The isolation of Australia provides both defensive advantages and disadvantages – this ‘tyranny of distance’ is emerging as key concern for projecting Australian air power in significant quantities in a contested environment.
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, F-111 style tactical bomber is further limiting the responses available to Australia, the US, Japan and other key regional and global allies.
Fighter aircraft are also limited by their limited range and dependence on aerial refuelling and airborne early warning, command and control platforms that are becoming increasingly vulnerable to a proliferation of advanced ground, sea and air-based anti-aircraft missiles, significantly hindering the air combat capability of modern air forces.
The Royal Australian Air Force is no exception and is further hindered by the nation's geographic isolation, meaning the future fighter fleet relies heavily upon increasingly vulnerable aerial refuelling tankers.
The true impact of the 'tyranny of distance'
The impact of the 'tyranny of distance' has recently gained renewed traction following an analysis in Forbes, drawing on detailed analysis by Marcus Hellyer from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in the aftermath of the Prime Minister's $270 billion announcement.
While the Air Force has been the high profile recipient of many major capability developments in recent years, with the acquisition of the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, Super Hornets, Growler electronic attack aircraft and a range of support capabilities, government at least in some small part seems committed to extending Australia's capability in the Indo-Pacific.
This includes the proposed acquisition of two additional KC-30A tankers to better support the tactical and strategic mobility of the Air Force and its air combat forces, however, as Hellyer explains, this may not be enough.
"If a commander wanted to keep F-35As on station around 1,500 kilometres out from mainland airbases (potentially protecting an amphibious task force, a lodged land force, or a naval task force patrolling choke points), planners would likely need to set up two refuelling circuits - one to enable the fighters to reach their station, and then one a few hundred kilometres behind the fighters’ station so they can pull back, refuel and return to station with fuel to fight," Hellyer said.
This limitation is further explained by David Axe writing for Forbes, who explains, "For all the billions of dollars that Canberra plans to spend on its air force in coming years, it still could struggle to significantly expand its capacity for long-range, high-intensity aerial combat.
"With its planned fleet of 72 F-35A and 24 F/A-18F fighters, the RAAF could keep just two jets on station with Joint Air-to-Surface Stand-Off Missiles or Long-Range Anti-Ship Missiles, which can range as far as 300 miles and 230 miles, respectively.
"The reason for this hard limit on combat capacity is not that the air force lacks fighters. Even taking into account training and maintenance demands, the RAAF in theory could deploy dozens of F-35s and F/A-18s. But both types can fly just 300 miles or so with weapons and internal fuel."
Further compounding the air combat limitations is the additional material costs associated with supporting the necessary E-7A Wedgetail airborne early warning, command and control platforms, which will also require their own dedicated tanker support.
Hellyer builds on Axe's thesis, explaining, "In that scenario, keeping just two F-35As on station would take at least eight F-35As in the air at one time around the clock (two heading out, four cycling between their station and the refueller, and two heading home).
"Each of them would need to fly an eight-hour mission, potentially tanking four or five times. Taking aircraft maintenance and unserviceability into account (which will increase as the operation continues), that would potentially require at least 12 to 16 aircraft to sustain.
"But since pilots can fly that mission only once per day, the cycle needs a minimum of 24 pilots (and more to account for ‘unserviceability’ of pilots as the operation grinds into the future).
"But more is needed. The whole concept of a fifth-generation air force relies on superior situational awareness, so to fully exploit the F-35A’s capabilities the package would need to include an E-7A Wedgetail early warning and control aircraft flying a circuit a hundred kilometres or so behind the fighters to detect enemy aircraft.
"The RAAF has six, and fewer than that will be available for operations, and fewer again serviceable for missions. Therefore, sustaining that one combat air patrol will likely require all the Wedgetails. Keeping them on station will likely draw on some of the tankers’ fuel.
"But the biggest stressor on the viability of the mission is tanker capacity. The air force now has seven KC-30A air-to-air refuellers after recently acquiring an additional two. It’s hard to see more than five being available, and fewer will be serviceable on any given day.
"One tanker, engaged in continuously refuelling fighters on the combat air patrol, can’t stay on station for more than four to six hours before needing to refuel."
Long range munitions can't make up the difference
It is apparent that despite the government's commitment to acquiring additional long-range, precision strike munitions, they simply won't be enough to bridge the glaring capability gap that effectively limits Australia's application of credible air combat power in defence of the long vaunted 'sea-air gap', which continues to serve as the foundation for Australia's defence doctrine.
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."
In light of this, can it be reasonably and legitimately argued that the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and the Force Structure Plan represent a "new defence paradigm", or is it a case of more of the same?
Australia’s position and responsibilities in the Indo-Pacific region will depend on the nation’s ability to sustain itself economically, strategically and politically.
Despite the nation’s virtually unrivalled wealth of natural resources, agricultural and industrial potential, there is a lack of a cohesive national security strategy integrating the development of individual yet complementary public policy strategies to support a more robust Australian role in the region.
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.
However, as events continue to unfold throughout the region and China continues to throw its economic, political and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition?
Further complicating the nation’s calculations is the declining diversity of the national economy, the ever-present challenge of climate change impacting droughts, bushfires and floods, Australia’s energy security and the infrastructure needed to ensure national resilience.