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, cost-effective 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.
The fifth-gen transition and its role in supporting national presence
Recognising the perfect confluence of events, 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.
Bespoke, deployable air combat force packages
Australia's contribution the air combat campaign against the Islamic State in Syria and part of Iraq, using capabilities including the E-7A Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C), KC-30A air-to-air refuelling tankers, classic F/A-18 Hornets and the RAAF's new F/A-18F Super Hornets and E/A-18G Growlers, proved to be a highly successful model for international air forces to draw upon for deployable, modular force structure packages.
These tactical fighter wings leveraged technology as a force multiplier, while combining traditional kinetic weapons and strike doctrines to eventually rout the forces of IS in the Middle East.
For the RAAF, the introduction of the F-35 has widely been recognised as a major step-change in the nation's air combat capabilities as a result of the force-multiplying capacity of key fifth-generation technologies. Australia's early involvement in the F-35 program has enabled the nation to develop next-generation doctrine and operating plans in concert with partners like the US Air Force, with a focus on developing rapidly deployable, niche force structure packages.
The air-transportable nature of the F-35's support infrastructure, including the Varley-designed deployable cabins and ALIS logistics system, combined with recent demonstrations of the expeditionary capability of the F-35 serve as a model for developing an air combat force capable of both continental defence and rapid response, power projection deployability.
An example of such a tactical wing could incorporate a wing of four-to-six F-35As and four-to-six EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft supported by a KC-30A air-to-air refueling tanker, an E-7A Wedgetail AEWC aircraft and a C-17 Globemaster to provide air mobility for supporting aircrew and material resources.
Further supporting this capability is the soon to be introduced UAS capability in the MQ-4C Triton and the yet-to-be-selected armed remotely piloted aerial system (RPAS) based on the highly successful General Atomics Reaper family, which can serve as a 'low' end capability to the 'high' end package delivered by the F-35A, supported by each respective platform's capacity to integrate within the broader 'joint force'.
The integrated web – 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 RAAF'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.
This is something that the US Marine Corps has also focused on, leveraging and developing as it is increasingly deployed to challenge the integrated and advanced web of 'sensor and shooter' systems implemented by China in particular throughout the South China Sea and other parts of the Indo-Pacific.
A key component of this is the successful testing and integration of the Marine Corps 'B' variant of the F-35 within the broader 'kill-web' of sensors and shooters within the Corps and the US Navy – enabling the aircraft to serve as a low observable, sensor and strike aircraft capable of integrating and operating within a 'Cooperative Engagement Capability' (CEC) force to deploy anti-ship, anti-air and missile defence capabilities for US and allied expeditionary forces.
As air dominance, multi-domain battle space capabilities and the development of a 'system of systems' combining the various combat, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, airlift 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."