Recent conversation about Hugh White’s controversial book How to Defend Australia has raised some important questions about the continent’s air defences and the capability of the Royal Australian Air Force to generate an increased number of interceptor sorties, while concurrently supporting multiple deployments regionally and around the globe in the face of growing peer competitor capabilities.
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.
Designed to establish and maintain air superiority or air dominance, fighter aircraft have evolved from relatively simple wood and canvas airframes during the First World War to the highly manoeuvrable, long-range aircraft that dominated the skies of Europe and the Pacific during the Second World War; the latest two generations of fighters are the pinnacle of these earlier designs.
Indo-Pacific Asia's fighter fleets are made up of fighter aircraft ranging from third to fifth-generation aircraft, each with unique capabilities and roles within the regional balance of power. Prior to diving into the concept of the 'high-low' fighter mix, it is critical to understand the differences between the generations of aircraft operating in the Indo-Pacific. Fighter aircraft, like every facet of military technology, are rapidly evolving. The current global and regional transition from fourth to fifth-generation fighter aircraft, like the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter platforms, is reshaping the role of fighter fleets and the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region.
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.
Fifth-generation fighter aircraft, in particular, represent the pinnacle of modern fighter technology. Incorporating all-aspect stealth even when armed, low-probability-of-intercept radar, high-performance airframes, advanced avionics, and highly integrated computer systems, these aircraft provide unrivalled air dominance, situational awareness, networking, interdiction and strike capabilities for commanders.
The growing capabilities of potential peer competitors and the growing importance of air combat capabilities is of growing importance within Australia's broader force structure and capability development equations – recognising these factors, combined with the ever-shrinking reality of Australia's long vaunted strategic moat in the 'sea-air gap', renowned Australian strategic policy thinker Hugh White presented an idea for a significantly enhanced Royal Australian Air Force to meet these challenges.
White's premise, along with the potential for a doubling of the nation's defence budget, is for the acquisition of some 200 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters armed with the latest in long-range standoff weapons systems to dictate and dominate the terms of engagement throughout Australia's northern approaches, combining the fifth-generation capabilities of the F-35 with other key platforms like the E-7A Wedgetail, KC-30A Tankers and future submarines to severely blunt a potential adversary's hostile intent towards the Australian mainland.
White has used his position of prominence to advocate for a range of force structure, acquisition, modernisation and capability restructuring and developments, shifting from the major acquisition programs identified as priorities of the Australian government’s record $200 billion investment in capability, including:
- Scrapping the $35 billion Hunter Class program – selling the Hobart and Canberra Class vessels;
- Increasing the acquisition plans of the Attack Class submarines from 12 to 36;
- An increase in Australia’s purchase of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and long-range strike capabilities; and
- A consideration of Australia developing or acquiring nuclear weapons capabilities.
While this represents a quick summary of White’s proposal, it perfectly encapsulates his modus operandi – that is the path of least resistance and a belief that Australia is incapable of affecting its own future. White’s primary focus builds on the Cold War-era Defence of Australia policy to focus on "controlling" the sea-air gap by hindering the potential for any adversary to get close to the Australian mainland while exercising a degree of rudimentary sea control and limiting the nation’s offensive capabilities.
This focus on sea control, in particular, is expanded upon by Richard Dunley in his recent ASPI piece, 'Is sea denial without sea control a viable strategy for Australia?' Dunley dissects White’s premise for "limited sea control" to focus on "defensive sea denial", which he defines as "trying to use the sea as a barrier to enemy aggression. In contrast to limited sea denial, defensive sea denial requires a very high level of sea control. For the strategy to work, the denying force needs to be stronger than its enemy everywhere (within the region of operations) all of the time".
Further reinforcing the complexity of dominating the sea-air gap and White’s proposal to focus solely on becoming a "strategic echidna" is commentary by Andrew Davies, in his piece for ASPI, 'What the Battle of Britain can teach us about defending Australia', which seeks to focus on the limitations and challenges facing the air force proposed by White, namely the focus on a massive expansion of the Royal Australian Air Forces’ fast jet force.
"Hugh White’s ‘Battle of Australia’ scenario in which 200 frontline aircraft form a bulwark against a hostile power. The lessons from 1940 mostly apply, with the exception of the rapid production of replacement aircraft, given that the lag time for a new strike fighter is well over a year."
4 and 4.5-gen interceptors
Increasingly advanced, highly-capable fourth, 4.5 and fifth-generation fighter aircraft that combine low observable coatings and airframes, increased aerodynamic performance, advanced sensor suites and computational power like the air dominance/air superiority specialised F-15 Eagle-series, F-22 Raptor, Russian Su-57 and Chinese J-20 are at the pinnacle of the contemporary airpower hierarchy.
However, the increasingly capable modernisation of platforms like the Boeing F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet series aircraft that have been employed by Australia and the US serve as a powerful platform to build a rapid response, 'low' end interceptor capability for defending the Australian mainland and its contested, narrow northern approaches and the strategically vital waterways throughout south-east Asia.
The RAAF's relatively modest fleet of Super Hornets and EA-18G Growler variants provide the nation with a powerful and, in the case of the electronic attack capability, next-generation capacity to dominate the airspace of northern Australia and its immediate approaches, especially when integrated as part of a rapidly mobile and integrated force of KC-30A tankers, E-7A Wedgetails, ground-based sensors and shooter systems as identified in LAND 19 Phase 7B, the Navy's Hobart Class destroyers and JORN.
Expanding Australia's acquisition of the Super Hornet platform, in conjunction with the full planned acquisition of up to 100 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters will enable Australian decision-makers to confidently defend the Australian landmass while also being capable of supporting other regional and global contingencies with the next-generation capabilities required in an increasingly contested world order.
Australia’s geographic isolation and size presents a series of operational and strategic challenges for implementing a layered system of continental defence. Nevertheless, there has been an introduction of increasingly capable ballistic missiles and long-range strike aircraft throughout the region, most recently with announcements of a successful precision-guided long-range ballistic missile by North Korea and the increasing capability of China’s own bomber force and growing ballistic and cruise missile systems.
While the future operating environment to the nation's immediate north, particularly in the face of increasingly capable Russian and Chinese airframes and integrated air and A2/AD networks, will necessitate investment in and acquisition of a highly capable, long-range, air dominance fighter aircraft to complement the RAAF's fleet of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and replace the ageing F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets beginning in the mid 2030s – investing in a dedicated continental interceptor force will increasingly serve to enhance the nation's capacity for self reliance.