Long-range strike – typically conducted by strategic bombers and tactical strike bombers or smaller fighters supported by air-to-air refuelling 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.
For Australia, the 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.
Australia has for the past two decades managed to rely on a small number of advanced, tactical aircraft with minimal transferable strategic capability – the nation's focus on asymmetric conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and stabilisation or humanitarian and disaster relief operations throughout the Indo-Pacific.
This has resulted in 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 – to enhance the air combat and strike capabilities of the Royal Australian Air Force.
Additionally, the planned 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.
However, the rapidly evolving period of peer and near-peer competitor contest, largely driven by the United States and China's clash of ideas has prompted many within Australia's strategic policy and defence communities to lobby government to seriously invest in the long-range strike and strategic deterrence capabilities of the Australian Defence Force.
Enter retired Air Marshal Leo Davies and his immediate predecessor, Air Marshal (Ret’d) Geoff Brown, speaking to Catherine McGregor in The Australian, who articulate the changing balance of power Australia finds itself neck deep in: "The force that we used to carry out nation-building in the Middle East cannot defend our sea lines of communication or prevent the lodgement of hostile power in the Indo-Pacific region.
"Everyone thought conventional wars were almost a thing of the past. That judgment now looks rather optimistic. We need to ensure that our air, space and naval assets can impose transaction costs on those who would infringe on our vital trading interests. That must entail investment in air power."
The options – an airborne, long-range strike capability
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.
The precedent already established by the collaboration between Defence Science and Technology and Boeing on the development of the 'loyal wingman' concept provides avenues for Australia to partner with defence industry primes and global allies to develop a long-range, unmanned, low observable strike platform with a payload capacity similar to, or indeed greater than, the approximately 15-tonne payload of the retired F-111.
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.
The options – stand-off munitions
Meanwhile, the increasingly long-arm of stand-off munitions, ranging from systems like the Naval Strike Missile, the Raytheon AGM-154 Joint Standoff Weapon, advanced variants of the Tomahawk cruise missile all serve as viable alternatives for integration on Australian naval and air platforms to enhance the long-range strike capabilities of the broader, 'joint force' ADF.
This is articulated by McGregor, who added, "The former chiefs have added their voices to growing disquiet within the strategic defence community over Australia’s capability. Both say Australia may need to invest in a strategic bomber and drones to enhance the air force’s range and impact, along with land-based ballistic missiles."
None of this is capable without increases to the ADF budget, which is highlighted by ASPI senior analyst 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."
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.
The rapidly evolving regional environment requires a renewed focus on developing a credible, future-proofed long-range strike capability for the RAAF to serve as a critical component in the development of a truly 'joint force' Australian Defence Force capable of supporting and enhancing the nation's strategic engagement and relationships in the region.
For Australia, a nation defined by this relationship with traditionally larger, yet economically weaker regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build-up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities, competing geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century's 'great game'.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
Shifting the public discussion away from the default Australian position of "it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother" will yield unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.
Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce also issued a challenge for Australia's political and strategic policy leaders, saying: "If we observe that the level of debate among our leaders is characterised by mud-slinging, obfuscation and the deliberate misrepresentation of the views of others, why would the community behave differently ... Our failure to do so will leave a very damaging legacy for future generations."
Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia's future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of shaking up the nation's approach to our regional partners.