When the forces of Germany launched themselves over the borders of Poland in the opening days of the Second World War, the nature of combat was changed forever. The seamless integration of mechanised, armour, artillery, infantry and, for the first time on a major scale, close air support units enabled the doctrine of Blitzkrieg to overwhelm successive opponents from Poland to France and the British Empire and highlighted the role air support would play in future conflicts.
The power of close air support was not limited to land warfare, shifting to the naval domain, the power of fixed wing naval aviation became unquestionable following the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbour and the routing of the Japanese Navy at the Battle of Midway. The post-war threat of the Red Army in Europe combined with technological developments enhanced the lethality and effectiveness of close air support.
American and Soviet advances in helicopter technology resulting in the AH-1 Cobra and the Mi-24, combined with the advent of tactical fighter aircraft like the F-111, paved the way for the introduction of potent close air support platforms that were designed to dominate the Cold War battlefields of Europe and south-east Asia.
However, the constant rate of technological evolution in both land and close air support platforms resulted in the modern pinnacle of close air support weapons systems, the A-10C Warthog, Su-25 Frogfoot, AH-64 Apache, evolved versions of the AH-1 Cobra like the US Marine Corps' 'Zulu' AH-1Z Vipers, the Mi-28 and Australia's own Tiger Armed Reconnaissance Helicopters.
Close air support attack and reconnaissance helicopters have emerged as powerful force multipliers in contemporary force structures, with expeditionary focused units like the US Marines 'Marine Expeditionary Units' (MEU) and the larger Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTF) deployment of integrated, combined arms forces serving as a model for the development of Australia's own expeditionary and power projection capabilities.
Recognising the importance of such capabilities, particularly the combination of close-air support, reconnaissance and rapidly deployable expeditionary capabilities of attack helicopters, the Australian Army has initiated the LAND 4503 Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter (ARH) replacement program to support the Army's transition from the maligned ARH Tiger to a next-generation attack helicopter platform.
Drawing on the experience of the USMC
Australia's focus on developing a rapid response, amphibious task force is a step in the right direction. The model established by the US MEUs provides a best practice model of expeditionary-focused power projection, however an expansion in the size of the Army could see the development of four regiment size (2,200+) amphibious regiments capable of rotating as the tip of the spear.
The Marines and the globally deployed MEUs and MAGTFs provide the US with an unrivalled rapid response to contingencies ranging from humanitarian disaster relief and counter-insurgency to sea control and high-intensity, power projection combat operations against a peer competitor.
Developing such amphibious capabilities would serve as a key capability for extending the nation's reach, while also introducing the ability to rapidly deploy, a tactical and strategic force multiplier capable of low-to-high intensity combat operations, humanitarian support and interventions and A2/AD operations at key strategic chokepoints, like the Straits of Malacca or Lombok Strait.
As a 'combined arms' force, both the MEU and MAGTF models incorporate four key elements, including:
- Command Element (CE): Providing command and control, including management and planning for manpower, intelligence, reconnaissance, operations and training, and logistics functions.
- Ground Combat Element (GCE): Composed primarily of infantry units, the GCE also includes reconnaissance (scout/sniper units); forward air controller; nuclear, biological and chemical defence; communications; logistics support and service; artillery; armour (including amphibious armoured vehicles and armoured reconnaissance); and combat engineer capabilities.
- Aviation Combat Element (ACE): Contributes to the air power component including fixed wing aircraft (ranging from strike to air lift and aerial refuelling), helicopters (both attack and airlift), tiltrotor (airlift) and UAV capabilities.
- Logistics Combat Element (LCE): Provides the majority of combat service support including heavy motor transport, ground supply, heavy engineer support, ground equipment maintenance, and advanced medical and dental support roles.
Javier Ball, international campaign manager, Asia, global military sales and strategy for Bell Flight and a former US Marine, explained to Defence Connect the importance of interoperability for both Australia and the US – particularly as the geo-strategic dynamics of the Indo-Pacific continue to evolve.
"Interoperability is more than being able to move, shoot and communicate, if we have the same or similar platform, it means we can land on one another's ships, it means we can service and sustain one another's platforms, reduces logistics tails, thus enhancing the capacity to operate as part of a 'joint force'," Ball said.
Viper as part of the 'combined arms' expeditionary force
These developments serve as the basis for 'Accelerated Warfare' – the next evolution of Plan Beersheba – and the continued development of Australia's expeditionary and combined arms capabilities, which Major General Gus McLachlan, retired Commander Forces Command, described to Defence Connect in late 2018: "In Plan Beersheba we have the spine, the backbone of our 21st century, combined arms force, but it isn't the future. That is where Accelerated Warfare comes into play, it aims to make Army an adaptable and capable force."
The shifting focus towards specialist amphibious warfare capabilities, combined with the structural reorganisation of the Army to focus on integrating infantry, armour, artillery, combat signals, engineers and support elements across Army's three regular force combatants – 1st, 3rd and 7th Brigades – served as the fundamental basis for refocusing the structure and combat capabilities of the Army between 2011 and 2017.
Responding to these unique challenges has served to establish Accelerated Warfare not only as the successor to Plan Beersheba, but the next stage in the evolution of the Australian Army as a fully-fledged, combined arms fighting force capable of fighting and winning in every key domain of the 21st century battlefield.
A core component of this future focus is the introduction of key platforms and technologies to ensure that Army remains ahead of potential adversaries, while also being capable of leveraging the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and strike capabilities of key Navy and Air Force platforms, like the air warfare destroyers, Canberra Class amphibious warfare ships, the E-7A Wedgetails and the F-35A.
Viper was designed from the skids up as an expeditionary focused platform, it is designed "from the get go to fly off a ship, and to be rapidly deployed from Air Force air lift platforms like the C-17 Globemaster within 30 mins", Bell stated – with the Canberra Class LHDs and HMAS Choules each capable of supporting the deployment of the Viper platform with the 'marinised' platform benefits capable of supporting full operational and strategic capability in the ADF arsenal.
As Australia's role in Indo-Pacific Asia and the strategic balance of power continues to evolve, the Australian Army will be called upon to fulfil a range of roles beyond those it has conducted over the past 50 years. Power projection and the application of 'hard power' in both a high and low intensity capacity will dramatically reshape the Australian Army despite an unprecedented level of investment.