The F-111 is viewed as one of the nation’s most effective tactical and strategic force multipliers, however, as debate continues to evolve about Australia’s long-range strike and strategic deterrence ‘capability gap’, have we been looking at the F-111 with rose-coloured glasses? And what does that mean for future planning and acquisitions?
Deterrence theory is as old as warfare and international relations. While the methods have changed throughout history, the concept and doctrine remains constant, albeit, significantly more lethal.
In the contemporary context, deterrence is best broken down into two distinct concepts as identified by US academic Paul Huth in his journal article 'Deterrence and International Conflict: Empirical Findings and Theoretical Debates', which states that a policy of deterrence can fit into two distinct categories, namely:
- Direct deterrence: Preventing an armed attack against a state's own territory; and
- Extended deterrence: Preventing an armed attack against another state.
The advent of nuclear weapons and strategic force multiplier platforms like aircraft carriers, ballistic missile and attack submarines and long-range strategic bomber aircraft, supported by air-to-air refuelling capabilities, fundamentally rewrote the rules of deterrence capabilities.
Australia has enjoyed the benefits of extended deterrence provided by the global reach and capability of the US since the end of the Second World War and, in particular, following the end of Vietnam and the nation's shift towards a policy of continental defence.
However, the changing geo-political, strategic and economic reality of the Indo-Pacific and the emergence of peer and near-peer competitors across the region has served to undermine the qualitative and quantitative edge long enjoyed by the US and allies like the UK, Australia and Japan.
For Australia in particular, the introduction of the 'Defence of Australia' doctrine directly impacted the force structure and platform acquisition of the Australian Defence Force, as defending the nation's northern approaches and the vaunted 'sea-air gap' became paramount in the minds of strategic and political leaders alike.
"Until the late 1960s, Australian defence planning and policy assumed that our forces would normally operate in conjunction with allies, and well forward of the continent. We saw our security inextricably linked with the security of others," author of the 1986 Dibb report, Paul Dibb, explains.
This doctrine advocated for the retreat of Australia’s forward military presence in the Indo-Pacific and a focus on the defence of the Australian continent and its direct approaches effectively limited the nation's capacity to act as an offshore balancer.
A key component of this policy was Australia's acquisition and long-term operation of the F-111 strike platform, originally pursued to replace the ageing Canberra bombers during the Vietnam War, and introduced in 1973 served as a linchpin of Australia's post-Vietnam force posture, doctrine and force structures.
Mike Scrafton, has raised some interesting points in his piece for ASPI, 'Strategic strike, deterrence and the ghost of the F-111', in which he discusses the impact the F-111 platform has had in shaping Australia's current tactical and strategic force structure, doctrine and the role, the mythos of the platform is playing in shaping current and future requirements.
Scrafton outlines the basis of his thesis, stating, "Some confusion has emerged (see here and here, for example) over strategic strike, where a threat to an adversary’s key war-making assets produces a deterrent effect, and tactical strike, where an effect is sought on the battlefield. The provenance of the concepts in Australian strategic thinking is closely tied to the acquisition of the F-111 fighter bombers."
For Scrafton, it is easy to understand the correlation between the acquisition of the F-111 and its impact on the nation's long-term doctrine encapsulated in the 'Defence of Australia' doctrine:
"Following the F-111s’ entry into service in 1973, the 1976 ‘strategic basis’ paper, Australian strategic analysis and defence policy objectives, set out dual force-structure requirements for ‘naval and air strike components capable of deterrence and effective action against maritime forces at sea and neighbouring operational bases’."
It's easy to maintain regional dominance when your neighbours are developing nations
It is important to identify that while the F-111s played a pivotal role in shaping Australia's air power and deterrence capabilities, it was relatively easy for the nation to do so, based on the comparative economic strength of the nation compared with rival nations, the robust Australia-US alliance and the qualitative edge of Australian military hardware.
Scrafton articulates this, stating, "For the next four decades, the F-111s retained their regional strategic strike potential. During that time, military threats from or through the archipelago continued to be regarded as remote. The 1976, 1987 and 1994 defence white papers continued to ritually stress a priority for strike capabilities. The F-111s were recognised as having a significant regional deterrent role, while at the same time there continued to be little sense that Australia would ever have to employ these forces in that way. The strategic strike role seemed justified because of the formidable strike assets in the inventory.
"The 2000 white paper argued that strike assets needed to be able ‘to attack hostile forces in the territory of an adversary, in forward operating bases, and in transit to Australia’. The F-111s and the air-to-air refuelled F/A-18s would do the job, augmented by long-range missiles."
However, it is clear that the F-111s were considered a "nice to have" option without a real understanding of how they, or any potential 'true' replacement, would fit within the confines of an updated Australian defence doctrine. This became even more obvious as Australia's neighbours continue to evolve economically, politically and militarily.
In spite of this, it appears that Australia depended more on the presence of the F-111s to deter potential hostilities against Australia than the actual platform itself. This is something Scrafton articulates in great detail:
"It was the geostrategic situation that made the F-111s seem an effective strategic deterrent. As it never was credible that a major power would become established in the region, in practice only regional states could have been deterred. Now, without the ability to threaten, degrade or destroy China’s essential war-making ability, there’s no strategic deterrence. Strategic deterrence is a game for the nation with the preponderance of power and broad options."
In light of this, have we deluded ourselves into believing that Australia has ever operated a true strategic deterrent? Are we deluding ourselves into thinking that basing the nation's strategic posture, force structure and doctrine on a contextual understanding of 'deterrence' is prudent in an era of great power competition?
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.
Australia's fleet of Oberon, followed by Collins Class, submarines have also served as a powerful strategic deterrence capability while Australia has been able to ensure qualitative edges over potential adversaries, however, the economic growth and commitment by Australia's neighbours mean that the nation's qualitative-edge is diminishing.
Additionally, the increasing power of cyber warfare and asymmetric capabilities will play an important role in evaluating, defining and developing a robust, multi-domain strategic deterrence capability for Australia.
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 regional 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 and RAN to serve as critical components 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.
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.