That’s the view from a seminar on the requirements of high intensity warfare conducted in Canberra this week by air power think tank, the Sir Richard Williams Foundation.
The Australian Defence Force has been busy since the terrorist attacks in the US in September 2001, but that’s far from the type of warfare that would likely occur with a peer or near-peer adversary such as Russia or China.
“Even with us fielding our fifth-generation force, I put forward that a peer competitor would challenge us in many areas,” former RAAF chief Air Marshal (Ret'd) Geoff Brown told the conference.
He said it was 15 years since Australia deployed to the Persian Gulf and needed to be careful about the lessons from that recent period.
“While space and cyber are very much a part of the operational art there are a lot of issues that we really haven’t looked at closely over the last 30-plus years,” Brown said.
That included issues such as hardening of facilities, security of supply, ability in a CBR environment, dispersion of assets and adequacy of fuel and war stocks.
Dr Ross Babbage, chief executive of the security think tank Strategic Forum and a former senior defence official, said just acquiring modernised versions of current equipment was not going to cut it.
“We are not yet ready to fight a high intensity war. We have a great deal to do to prepare,” he said.
“We have a great deal to do if we are going to be ready for this sort of conflict.”
Dr Babbage this could feature new generation of hypersonic ballistic and cruise missiles, the first sixth-generation air combat capabilities, autonomous systems and quantum technologies.
The lead-up would involve escalating cyber and political warfare, designed to undermine allied and partner resolve. The outbreak would feature immediate and deep kinetic and non-kinetic strikes, and all homelands would be vulnerable.
Dr Babbage said Australia needed a clear strategy to win, advanced military capabilities to deter and defeat an enemy, structural depth and resilience to recover and prevail, an industrial base to support operations, a logistic base able to operate effectively in a contested environment, defence for home bases and space assets.
“In the sort of crisis we are talking about, we are going to have to mobilise much larger elements of our societies to be an active part of the effort. That is different to the traditional mobilisation plans and concepts,” he said.
“We can expect kinetic and non-kinetic strikes in very great depth. All homelands will be vulnerable.”
Dr Babbage aid such a conflict might be short but was more likely to last months or even years.
Head of the Royal Air Force Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier said everyone was waking up to the fact that control of air and space was now contested to a degree not seen since the Cold War.
“We need to get used to the idea that in any future environment, high intensity warfare or not, control of the air is going to have to be fought for and fought hard for is we are to establish that vital freedom of manoeuvre,” he said.
Air Chf Mshl Hillier said the RAF, which had participated in operations against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, was busier than it had been for generations and that was a cause for concern.
“If my current force is being pushed by a sustained fight against a terrorist organisation, we have much work to do if we are to be technologically and in processes and people and resilience and sustainability ... if we are to be ready to deal with the scale and the breadth of threats which we really mean when we speak about high intensity warfare,” he said.