Like its counterparts, the Royal Australian Air Force is undergoing a period of unprecedented modernisation and expansion. However, as regional air forces continue to develop peer-competitor capabilities and increase size and complexity, is the Air Force large enough to reliably execute the mission in a radically evolving geo-political and strategic order?
Throughout history, military operations have favoured those who occupy the high ground. Command of the skies empowers both offensive and defensive operations, while also providing powerful deterrence options as part of the broader implementation of power projection and national security doctrines.
Air dominance reflects the pinnacle of the high ground, where both a qualitative and quantitative edge in doctrine, equipment and personnel support the unrivalled conduct of offensive or defensive air combat operations. Air dominance proved influential as a tactical and strategic operating concept, with the use of tactical fighters providing air dominance, close air support and escort essential to the Allied triumph in the Second World War.
Long-range strike, typically conducted by strategic bombers and strike fighters supported by air-to-air refueling and airborne early warning and command aircraft, serves as a complementary doctrine to air dominance, with each serving a unique, yet symbiotic role in the survivability and effectiveness of tactical units and the broader strategic deterrence.
Further complementing these traditionally 'hard' capabilities is the growing tactical and strategic importance of electronic warfare (EW), intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), battlefield communications and early warning and tactical and strategic airlift capabilities, which empower tactical and strategic mobility for any modern air force and broader branches of an integrated, 'joint force' Australian Defence Force.
The RAAF has traditionally relied upon a qualitative, technological edge over potential regional adversaries, with broader interoperability with regional allies, namely the US and Japan, enabling Australia to establish and maintain relative regional superiority.
However, as the strategic realities of the Indo-Pacific continue to evolve and Australia's responsibilities continue to increase, the question remains, given the geographic area of responsibility Australia will become increasingly responsible for and dependent on, is the RAAF and the existing recapitalisation and modernisation programs currently underway enough for Australia to maintain its qualitative and quantitative lead over regional peers?
Fifth-generation force multipliers
As technology has evolved, both air dominance and long-range strike platforms and doctrines have adapted to maximise the effectiveness of the symbiotic concepts within the broader confines of a nation's power projection doctrines.
The advent of fifth-generation air combat capabilities, namely fighters like the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter family, and strategic bombers like the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit and next-generation B-21 Raider, incorporate a range of technologies including advanced sensor suites, low observable, high performance airframes and coatings to successfully conduct their operations with relative impunity, even in heavily defended, integrated air defence networks.
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These capabilities leverage the information gathering and distribution capabilities of advanced platforms like the Boeing E-7A Wedgetail, the Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton and endurance enhancing capabilities like the Airbus KC-30A Multirole Tanker Transport (MRTT) – meanwhile, the addition of dedicated EW platforms like the EA-18G Growler and the planned acquisition of the MC-55A Peregrine all serve to establish the foundations of a truly integrated, fifth-generation air combat capability.
However, given the geographic size and growing complexity of the regional tactical and strategic environment, does the RAFF operate sufficient air combat platforms to protect Australia's airspace, while also supporting power projection capabilities and responsibilities into the region?
Furthermore the current basing arrangements for the majority of Australia's air combat capabilities raises further questions about the survivability of Australia's air combat capability in the event of hostilities.
Long-range strike and the rise of allied strike platforms
Australia's acquisition of the Reaper-based RPAS, MQ-4C Triton and development of the fighter-like Boeing Airpower Teaming System all serve niche roles as part of a broader and increasingly complex air dominance, ISR and close-air support strike mix – neglecting the critical long-range strike capabilities once filled by the F-111.
Australia is not alone in its pursuit of these increasingly capable and reliable unmanned/autonomous systems; the US, the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China are all at various stages of development or operating such systems. This seemingly global race, particularly the pursuit of 'optionally-manned' long-range strike systems, like the B-21 Raider, and Australia's long-range aerial strike gap presents unique opportunities for Australia and broader allied co-operation and industry collaboration.
The US has developed increasingly capable long-range, low observable unmanned platforms including the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel; the highly-secretive Northrop Grumman RQ-180 high-altitude, long endurance, low observable intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft; and Northrop Grumman's X-47 series of carrier-based, low observable strike platform.
Meanwhile, BAE Systems has successfully developed and tested the Taranis unmanned platform at the Woomera Test Range as a proof of concept for future collaboration and development – each of these individual platforms provide a unique opportunity for Australia to collaborate with a global industry prime and a global ally to fill a critical capability gap for each of the respective forces.
Such a capability would also enjoy extensive export opportunities with key allies like the US and UK, who could operate the platform as a cost-effective replacement for larger bombers like the ageing B-52H Stratofortress, B-1 Lancer and B-2 Spirit, and complement the in-development B-21 Raider long-range strategic bomber.
For the UK, the co-development and participation in such a system will fulfil a unique role – complementing the air-to-air and air-to-ground strike capabilities of the Eurofighter Typhoon and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as a low observable, long-range, heavy strike aircraft to counter the rapidly modernising bomber fleet of an increasingly resurgent and assertive Russia.
Similarly, Australia needs a credible, long-range strike option capable of replacing the lost capability of the F-111 to penetrate increasingly advanced and complex integrated air defence networks and anti-access/area denial (A2AD) systems rapidly developing in the Indo-Pacific region.
The introduction of such a system could also support the development and eventual modernisation of the US B-21, which is being developed in response to the increasing air defence capabilities of both Russia and China, particularly the widespread introduction of the S-300 and S-400 integrated air and missile defence systems.
Tactical and strategic airlift empowering the broader 'joint force'
Australia operates a diverse fleet of tactical and strategic airlift aircraft – combining the heavy lift capabilities of the C-17 Globemaster III with the venerable tactical airlift capabilities of the C-130J Super Hercules and battlefield airlift capacity of the C-27J Spartan as the core of the RAAF's airlift capabilities.
Meanwhile, the addition of the airlift capabilities of the KC-30A MRTT platform seemingly provide Australia with a reasonable airlift capability. However, as Australia's responsibilities in the region continue to increase, combined with the increased 'hard' capabilities of the respective branches of the ADF – namely the Army – the Air Force's modest airlift fleet will need to be expanded in order to accommodate an expanded expeditionary focus.
Furthermore, the increased expeditionary capabilities of platforms like the F-35 and the Super Hornet fleet require strategic and tactical airlift capabilities limiting the capacity of the ADF to respond to regional security responsibilities should such platforms be deployed for other operations – raising the question, does Australia have a large enough airlift capability to support increased regional responsibilities?