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Knowledge is power: Future-proofing the ADF’s ISR capabilities

In the era of vast volumes of information, advanced sensor suites and intelligence gathering platforms, decision making has never been easier however, as anti-access/area-denial systems continue to evolve and proliferate, Australia’s already impressive intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities will need to be future-proofed.

As part of nation's largest peacetime modernisation and recapitalisation of the Australian Defence Force, extensive resources have been directed to enhancing the growing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities supporting the nation's decision makers in real time. However, the increasing proliferation of advanced counter-intelligence, electronic warfare (EW) and, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, integrated anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities are challenging the future of Australia's ISR capabilities. 

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British 15th century philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon established the premise that "knowledge is power" – intelligence and reconnaissance has always played a central role in warfare and strategy, the increasing dependence of modern armed forces and decision makers on technology has empowered rapid decision making drawing on a range of air, land, sea and space-based sensors, increasing the fidelity and accuracy to limit and in some cases prevent, collateral damage. 

On the contemporary multi-domain battlefield, combining disparate sources and platforms for information gathering serves to overcome some of the challenges emerging from the increased proliferation of counter-ISR, EW and integrated A2/AD systems in the Indo-Pacific and more broadly throughout the Middle East and Europe.

Enter multi-domain battle management and integrated command and control infrastructure and networks which are designed to combine information gathering resources, from the tactical to the strategic levels in order to establish a seamless overlay of the battlespace or more broadly, the area of operations to empower both combatant commanders and political decision makers.

However, these 'systems of systems' don't work without the individual pieces ranging from airborne command and control and early warning assets like the Royal Australian Air Force's Boeing E-7A Wedgetail, the Boeing P-8A Poseidon and high altitude, long endurance (HALE) unmanned systems like the MQ-4C Triton; and the Royal Australian Navy's fleet of Collins Class submarines, Arafura Class offshore patrol vessels (OPV) and Hobart Class guided missile destroyers, which incorporate a range of advanced sensors. 

Additionally, Australia's world-leading over-the-horizon-radar network, JORN, plays a vital role in providing wide area surveillance across the northern approaches to the continent, combined with the widely recognised and growing information gathering and 'sensor fusion' capabilities of the RAAF's fleet of Lockheed Martin-built F-35A Joint Strike Fighters, all serve as the foundation of a potent ISR capabilities. 

The foundation JORN, Plan Jericho and AIR 6500

AIR 6500 and Plan Jericho serve as the basis for Australia's pursuit of a complex, integrated air and missile defence and multi-domain battle management system responsible for providing a range of capabilities – ranging from tactical air and missile area defence for forward deployed Army expeditionary units, through to a layered, continental air and missile defence system.

At the core of these programs is a focus on developing a complex 'system of systems' linking the disparate family of platforms and systems, like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, E-7A Wedgetail, P-8A Poseidon, Hobart Class and Hunter Class, which will provide a quantum surge in the way the ADF conducts independent and coalition operations.

The JORN network when linked with other force multiplier platforms like the aforementioned systems – serves as the basis of Australia's ISR capabilities. Providing wide area surveillance at ranges of 1,000 to 3,000 kilometres, and playing a vital role in supporting the ADF's air and maritime operations, paves the way for developing a uniquely Australian response in the Indo-Pacific. 

Deployable force multipliers Wedgetail, Poseidon, JSF, Triton Hobart, Collins and Hunter

As operations become increasingly expeditionary focused, deployable ISR and command and control platforms like the E-7A, and eventually the P-8A Poseidon and MQ-4C Triton, will serve as both the 'nerves' and 'brains' for air combat platforms like the RAAF's classic F/A-18 Hornets, new F/A-18F Super Hornets and E/A-18G Growlers, and the eventual foreign deployment of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. 

However, it is reasonable to assume that the environments Australian air assets will face will not be as uncontested and permissible as the operating environment in the Middle East the rapidly evolving integrated A2/AD systems deployed throughout the South China Sea (SCS) and the ever expanding net of counter-ISR platforms and capabilities in the SCS in particular will challenge Australia's enduring Operation GATEWAY responsibilities in the region. 

Meanwhile, the inherently maritime-centric nature of the Indo-Pacific, particularly Australia's maritime approaches and areas of strategic interest through the strategic sea-lines-of-communication (SLOC), will also challenge the capability of the Arafura, Hobart, Collins and future Attack and Hunter Class vessels as key components within the 'joint force' of ISR and command and control platforms.   

These ISR platforms each form critical components within the 'joint force' network and essential parts of Australia's freedom of navigation operations in the Indo-Pacific as a result of the increasingly contested tactical and strategic operating environment in the Indo-Pacific, each of these platforms will require an extensive set of future-proofed standards and modernisation programs to ensure continued efficacy beginning from the mid-2020s. 

Malcolm Davis, senior analyst at ASPI, explained the importance of the integration of such capabilities, and the importance of leveraging and integrating key platforms as a 'system of systems', to Defence Connect, saying, "The fifth-generation force has to be capable of operating across, land, sea, air, cyber, EM and space, and that is a core component of the transition to the joint force. We have to systems of systems, not just stovepipe platforms that are capable of connecting across a network and that is what is driving the AIR 6500 Integrated Battle Management program." 

Each of these platforms form part of an intricate jigsaw puzzle, each filling a unique purpose within the broader 'joint force' concept – coming together to form an integrated tapestry of capabilities. As part of this, the ADF will also acquire ground-based active electronically scanned array radars from around 2020, expanding Australia's access to air and space situational awareness information, including through space-based systems.

These platforms, operating individually, serve an important role within the broader 'joint force' concept of the future ADF – however, when integrated, these capabilities serve as part of the development of a broader integrated air and missile defence and A2AD system responsible for establishing a complex, 'defence in depth' network capable of shifting Australia's role in the region.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on the future of Australia's air combat capabilities and the role power projection doctrines could play in future acquisition and force structure conversations in the comments section below, or get in touch with 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..    

Knowledge is power: Future-proofing the ADF’s ISR capabilities
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