The nation’s long-vaunted strategic “sea-air gap” moat is shrinking, placing increased pressure on the tactical and strategic capabilities of the Royal Australian Air Force, which is further complicated by the regional proliferation of advanced combat aircraft, precision high-speed munitions and missile systems.
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.
Specialised aircraft designed to achieve 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.
Further supporting the air dominance side of the air power equation, long-range strike, namely, combining heavy, strike-oriented aircraft with aerial refuelling platforms; complex airborne and ground-based sensors; command and control capabilities, provides an integrated force structure capable of responding to a range of tactical and strategic imperatives.
In Australia, debate has been set ablaze in recent weeks with Air Marshal (Ret’d) Leo Davies and his immediate predecessor, Air Marshal (Ret’d) Geoff Brown calling for a more considered effort to recapitalise, modernise and expand the nation’s long-range strike capability amid a broader push for a strategic policy “reset”, with air power serving as a key focus of Australia’s growing need to rise to the mounting regional challenges.
The regional state of play
Australia’s air force modernisation, exemplified by the multibillion acquisition of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is not being done in isolation – as many throughout Indo-Pacific Asia embark on their own air power modernisation and recapitalisation efforts incorporating advanced fighter aircraft, long-range strike aircraft and advanced command and control and aerial refuelling capabilities.
In particular, 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) are all powerful force multipliers for consideration in Australia’s calculations.
China’s recent reveal of advanced H-6N nuclear capable, long-range strike aircraft combined with increasing production of J-20 fighters, airborne command and control and aerial refuelling and of course the increasingly capable fleet of carrier-based fighter and fighter-bomber aircraft all serve to impact Australia’s tactical and strategic calculus.
Finally, the increasing proliferation of advanced supersonic and hypersonic weapons systems, like the joint Russian/Indian BrahMos anti-ship cruise missiles and the Chinese developed DF-21, DF-17 and similar anti-ship and general ballistic missiles all serve as contributing factors for further consideration and response through balance.
Balancing the equation – continental defence, strike, air dominance and airlift
Almost taking a leaf out of the years leading up to the confrontation between American and Soviet aircraft over Vietnam, the US and many allies, including Australia, have been repeatedly told that air superiority, namely, traditional dog fighting, is a thing of the past as a result of increased sensor capabilities, low observability and advanced air-to-air missile systems – resulting in the development of the costly, flying super computer, the F-35.
However, the specialised focus of platforms like the Russian Su-57 and Chinese J-20 series of air superiority fighter aircraft – both of which have larger combat radius, higher speeds, larger weapons payloads and better aerodynamic performance – raises questions about the air dominance and air superiority capability of the F-35 in the face of seemingly superior, specialised peer-competitor aircraft.
The F-35 was designed to serve a number of roles, replacing the growing fleet of highly specialised aircraft in the arsenals of the US and allies, like Australia – including the F-18 Hornet series, F-16 Falcon series, the Harrier series and venerable A-10 Warthog close support aircraft – resulted in an aircraft designed to fulfill the “low” end of the capability mix.
While controversial, the comparatively poor aerodynamic performance, combined with reduced payload and combat radius when pitted against “high”-performance combat aircraft across the Indo-Pacific, raises questions about the ability of the contemporary allied air forces to penetrate the increasingly complex and long-range anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) challenges in the region, and the survivability of these platforms.
Meanwhile, 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 Davies and his immediate predecessor, Brown, to call for greater Australian long-range strike capabilities.
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’s glaring strike capability gap has long been an area of focus, with the 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.”
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 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.”
Expanding Australia’s air combat and strike capacity will also require an expansion of the aerial refuelling and command and control capabilities with avenues for incorporating unmanned and autonomous systems into the mix to better suit the nation’s requirements – doing so could also support the development of a bespoke Australian air defence identification zone for more efficient and effective air power deployments.
The nation is defined by its relationship with the region, with access to the growing economies and to strategic sea lines of communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport.
Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and choke points of south-east Asia annually.
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 not only 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 provide unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.
In the next part of this multi-part series, Defence Connect will contribute to the ongoing debate around Australia’s force structure and long-term acquisition programs and paradigm shift from a defence force towards a true armed force, discussing potential force structures for Special Operations Command as a unique and independent branch of the ADF based on 150,000 personnel.