Despite all the speculation about future acquisitions over recent months, the Royal Australian Air Force looks set to become the biggest loser following the release of the Defence Strategic Review.
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While much of the emphasis has been on Army facing a fundamental restructuring and “focusing” of its capabilities, with an emphasis on long-range strike through capabilities like the HIMARs and PrSM platforms, respectively.
The traditional frontline of the nation’s long-range strike capability, the Royal Australian Air Force, has by far and away emerged as the biggest loser in what the government has defined as the most “consequential” review into the nation’s strategic and defence capabilities since the Second World War.
The government’s review articulates that “the Royal Australian Air Force must be optimised to fight all aspects of air warfare. The support of maritime, littoral, and sustainment operations form Australia’s northern base network will be a high priority”.
This emphasis will place increasing emphasis on hardening and securing Australia’s expansive northern defence infrastructure across Queensland, the Northern Territory, and Western Australia to provide survivable staging grounds for Australian and allied aircraft operating in the region.
The government recognises that Air Force must be able to maintain:
- a network of northern air bases with appropriate hardening and dispersal;
- crewed and autonomous systems capable of air defence;
- strike capability (maritime and land);
- intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance;
- anti-submarine warfare;
- command and control for integrated air and missile defence;
- air-to-air refuelling; and
- heavy and medium air mobility.
Delivering these capabilities, the government recognises that “Air Force must increase the numbers of critical positions and implement a scalable aircrew training system to meet aircrew requirements across the force, commensurate with operational requirements.
“Air combat crewing requires a new approach which is consistent with our strategic circumstances. Air Force must develop a plan to increase aircrew numbers to ensure that air combat and P-8 maritime squadrons have the crewing to operate all available aircraft at high tempo. This will substantially increase preparedness in the mid to long-term,” the review states.
This approach seemingly emphasises a “business as usual” approach to the nation’s execution and delivery of air power in the contemporary context, with little in the way of new or expanded acquisitions to markedly increase Australia’s air combat or air lift capabilities, beyond what has been announced.
The government’s review states a well-known fact that, “F-35A Joint Strike Fighter and F/A-18F Super Hornet aircraft must be able to operate the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile”.
Going further however, the government’s review does call for a marginal increase to the long-range strike capabilities of the Royal Australian Air Force, just not enough of one, with the review stating, “The Joint Strike Missile (JSM) should also be integrated onto the F-35A. To enable the F-35A fleet to operate the JSM, the aircraft will need to be upgraded to Block 4 configuration.”
Australia’s acquisition of the Joint Strike Missile has been a long time in the making, dating back at least to the mid-2010s, with the naval variant, the Naval Strike Missile only recently being announced by the government.
Air Force and Boeing can rejoice with the review stating, “MQ-28A Ghost Bat is a sovereign autonomous air vehicle designed to operate as part of an integrated system of crewed and uncrewed aircraft and space-based capabilities. MQ-28A is intended to be an attritable platform, which costs less than a crewed platform, and can be replaced rapidly. This program should be a priority for collaborative development with the United States.”
However, by far the biggest elephant in the room is the decision to not replace the long-range strike capability of the venerable F-111, with the government categorically ruling out an Australian acquisition of the B-21 Raider.
The government’s review stated, “The review has undertaken detailed discussions in Australia and the United States in relation to the B-21 Raider as a potential capability option for Australia.
“In light of our strategic circumstances and the approach to Defence strategy and capability development outlined in this review, we do not consider the B-21 to be a suitable option for consideration for acquisition," the review stated.
Going further, Space Command has also been removed from the auspice of the Royal Australian Air Force, with Space Command to be moved to Joint Capabilities Group (JCG).