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We know what’s in, but what’s out? Assessing the reprioritisations and the ‘cuts’ of the IIP and NDS (Part 3)

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence, Richard Marles is received by an honour guard at RMAF Base Butterworth in Malaysia (Source: Defence)

In a major departure from traditional Australian air power, both the National Defence Strategy and Integrated Investment Program have called on the Royal Australian Air Force to embrace a doctrine of “expeditionary air operations”. However, it remains to be seen whether we will actually get what is advertised on the tin.

In a major departure from traditional Australian air power, both the National Defence Strategy and Integrated Investment Program have called on the Royal Australian Air Force to embrace a doctrine of “expeditionary air operations”. However, it remains to be seen whether we will actually get what is advertised on the tin.

The advent of offensive and defensive air power in the waning days of the First World War would kick off a technological arms race that in less than 50 years would see military aircraft evolve from simple wood and canvas mounts to supersonic and stratospheric scraping technological marvels.

Air power as a tactical and strategic doctrine really came into its own during the Second World War, as close air support, air superiority and strategic bombing saw the rapid evolution of aircraft and operational concepts through which they would operate.


Fast forward to today, and the interconnected network of aircraft, ranging from stealth fighter and bombers through to air-to-air refuellers, heavy lift aircraft with global reach and now the advent of uncrewed and autonomous systems are fundamentally changing the shape and delivery of tactical and strategic airpower as a whole.

For the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) the transition towards a “fifth-generation” air force has been a long-term project, arguably beginning with Australia’s joining of the Joint Strike Fighter program in 2001 and has been gathering pace since then.

Recognising this, air power, specifically “expeditionary air operations”, has emerged as a central pillar of the government’s push to develop a “whole-of-nation national defence” and “strategy of denial” as articulated in the nation’s first National Defence Strategy (NDS) and supporting Integrated Investment Program (IIP).

Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles told media and industry leaders at the National Press Club: “The Royal Australian Air Force will acquire longer range missiles for the Joint Strike Fighters, the Super Hornets and the Growlers. These will variously include: the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile, the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile – Extended Range and the Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile – Extended Range. Work will also continue on the development of hypersonic air-launched weapons for employment on the Super Hornets.”

In order to support the delivery of these combat capabilities and the revolutionary doctrine of “expeditionary air operations”, the government’s Integrated Investment Program has earmarked $28–33 billion for “capabilities that will enable Air Force to undertake expeditionary air operations to project force into our primary area of military interest”.

Going further, the IIP detailed: “These capabilities will provide aerial surveillance of our maritime approaches, hold at risk, at extended ranges, potential adversary forces that could target our interests during a conflict and deter attempts to project power against Australia.”

But again, as with the analysis conducted of both Army and Navy, how much of what has been proposed is new, how much of it is a “reprioritisation”, how much of it is long-term “baked in” investments dating back a decade, and will the Royal Australian Air Force ultimately be better off at the end of the decade of 2034–35?

Enabling ‘expeditionary air operations’ – air mobility and ISR in the crosshairs

As part of the modernisation associated with the $28–33 billion announced as part of the 2024 National Defence Strategy and Integrated Investment Program, the government has prioritised “air mobility” capabilities, worth an “estimated $11 billion” to support rapid deployments of Australian military power across the region.

This investment in the nation’s air mobility continues the acquisition and replacement of the current C-130J fleet with 20 new-build C-130J aircraft, with the first aircraft expected to be in service in the 2027–28 time frame. This capability is to be further enhanced by the C-17A and KC-30A fleets, respectively, which will be maintained through the 2030s via the “air mobility capability assurance program”.

Additionally, in support of these developments, the government has also committed to enhancing Australia’s northern air base infrastructure to “more resilient and sustainable platform for force projection”.

Enabling this, the government has committed $4 billion to “enhance the ADF’s air intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and maritime patrol and response capabilities” through the continued upgrade and acquisition of the P-8A Poseidon fleet and the MQ-4C Triton fleet, respectively. Finally, the government has committed to the continued acquisition of the MC-55A Peregrine, which was first announced in 2019 as part of a $2.46 billion acquisition program.

For context, the 2020 Defence Strategic Update (DSU) and 2020 Force Structure Plan (FSP) and their own foundational documents, the 2016 Integrated Investment Program and 2016 Defence White Paper, respectively, detail extensive plans for the recapitalisation and modernisation of Australia’s air mobility and airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.

Interestingly, in the 2020 DSU and 2020 FSP, the government earmarked approximately $65 billion worth of investment in Australia’s air capabilities in the decade out to 2030, a far cry more than what has been allocated in the 2024 NDS and IIP, respectively. Bringing us to the 2016 Integrated Investment Program and 2016 Defence White Paper, with the 2016 IIP earmarking $11.7 billion for “air and sea lift”, while intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, electronic warfare, space and cyber were to share in $17.55 billion over the decade to 2025–26.

In the air lift space, the 2016 Integrated Investment Program set aside $1.7–2.7 billion for four additional KC-30A aircraft (now in service), with $190 million allocated to the modification of a KC-30A to serve as a government transport aircraft. In addition to this, the 2016 IIP allocated $830 million for “battlefield airlift replacement”, $500 million for an additional C-17A along with $100–200 million as part of the planned C-17A capability assurance program and an additional $100–200 million for a similar program for the original C-130J Hercules aircraft.

Interestingly, the 2016 IIP has $1–2 billion allocated for the “medium/heavy air mobility aircraft” program, set to begin in approximately 2025, compared to the $9.8 billion acquisition of the 20 new C-130J Hercules aircraft. Equally of note is the $2–3 billion allocated in the 2016 IIP for “long-range combat search and rescue aircraft”, which seems to be missing from the 2020 DSU and FSP and the 2024 Integrated Investment Program.

Fast forward to the 2020 DSU and FSP, and little change is made in the way of those planned acquisitions with business as usual continuing for the established acquisition and modernisation pathways initially established as part of the 2016 Defence White Paper and supporting policy documents.

Finally, the hardening and modernisation of the nation’s existing critical basing infrastructure, particularly in northern Australia to “boost the resilience” of our national airpower, as well as enhancing the deployability through the acquisition of large-scale, deployable basing infrastructure serves as a common thread through each of the successive documents beginning in 2016.

While air mobility is critical to the delivery of airpower, particularly in the conduct of “expeditionary air operations”, kinetic, combat airpower is at the tip of the spear, particularly in the potential for great power conflict and competition we may face.

No real growth in Australia’s ‘air combat capability’

Arguably, since the 1987 Defence White Paper, the bulk of Australia’s air combat/air power capability has come from its fleet of 100 “fast jets”, today made up of 72 F-35A Joint Strike Fighters, along with 24 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and a lesser extent, the 12 E/A-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft.

Yet, if the circumstances of our geostrategic environment are as dangerous as we are continuously told, why has the 2024 NDS and IIP not called for a material expansion of Australia’s air combat capability? Well, Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy stressed in an interview with Greg Jennett of the ABC that, in large part, this comes as a result of how capable our existing combat jet fleet is.

“We’ve got 72 Joint Strike Fighters, and we’ve got a number of Super Hornets, and we’ve decided to keep the Super Hornets in service for two reasons. One, they’re doing great work. Secondly, the Joint Strike Fighter is even more capable than we initially thought. So we can delay the replacement of the Super Hornet, which frees up funding to invest in more long‑range missiles, for example,” Minister Conroy explained.

But how does this stack up to the 2020 Defence Strategic Update (DSU) and 2020 Force Structure Plan (FSP) and their own foundational documents, the 2016 Integrated Investment Program and 2016 Defence White Paper, respectively, and, is it a step in the right direction?

By now, it is a well-known secret that Australia’s acquisition of the fourth and final squadron of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters worth $4.5–6.7 billion as per the 2020 FSP will not be pursued, bringing the decision in line with successive Defence white papers beginning with the 2009 Defence White Paper, and was subsequently reinforced in the 2016 Defence White Paper and 2016 Integrated Investment Program, which articulated a firm order of 72 Joint Strike Fighters.

Importantly, at the funding level, the 2016 IIP earmarked $33.15 billion for “strike and air combat” capabilities, which compares to the just $10–12 billion allocated to “upgrade Australia’s fleet of combat aircraft to mitigate advanced threats and maintain interoperability with partners and allies across the region. Investments in priority capability enhancements to these aircraft will increase their lethality and survivability against air, land and maritime threats at extended ranges, operating alongside electronic warfare systems,” in the 2024 Integrated Investment Program.

Again, a stark departure in the decade-long figure allocated in the 2016 IIP; this only becomes more apparent when one considers that the government plans to keep the Super Hornets and Growlers (originally purchased in the early 2010s) in service to 2040 through increased investments in lethality and survivability upgrades.

This comes in stark contrast to the 2016 Integrated Investment Program, which articulated the early need to replace both the Super Hornet and Growler, respectively, through early participation with US and/or global fighter programs, think the US Air Force’s Next-Generation Air Dominance Fighter, the US Navy’s F/A-XX Super Hornet replacement or the British Tempest program.

Equally interesting are the investments beginning in the 2016 Integrated Investment Program and arguably further back to the 2009 Defence White Paper, both of which call for investment in and acquisition of a suite of new air-launched, precision-guided weapons to enhance the long-range strike capabilities of the Air Forces fast jet fleet.

This includes missiles like the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), Joint Air-to-Ground Missile (JAGM-ER) and the development of “high-speed and long-range” air-to-surface strike weapons for the F-35 and Super Hornet and Growler fleets, including hypersonic strike weapons, developed in conjunction with partners like the United States.

The 2020 FSP articulates this prioritisation, saying the government would support the development of options to invest in “a development, test and evaluation program for high-speed, long-range strike and missile defence, including hypersonic weapons, leading to prototypes to inform future investments”.

Fast forward to the 2024 Integrated Investment Program, the government stated: “Continued investment in the F‑35A Joint Strike Fighter fleet will provide incremental improvements to the aircraft’s capabilities, including through the integration of long‑range strike munitions such as the Long Range Anti‑Ship Missile and potentially the Joint Strike Missile ... these two air combat aircraft (F-35 and Super Hornet) will provide the integrated, focused force with multiple credible and valuable strike and missile defence option.”

Again, this is with a bulk of the funding allocated to both the Army and Navy, while the government has been quick to spruik the figure of $28–33 billion invested in the nation’s air combat capability over the next decade, $12–16 billion of that figure remains firmly in the “unapproved planned investment” category, according to the 2024 Integrated Investment Program.

Finally, rounding out the government’s investment in Australia’s air combat capability, is $4.3–5.3 billion to support the development of Block 2 MQ-28A Ghost Bat aircraft, designed to enhance the capacity of the aircraft to perform intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and combat roles alongside crewed aircraft, as a mechanism for providing much-needed mass to the Air Force.

This common thread, expands upon the early development work conducted during the previous government, which sought to provide Defence with “a range of effective, expendable and economical capability options into the future” while also limiting the exposure of defence personnel to harms way.

Final thoughts

If much of this sounds familiar, it is because, ultimately, in the case of the Air Force, little remains changed from the earliest incarnations of the 2016 Defence White Paper and arguably even further back than that to the 2009 Defence White Paper.

In this case it is hard to clearly see how beyond a series of by now, well “known knowns” the Air Force is going to be materially in a significantly different place in five years’ time, let alone a decade’s time as is the proposed funding timeline for the 2024 Integrated Investment Program and the 2024 National Defence Strategy.

One can’t help but feel that this comes as a result of the Army being positioned as the “long-range strike” partner of choice for Defence via the acquisition of HIMARS and weapons systems like the Precision Strike Missile (at least until the arrival of our nuclear submarine fleet) leaving Air Force with a confused role and undefined sense of being beyond the “application of expeditionary air power”.

I will come back to unpacking and comparing the 2024 National Defence Strategy and Integrated Investment Program later in the week, just to space out the content.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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