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Balancing legacy and 5th-gen capabilities: On Point with AIRCDRE Kitcher

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The introduction of fifth-generation capabilities like the F-35 is changing the nature of the RAAF. Balancing the different operating and sustainment requirements of legacy platforms like the F-18 Hornet and JSF is critical to meeting government’s mission requirements. 

For Air Commodore Mike Kitcher, Commander Air Combat Group, the arrival of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in early December was the culmination of a decade of project development and acquisition, as part of Australia’s $17 billion investment in history’s largest defence project. 

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Despite the transformational capabilities promised by the F-35 platform, the nation’s legacy aircraft, like the F-18A/B Classic Hornet and the 4.5 generation F-18 E/F Super Hornet and Growlers, will continue to play a pivotal role in the air force. 

In the latest edition of On Point, Defence Connect will discuss the transition from legacy platforms to a fifth-generation fighting force for both the personnel and service, with AIRCDRE Kitcher to get to the bottom of the vision that is Plan Jericho and Air Force’s fifth-generation ambitions. 

As an introduction to the role of Air Combat Group (ACG), could you tell us what ACG does and what capabilities it provides government? 

Air Combat Group delivers the air combat capability for the ADF and for the government. Air Combat Group consists of three wings. Obviously, I’m the commander of Air Combat Group. I’ve got a staff here in the headquarters of Air Combat Group of 30 or 40 people.

Then, we go down to the wings. No. 81 Wing currently flies the Classic Hornet and the F-35. 81 Wing is headquartered here at Williamtown as well. It consists of 3, 75, and 77 squadrons and No. 2 OCU. 3 Squadron currently flies the F-35. 77 Squadron is based here at Williamtown.

75 Squadron is based up at RAAF Tindal in the Northern Territory. No. 2 OCU is the convert or the operational conversion squadron currently for the Classic Hornet. 

81 Wing will be transitioning as we speak from the Classic Hornet to the F-35. There’s two other Wings in Air Combat Group. No. 78 Wing basically looks after two key factors, our Hawk training aircraft, our operational or intro fighter aircraft, which consists of 79 Squadron over at RAAF Base Pearce and 76 Squadron here at Williamtown.

78 Wing also looks after 4 Squadron. 4 Squadron is a significant capability for the ADF, our combat control team, who have been deployed on operations in the Middle East since 2007, which few people realise.

We have air combat controllers, and we also have our joint terminal airspace controllers, our joint terminal attack controllers or JTACs, or in older parlance, forward air controllers trained by No. 4 Squadron as well.

78 Wing will also, over the next six to 12 months, become responsible for delivering a tactical air wing capability for the Air Force and the ADF as well.

That’s 81, 78 Wing, and then 82 Wing is based up at RAAF Amberley, near Brisbane. 82 Wing has a squadron of Super Hornets. They’ve had those since about 2010, and very recently introduced the EA-18G Growler aircraft as well. 1 Squadron with Super Hornet, and 6 Squadron with the Growlers. The Growlers will be declaring IOC in the very near future, I would imagine, as our newest capability.

As a whole, Air Combat Group encompasses about 2,200 people, across nine different squadrons flying classic Hornet, F-35, Super Hornet, Growler and Hawk, and the combat control capability across bases at Williamtown, Amberley, Tindal and Pearce, covering the entirety of continental Australia. 

Give us a bit of an insight of your views towards Plan Jericho and how the changing technological environment is changing the way Australia is and will interact with the changing geopolitical situation Australia finds itself in. 

Plan Jericho is still being managed and centrally run from the Jericho team in Canberra. There are 16 different projects. The Jericho team and a couple of group captains that headed that up a few years ago did quite a good job; they handed out 16 different projects to one-stars. 

Those projects are still running. Some of the projects were quite ambitious and the type of project that might be very difficult to actually ever call closed. Some of them have been closed and successful, so the Jericho program is still running, essentially managed in Canberra, with, if you like, specific tasks being given out to lots of individual commanders like myself. 

Plan Jericho is a a series of tasks that are designed to better interconnect the Air Force and the ADF. It’s also, if you like, a slightly different way of trying to do business and do things, which is to think outside the box, which is an OK thing to do, and also to think not only from an Air Force perspective, from a joint perspective about how capabilities might be introduced, and how capabilities might be advanced for the good of the joint force as opposed to just the Air Force, or vice versa.

I think it’s the way of thinking, or if you like, a Jericho way of inculcating a way of thinking, I think has been... Whilst there’s still a way to go, don’t get me wrong, that has been as successful as the individual projects that make up the guts of the Jericho system.

Providing the air combat capability means we need to be able to contribute to a coalition operation such as that. Air Combat Group also has to be able to provide a standalone air combat capability for Australia and Australia’s interests in the immediate region, which may not involve a coalition operation. We have to be able to operate by ourselves and with other elements of the ADF, and then, of course, we've got to be positioned to contribute.

Whilst we hope it never occurs, we need to be able to contribute to high-end coalition warfighting as well, which would be a high-end air combat capability. There’s multiple roles in the air combat space, and it’s a challenge to keep our ground crews and technicians and our aircrews current and competent in all of those roles such that we've got a fairly robust capability for government to use, should they choose to do so. 

With the arrival of JSF and Growler expected to reach IOC later this year and the associated personnel changes, what do you think the Air Force is going to look like in 10 years’ time? 

I’d like to think the Air Force in 10 years’ time will be far better connected than it is now. It’s not so much within the Air Force, because the Air Force, we do OK now. We’ve got plans in place to do better than OK in the future, but much more connected and an integral part of a joint warfighting capability.

I think that’s going to be a real challenge over the next 10 years, as we’ve got capabilities such as the Air Warfare Destroyer with the Navy coming onboard. Air Combat Group and the air combat capability has to operate seamlessly with that capability.

It certainly will happen, but there are many hurdles to get over with that. At the moment, Air Combat Group has a pretty reasonable handle on operating in multiple security environments.

The introduction of the Super Hornet was a real eye opener for lots and lots of reasons to do with capability, but also from a security environment perspective, was a real eye opener for pretty much all of us. Since that, adding the Growler and the F-35 to that means that we... That presents a challenge when you start to try and operate with other coalition force or other assets that may not have that level of experience.

I’d like to think that across the ADF, in a broader sense, over the next 10 years or so, we’ll be able to utilise all the capabilities we have in multi-layered security environments where everyone supports each other to the maximum extent possible.

I think that will be an interesting challenge over the next 10 years or so, especially when you look at other coalition nations who might be, for example, slightly more advanced down the track than we are on that journey at the moment, and the challenges they have. I think that we’ll be sharing exactly the same sort of challenges.

The full Defence Connect podcast interview with Air Commodore Mike Kitcher, Commander Air Combat Group, is available here

 

Balancing legacy and 5th-gen capabilities: On Point with AIRCDRE Kitcher
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