunition Depot, RAAF Base Richmond, Australian Defence Force Academy, RAAF Base Amberley, Headquarters Airfield Defence Wing. Sean also served on operations in Indonesia 1992, Timor 1999/2000, Afghanistan 2002 and Iraq 2003/04. Sean has completed a Bachelor of Education (University of Southern Queensland), Master of History (Airfield Defence) and is the final year of a PhD – History and Analysis of Airfield Defence Policy in the RAAF (University of New England). Sean has published two articles on RAAF airfield defence, lectured at RAAF Security and Fire School, Security Forces Squadrons (SECFOR) and SECFOR Conference.

Header Image: Leading Aircraftman Joel Sitkiewicz from No. 1 Security Force and Military Working Dog ‘Lucky’, patrol the F/A-18F Super Hornet flight line during Exercise Aces North 2015. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)

[1] National Archives of Australia (NAA), A1196, 15/501/258 PART 2.

[2] NAA, A703, 564/8/36 PART 1.

[3] NAA, A703, 564/8/2/PART 7.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Jeremy Parkinson, ‘Developing Future Force Protection Capability (Part 1),’ Transforming Joint Air Power: The Journal of the JAPCC, 18 (2013), pp. 69-73; Idem, ‘Developing Future Force Protection Capability (Part 2),’ Transforming Joint Air Power: The Journal of the JAPCC, 19 (2014), pp. 67-72.

[6] Parkinson, ‘Developing Future Force Protection Capability (Part 1),’ p. 72.

Attrition in Fifth-Generation Air Forces during #highintensitywar

Attrition in Fifth-Generation Air Forces during #highintensitywar

By Rex Harrison

Editorial Note: From February to April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare being held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, Rex Harrison discusses the challenge of attrition during high-intensity conflicts and its implications for fifth-generation air forces.

Technology has continued to advance in both disruptive and surprising ways. It is consequently difficult to forecast the exact way fifth-generation air power will be applied in 2035, nor the precise character of future high-intensity conflict. With the benefit of hindsight, however, history proposes broad themes and continuities in the nature of war. One such example is the persistence of attrition of the force once committed to battle.

While Western air forces have been able to somewhat control their level of exposure to adversary action since the 1991 Gulf war, this may not always be the case. This level of control has been achieved through conducting operations beyond the engagement range of adversaries and behind a shield of (generally unchallenged) air defences. This technique has enabled air power to inflict significant losses without absorbing such losses themselves.

This happy circumstance has been the exception rather than the rule in human history. This is particularly the case when considering the history of air power, where few combatants have had the luxury of picking and choosing the intensity and duration of the conflict. No matter how successful fifth-generation air power is in enhancing its lethality and minimising risk to the force, it is doubtful that a combat exchange in high-intensity combat will result in a ‘0’ in the ledger of either side.

This being the case, I believe that success in high-intensity conflict will require a fifth-generation air force to ensure it can absorb and recover from the attrition of its forces. While it will be difficult to predict the outcomes of future air combat or the mix of technology and tactics that will provide the necessary advantage, history does provide a guide that may better inform our preparations for the future.

Historical Examples

Yom_Kipur_war
An Israeli pilot, Shimshon Rozen, climbing into a McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom II during the Yom Kippur War, c. 1973. (Source: Wikimedia)

The significant impact of attrition is demonstrated by the experiences of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) in the Yom Kippur War of October 1973. In this example, Israel was surprised by the new-found technical prowess of the Arab armies led by Egypt and Syria. The IAF was required to expend a sizable portion of its fighting strength to provide time for mobilisation. Surprised by the technical mastery of their opponents, in a matter of days, 102 aircraft were lost (roughly 25% of available combat aircraft), along with 53 aircrew. The crisis was only resolved by the rapid shipment of replacement aircraft from the US inventory under Operation Nickel Grass.

While certainly an example of high-intensity conflict, the requirement for Australia to fight for its existence as Israel did is unlikely or would be, at the very least, preceded by warnings such that the nation could be mobilised and prepared for such a conflict. It is partially through Australia’s preferred method of warfare, the controlled commitment of forces in expeditionary wars, that such attrition has been avoided.

A more pertinent example for Australian forces is the experience of No. 77 Squadron during the Korean War (a perhaps timely example given ongoing tensions on the Peninsula). The deployment of a single fighter squadron in June 1950 would seem at face value to match the characteristics of more recent Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) commitments; the level of attrition, however, was not comparable. Over a three-year commitment, 41 pilots died, and six were captured. At the peak of fighting the squadron replaced 25% the pilot force over an eighteen-month period. Finding the Second World War era North American P-51 Mustang to be outmatched after losing 13 aircraft, No. 77 Squadron was re-equipped in May 1951 with the Gloster Meteor. Of the 94 Meteors acquired by Australia, 30 were subsequently lost to enemy action, delivering a significant portion of the 54-aircraft lost in total over Korea and Japan.[1] The consequence of this action was that No. 77 Squadron, in effect, replaced all of its aircraft at least once, and in a handful of years, expending the bulk of the entire RAAF fleet.

JK0901A
Squadron Leader Ross Glassop and Flight Lieutenant Sainer Rees, pilots, serving with No. 77 Squadron RAAF chat with the crew of No. 36 Squadron RAAF which had flown from Japan with supplies of rockets and aircraft spares. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

One should hope that future deployments would avoid committing forces in obsolete aircraft. However, it should be noted that the Australian government maintained the force commitment in Korea despite these and other subsequent losses.

What Does This Mean?

In preparing for future conflict, any fifth-generation air force must ensure access to both the physical (hardware) and human resources required to replace those lost.

The procurement of aircraft and their associated supporting hardware may be the most straightforward requirement to meet, assuming access to global markets. While contemporary production rates are much lower than those of the Second World War, they are still significant for those aircraft in full production. While the Israeli losses in 1973 were substantial, production of the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, the mainstay multi-role aircraft of the period, averaged 19 aircraft per month, over the life of production.  Israel’s losses of this aircraft type (32 of the 102 total), while critical to the IAF, were only the equivalent of less than two months production out of the Fort Worth factory.

The replacement of human resources, specifically aircrew, will be determined by a combination of the resources allocated to training (rather than fighting), and the desired quality of the resulting product. Given our resource-constrained environment, it may well be that ‘great’ is the enemy of ‘good enough’. In this context, a fifth-generation air force will need to accept that its workforce may not have not quite mastered the full spectrum of fifth-generation fighting techniques; however, it will need to employ them regardless.

A fifth-generation air force will also need to incorporate these replacements within the chosen operational approach. Concerning hardware, it will be rare that the exact aircraft lost from the inventory will be in production. With platforms potentially being fielded for decades, it is to be expected that subsequent variants will be produced, or entirely new platforms created in the decades following acquisitions. As such, while a replacement platform may be found, the capabilities are unlikely to be identical to that it replaces.

More critically to the networked fifth-generation force, it is unlikely that replacement assets will be fitted with the exquisitely detailed set of combat data and information exchange systems specified as part of the fifth-generation force structure. This will particularly be the case if the preferred supplier of our platforms is otherwise occupied. Returning to the example of No. 77 Squadron, when the Mustang was determined to be unsuitable for the Korean conflict, the RAAF initially sought the North American F-86 Sabre from the United States, however, as production was already committed to US customers, the British Meteor was chosen instead. While this aircraft was first flown in 1944 and was far from the cutting edge of technology, the war marched on, and Australia could not wait until it was ready to fight on its terms.[2]

Conclusion

While the aim of the technologically and professionally-advanced fifth-generation force is admirable, planning and foresight cannot overcome the uncertain nature of war, precisely the inevitability of loss. At its heart, a fifth-generation force requires flexibility to adapt to any environment. In this context, the squadron must become less of an exquisite implementation tool, and more a delivery mechanism through which aircraft and aircrew are ground against the enemy at the point of friction. In such a situation, ‘good enough’ may quickly become the new normal.

Rex Harrison is an Air Combat Officer in Royal Australian Air Force officer. He can be found on Twitter at @spacecadetrex. The views expressed are the author’s and do not reflect the official position of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Department of Defence, or the Australian Government.

Header Image: An Israeli Air Force F-4E Phantom II at Tel Nof, c. 2013. This type of aircraft was used by the IAF during the Yom Kippur War. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Alan Stephens, Going Solo: The Royal Australian Air Force, 1946-1971 (Canberra: AGPS Press, 1995), p. 241.

[2] Ibid, p. 240.

Contested Skies: Australia’s Uncertain Air Superiority Future

Contested Skies: Australia’s Uncertain Air Superiority Future

By Dr Peter Layton

In war, there’s a constant to and fro. At times defence dominates, at other times offence. Technologies arise and fall. Disruption rules. This is noticeably so in today’s arcane world of air superiority. While much investment has gone into the ADF’s air superiority capabilities—with more coming with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter—the operational environment is not standing still.

KC-30 Tanker Test fuel transfer to F-35A
An RAAF KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport conducted refuelling trials with a US Air Force F-35A Joint Strike Fighter at Edwards Air Force Base in California. (Source: Department of Defence, Australian Government)

The skies are increasingly contested. Emerging threats are making Australia’s tanker, and AEW&C (airborne early warning and control) aircraft more vulnerable and advanced surface-to-air missiles, stealth-fighter technology, long-range ballistic and cruise missiles and even hobbyist drones are proliferating. The US Air Force (USAF) recently studied what all this means in practice and determined that its ‘projected force structure in 2030 is not capable of fighting and winning against [the expected] array of potential adversary capabilities’. If the USAF’s force structure is becoming stretched so, surely, is ours.

Some warn that the 2030 date may mislead, asserting that ‘Integrated Air Defence Systems covering areas in the Western Pacific … may now be able to deny access to all but the stealthiest of aircraft’. The ‘stealthiest of aircraft’ refers to the flying wing B-2 Spirit stealth bombers and forthcoming B-21 Raiders. It seems that F-35s with their vertical tails have some vulnerabilities to emerging multiband digital radars. A RAND study echoes these concerns about current and growing air-superiority shortcomings.

Even so, 2030 isn’t far away in defence terms. It is only seven years after Australia’s F-35 fleet will have—hopefully—reached final (or full) operational status. That is not long in the planned 25- to 30-year life of the aircraft.

Australia has committed to its major air superiority investments, which makes them a good starting point to discuss the strategic impacts of known and emerging changes in the air superiority operational environment. In my new paper published by ASPI titled Contested Skies, I use current air superiority force structure plans to develop three practical strategic options to address these changes.

Two of these options require modifying the current plans. That may worry some, but strategic ‘ends’ can’t be determined independently of the capability ‘means’. The two are interdependent. When the means are fixed, it makes sense to discuss alternative ‘ways’ that might reasonably bring strategic ends into alignment.

The three options are:

  • Continuing present plans. Maintaining our current operational plans and future equipment programmes means lowering our national ambitions to simply the defence of Australia. This ‘back to the future’ approach implies abandoning Southeast Asian nations to do the best they can as China rises and its sphere of influence expands. Strategically, this shifts the burden of conducting offensive air operations onto our American ally. While we could contribute by providing a safe base area in any conflict in which the skies were seriously contested, this level of involvement would not give us much influence on overall allied strategy or in any war-termination negotiations. Our current air superiority plans doom us to being a bit player.
  • Going ‘air defence heavy’. This option changes our current capability development plans to stress air defence. A start would include acquiring significant numbers of advanced SAMs and sensors for integrated air and missile defence, changing present F-35 upgrade plans and focussing on making airbases more resilient. Strategically, the ‘air defence heavy’ approach would allow Australia to remain deeply engaged in Southeast Asia and make a meaningful—perhaps decisive—contribution in times of serious conflict. Because this approach is less reliant on US support, it would allow us to mount independent operations in an area critical to our future. This has some echoes with the Pacific War’s later stages, when the US relied on Australian forces to conduct operations in Borneo while it focused on the Philippines and beyond.
  • Rebuilding our strike capability. This option entails adjusting our current plans to focus on reconfiguring our strike capability to be effective in contested airspace beyond 2030. We would also need to make a limited investment in integrated air and missile defence. The USAF study mentioned earlier foresees the F-35 losing its strike role at the end of the next decade and then becoming an air defence fighter—taking the ‘strike’ out of ‘Joint Strike Fighter’. This applies to all of the elements that comprise the ADF’s strike capabilities, not just to the F-35. If we want to maintain a genuine strike capability into the future, we need to take positive steps to do so. However, this will not be easy or low cost—or maybe even doable.
20170221raaf8207218_002
Two F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters conduct the first ever trans-Pacific flight from the US to RAAF Base Amberley, Australia to be displayed for the first time at the Australian International Air Show at Avalon, Victoria.(Source: Department of Defence, Australian Government)

In broad terms, the status quo ‘defence of Australia’ option implies burden-shifting onto the US, the ‘air defence heavy’ approach implies a reduced dependency on the US—perhaps lessening America’s burdens—while the rebuilding of our strike capability implies continuing to share the burden with the US in major ‘must-win’ wars past 2030.

Air superiority may seem narrowly technical, but it can have a significant impact on the range of strategies that can realistically be considered. It is time for a big air-superiority rethink.

This post was originally published by The Strategist, the commentary and analysis site of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, an independent, non-partisan think tank based in Canberra.

Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. He has extensive defence experience including teaching grand strategy at the Eisenhower College, US National Defence University. He has a doctorate from the University of New South Wales on the subject of grand strategy and undertook a Fellowship at the European University Institute. His research interests include grand strategy, national security policies particularly relating to middle powers, defence force structure concepts, and armed non-state actors.

Header Image: On 29 September 2014, an Australian F-35A Lightning II aircraft took off from Fort Worth, Texas, USA. It was the maiden flight for the Australian F-35A, which was flown by Alan Norman of Lockheed Martin, lasting approximately two hours. (Source: Department of Defence, Australian Government)