PhD candidate Peter Hunter’s special report for ASPI has presented a series of important questions about the future of the Royal Australian Air Force’s future force structure, capability and role within the ‘joint force’ as part of projecting national power in an increasingly contested Indo-Pacific region.
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.
However, the growing success of Russian and Chinese fifth-generation fighter aircraft like the Su-57, J-20 and JF-31 – combined with reports of Russia offering the Su-57 for export to the Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and the increasing introduction of highly-capable fourth plus generation combat aircraft – is threatening to serve as a repeat of the air combat battles over Vietnam that saw dedicated Soviet designed and built air superiority fighter aircraft severely challenge US air superiority despite the advances in air-to-air missiles promising the end of traditional dog fights.
ASPI contributor Peter Hunter recognises the growing importance of the fifth-generation air combat capabilities, the modernisation of the Royal Australian Air Force and the role both will play in securing and enhancing Australia's capacity to influence economic, political and strategic affairs within an increasingly contested Indo-Pacific region, which establishes the foundation for Hunter's core argument: Australia needs to do more to maximise the efficacy of the nation's air combat capabilities.
"If, at the simplest level, Australia’s regional goals are concerned with advancing our national security and prosperity, then the application of those elements of power will need to be in service of the kinds of effects that deliver those goals. Such strategic effects may range from deterrence and denial, to influence and counter-influence, to counter-coercion and cost imposition," Hunter stated.
"Along with other elements of national power, including diplomatic, informational and economic elements, the ADF, and specifically its air power components, can play an instrumental role in helping to deliver these kinds of outcomes to better position Australia for an era of high contest."
The fifth-gen transition and its role in supporting national presence
Recognising the perfect confluence of events that Hunter identifies a series of four key recommendations to support future discussions around the recapitalisation and modernisation of the RAAF's key fifth-generation platforms, force structure and CONOPS – taking into account the rapidly evolving peer and near-peer capabilities emerging throughout the Indo-Pacific.
Hunter also focuses on the role air combat capability plays in the application of national power, presence and influence as part of both tactical and strategic deterrence force structures to maximise the capabilities in the furtherance of Australia's national security and interests in the region.
"Through initiatives such as Plan Jericho, the Air Force has invested significant intellectual capital in fathoming those implications and in adapting its thinking to the new opportunities. And while both the F-35 and the notion of fifth generation are still relatively new to Australia, it’s nevertheless fair to say that laudable progress has been made in seizing on these themes, and that, in certain senses, the RAAF is ahead of regional peers in its modernisation program," he said.
"This paper seeks to explore how Australia might capitalise on this modernisation by transforming an Australian conception of air power for the modern era. The point here isn’t to replicate the significant body of work already done to explore the technical dimensions of modern fifth-generation air forces, but rather to consider the place of an air power strategy in modern geostrategic circumstances.
"To avert the need for an overly detailed focus on what fifth-generation might mean, a working definition for this paper can be taken as: a whole of force approach to airpower application where the capabilities of individual platforms are enhanced by networking across the joint force. This will produce sophisticated co-operative engagement effects by linking distributed sensors and effectors through sharing mission critical data and situational awareness."
Multi-domain fifth-gen integration as a force multiplier
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.
"The introduction into service of an almost entirely new fleet of aircraft, from Joint Strike Fighters, to Growler electronic attackers, to Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, to C-17 and C-27 transports and on to E-7A airborne surveillance aircraft, along with unmanned systems, requires that the RAAF adopt new ways of working to ensure that it delivers against the promise of those systems," Hunter explained.
The missing jigsaw piece – long range strike
Separately, Australia's retirement of the F-111 platform, combined with the the limited availability of the Navy's Collins Class submarines, left the nation at a strategic and tactical disadvantage, limiting the nation's ability to successfully intercept and prosecute major strategic strikes against air, land and sea targets that threatened the nation or its interests in the 'sea/air gap', as defined in the 1986 Dibb review.
While the acquisition of the Super Hornets in the mid-to-late 2000s and the acquisition of the fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to fulfil a niche, low-observable limited strike role have both served as a partial stop-gap for that lost capability, the nation has not successfully replaced the capability gap left by the F-111.
Additionally, the recent announcements about Australia's pursuit of an advanced remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS) as part of the AIR 7003 program and the advent of the Boeing Airpower Teaming System – designed by Boeing in collaboration with Defence Science and Technology (DST) – will enhance the air combat and strike capabilities of the RAAF.
The 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, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, 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.
As the Indo-Pacific becomes increasingly contested, Australia will need 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 (A2/AD) 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.
In the years following the end of the Second World War, long-range air power in the form of the Canberra and later the F-111 bombers served as critical components in the nation's air power arsenal. The long-range tactical and strategic deterrence capabilities of such platforms, combined with the qualitative edge of Australian personnel and technological advantages of these platforms, ensured Australia unrestricted air dominance against all but the largest peer competitors.
As air dominance, multi-domain battle space capabilities and the development of a 'system of systems' combining the various combat, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, air lift and unmanned systems continue to become critical components of Australia's next generation 'joint force' concept and subsequently one of the nation's key power projection capabilities continued discussion, acquisition and development is essential.
However, none of this is capable without increases to the ADF budget, which is highlighted by Hunter's ASPI colleague Malcolm Davis, who explained the need for renewed focus on the budget allocation for defence to Defence Connect at the Avalon Airshow earlier this year: "The government aspiration of spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence is simply not enough any more. We need to look at planning our force structure, our capability requirements and spending on a number of factors, including allied strengths and potential adversarial capabilities, not arbitrary figures.
"It is time for us to throw open the debate about our force structure. It is time to ask what more do we need to do and what do we need to be capable of doing."
Hunter's full paper is available here.