Like its counterparts, the Royal Australian Air Force is undergoing a period of unprecedented modernisation and expansion. However, as regional air forces continue to develop peer-competitor capabilities and increase size and complexity, is the Air Force large enough to reliably execute the mission in a radically evolving geo-political and strategic order?
Throughout history, military operations have favoured those who occupy the high ground. Command of the skies empowers both offensive and defensive operations, while also providing powerful deterrence options as part of the broader implementation of power projection and national security doctrines.
Air dominance reflects the pinnacle of the high ground, where both a qualitative and quantitative edge in doctrine, equipment and personnel supports the unrivalled conduct of offensive or defensive air combat operations. Air dominance proved influential as a tactical and strategic operating concept, with the use of tactical fighters providing air dominance, close air support and escort essential to the Allied triumph in the Second World War.
Long-range strike, typically conducted by strategic bombers and long-range, heavy strike fighters like the venerable F-111 supported by air-to-air refueling and airborne early warning and command aircraft, serves as a complementary doctrine to air dominance, with each serving a unique, yet symbiotic role in the survivability and effectiveness of tactical units and the broader strategic deterrence.
However, neither of these capabilities are sustainable without a robust, rapidly deployable and survivable fleet of air-to-air refuelling tanker support aircraft – while this force multiplying capability has emerged as an area of strength for the RAAF in recent years, particularly given the successful deployment of the Airbus-designed and built KC-30A multi-role tanker/transport (MRTT) platform, the geographic and strategic operating environment of the Indo-Pacific will serve to challenge the strategic and tactical manouverability of both Australian and allied operations.
While the RAAF's fleet of KC-30A MRTTs are a critical, high-end capability, empowering freedom of movement and sustained high-intensity air combat operations, the very real geographic and strategic operating environment of the Indo-Pacific – namely small archipelagos and atolls – limits the availability and forward deployability of the larger KC-30 airframes.
Additionally, these large air frames serve as extremely enticing targets for potential adversaries seeking to severely hinder offensive air operations when compared with smaller, more rapidly deployable, multi-role tanker style aircraft. Recognising this, both the US Navy and US Marine Corps have sought to address the vulnerability of the US Air Force's larger tankers by introducing a range of stop-gap technologies and platforms.
This dedicated focus on addressing these tactical and strategic concerns has prompted the development of modifications for the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fleet of the US Navy, which sees a fifth of a carrier air wing provide tactical tanker support for the wider carrier air wing. This capability, designated the aerial refuelling system (ARS) or 'buddy store', for refuelling of other aircraft incorporates an external 1,200-litre tank with a hose reel on the centerline, this is further supported by the addition of four external 1,800-litre tanks and internal tanks providing a total of 13,000 kilograms of fuel.
Building on this, the US Navy also recently confirmed the selection of the MQ-25 Stingray unmanned aerial refuelling platform, designed to launch from US Navy aircraft carriers to support carrier strike air wings – the US Navy anticipates that the Stingray platform will extend the Super Hornet's combat radius to beyond 1,300 kilometres, with a planned capability to deliver 6,800 kilograms to fuel a total of four to six aircraft at a range of 930 kilometres.
The US Marine Corps has recognised the need for its own rapidly deployable aerial refuelling-tanker capability, leveraging the growing capability delivered by the V-22 Osprey to further support the expeditionary capability of Marine platforms like the large-deck amphibious warfare ships and the F-35B – these requirements were largely driven by the growing anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities of China.
The shifting tactical and strategic requirements directly influenced by the growing power projection and A2/AD capabilities of China resulted in a series of 'roll-on/roll-off' capability package kits for the Osprey, including an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance kit, and critically, a roll-on/roll-off tanker capability that includes a 5,400-kilogram fuel bladder with a rear mounted refuelling hose.
This capability enables the Osprey to serve as a refuelling platform for both rotary wing and fixed wing aircraft while combining the rugged deployability and heavy-lift capability of the Osprey platform into an integrated force package capable of supporting a range of assets across the air, ground and logistics combat elements of forward deployed Marine task forces.
The ADF serves an important role within Australia’s policy making apparatus and is critical to long-term national security, and while the continued defence budget growth is expected to be widely welcomed by industry, the growing challenges to the Indo-Pacific region are raising questions about whether Australia’s commitment to 2 per cent of GDP is suitable to support the growing role and responsibilities that Australia will be required to undertake as regional security load sharing between the US and allies becomes a reality.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves not only as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia. Shifting the public discussion away from the default Australian position of "it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother" will provide unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.