For Australia, the retirement of the F-111 platform, combined with the the limited availability of the Navy’s Collins Class submarines, has 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.
The growing debate about Australia's tactical and strategic force structures, combined with the underlying paradigm shift away from a purely 'defence force' towards a more traditional, 'armed force' style of defence strategy has, in recent days prompted retired Air Marshal Leo Davies and his immediate predecessor, Air Marshal (Ret’d) Geoff Brown to call for greater Australian long-range strike capabilities.
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, there were 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.
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 the only nation facing a growing shortfall in its long-range aerial strike capabilities as the Cold War-era fleet of American strategic bombers, namely the B-1 Lancer, the B-52 Stratofortress and B-2 Spirit all entering the realm of obsolescence despite years of modernisation and upgrades – further compounding the survivability of these platforms is the advent of advanced Russian and Chinese air defence systems.
In response, the US Air Force and industry partner Northrop Grumman have initiated the B-21 Raider program to replace the ageing strategic bomber fleet of the US Air Force with a focus on responding to the rise of these advanced integrated air defence systems.
Like it’s immediate predecessor, the B-21 is designed to be a low-observable, penetrating strategic bomber capable of a prompt conventional or nuclear global response.
Cost overruns present opportunities for Australia
In recent decades, even the US has had to face significant cuts to its military expenditure across research and development, acquisition, sustainment and modernisation, and the new B-21 program is no exception, as the US Air Force has steadily increased the planned number of airframes to be acquired, the cost has equally risen, placing increased pressure on existing and future acquisition programs.
The US Air Force currently has plans to acquire 100 B-21s to operate in conjunction with a fleet of 75 B-52s that will be modernised. However, as the Air Force surges towards an ambitious plan to field 386 squadrons, up 75 from its current strength, will translate to an increased fleet of B-21 aircraft, with additional strategic experts in the US calling for a larger fleet of between 50 and 75 additional Raiders.
This growing number of new, costly platforms has drawn the attention of the head of the US Air Force’s Global Strike Command, General Timothy Ray, who has made thinly veiled comments about America’s allies, raising questions about the potential for allied participation in the B-21 Raider program to ease the economic and strategic burden on the US.
"Only the United States flies or builds bombers among its allies and partners. The last foreign squadron retired in 1984," he said.
This concern has been identified by Ben Packham of The Australian, referencing the US Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, who said the US would "look favourably" on an Australian request to participate in America's long-range strike aircraft program – namely the B-21 Raider.
Secretary Ross reportedly told Packham, "We have no intention of vacating our military or our geopolitical position but we would be delighted to sell Australia more aircraft if that’s what suits your Department of Defence."
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 – even drawing on a common airframe, avionics and engine suite to enhance interoperability while reducing supply chain challenges.
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 (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.
Deputy Opposition Leader and defence spokesman Richard Marles reinforced the need for a more robust Australian response, telling The Australian: "[The government would] ignore air marshals Davies and Brown at its peril. Not only do we need the right strike force, it is essential that our defence forces are fully resourced to properly support that strike capability. We must have the most capable and strategic defence force possible."
In the years following the end of the Second World War, long-range airpower in the form of the Canberra and later the F-111 bombers served as critical components in the nation’s airpower 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 Royal Australian Air Force 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.
Shared strategic strike capabilities, leveraging a common platform, provides nations like Australia, the UK, US and even Japan with the next level of integrated, interoperable airpower building on the success of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program while also serving to ease the strategic weight on the US with flow-on industrial benefits for all participating partners.