Dr Malcolm Davis of ASPI has called for greater Australian and allied consideration for the development of a highly capable air defence interceptor to counter the increasingly capable air combat, stand-off and long-range strike capability of the Chinese air force.
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.
The concept of air dominance proved influential as a tactical and strategic operating concept, with the use of tactical fighters providing air dominance, close air support and strategic bomber 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.
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) 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".
Further compounding these issues, China's development of the next-generation J/H-XX is further limiting the responses available to Australia, the US, Japan and other key regional and global allies.
Recognising this, Dr Malcolm Davis of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI)min his piece titled 'The return of the interceptor', has provided a detailed analysis of the rising challenges presenting themselves, while breathing life into a Cold War-era concept; the air defence interceptor.
Dr Davis explains the developments facing Australia and the questions it raises, "The IISS’s [International Institute for Strategic Studies] sober analysis of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s stealthy new fifth-generation J/H-XX jet adds substance to what had been only educated guesswork in a number of forums. So, what does the development of this sophisticated aircraft mean for Australian operations risks in the 2020s?"
A blast from the past
Dr Davis draws on detailed analysis conducted by the IISS as part of the The Military Balance 2020, which conducts breakdowns and detailed assessments of the defence developments of nations like China, Russia, the US and the rising challenges associated with great power competition.
As part of this, both IISS and Dr Davis articulate the growing challenges of long-range strike and stand-off weapons capabilities emerging in China and the threat they pose to key defence infrastructure and assets, particularly in northern Australia and allied naval task forces operating in the Indo-Pacific.
"The IISS notes that the J/H-XX is a fighter bomber, an old term for multirole combat aircraft, but what stands out is that it’s capable of carrying long-range air-to-air missiles," Dr Davis explains.
"It suggests the platform is connected to the PL-15 beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile, or BVRAAM, and potentially an even longer range ramjet-powered hypersonic PL-21 missile. Sources suggest the PL-15 is already in service with a range of 200 kilometres, while the longer range PL-21 is still in development and may have a range up to 400 kilometres.
"The function of these weapons, whether launched from a J/H-XX or the J-20 already in service, is to attack vital platforms such as airborne early warning and control aircraft and air-to-air refuellers.
"For example, in attacking a carrier battlegroup as part of an anti-access/area-denial operation, a key goal would be to destroy E-2C Hawkeye early warning aircraft. That would force the carrier taskforce to use ship-based radar in active mode, allowing long-range anti-ship missiles, both ballistic and cruise, to target it more easily."
For Dr Davis, China's development of the J/H-XX in particular serves as a powerful challenge to Australia's existing and planned air power assets and long-term strategic planning as the introduction of such a platform will dramatically impact the tactical and strategic mobility of not only the RAAF, but also the broader ADF.
"The J/H-XX should be a concern to RAAF planners. A 2018 report in The Diplomat discussed both the H-20, a new strategic bomber in development for the PLA Air Force, and the ‘regional fighter bomber’ — the J/H-XX," he adds.
"It noted that the first information on the J/H-XX emerged in 2013 in the form of a model of a new combat aircraft . It was presumed to have supersonic performance with a combat radius of up to 2,000 kilometres and to be able to carry BVRAAMs within side weapons bays. It appeared to be designed to be stealthy, with a design reminiscent of the US YF-23 Black Widow fighter. The article suggested that:
"Such an aircraft would leverage a combination of stealth, speed, [and] onboard electronic warfare capabilities, to penetrate well monitored and defended airspace to target high value targets … Potential targets may include anything from carrier strike groups … to well defended airbases and radar sites … The aircraft’s large internal payload capacity and side BVRAAM bays may also hint at a secondary long range, high persistence interceptor role."
The growing capabilities of potential peer competitors and the importance of air combat capabilities is of growing importance within Australia's broader force structure and capability development equations.
Responding to the challenges
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 stand-off 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 RAAF’s fast jet force.
Davies writes, "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."
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.
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.
Such an aircraft would 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.
This is something noted by Dr Davis, when he states, "To defeat the prospective threat posed by PLAAF strategic airpower, including the potential challenge posed by the J/H-XX operating in a long-range offensive interceptor role, we’d need longer range airpower ourselves. Sadly, that’s what’s missing in Western air forces — a mid-range capability between tactical fighters and strategic bombers. But not, it would seem, in the PLAAF."