The Royal Australian Air Force is in the midst of a well-publicised transformational recapitalisation and modernisation program designed to deliver an integrated, fifth-generation air combat capability. For Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld, AO, DSC, this modernisation is part of developing a “world-class” capability.
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.
The Royal Australian 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, this is something the government remains committed to as part of extending Australia's capability in the Indo-Pacific.
Further supporting the RAAF's transition toward developing a fifth-generation air combat capability has also seen the Air Force acquire a range of next-generation, force-multiplying platforms, including the Boeing E-7A Wedgetail airborne early warning, command and control aircraft, the KC-30A multi-role tanker transport aircraft with a growing number of Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol and anti-submarine aircraft.
Each of these platforms represents an equal measure of capability step change as the widely publicised F-35A Joint Strike Fighter and the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler platforms, and is also supporting the introduction of autonomous platforms like the Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton, high-altitude, long-endurance and MQ-9B Sky Guardian unmanned aerial systems.
Speaking exclusively to Defence Connect's Phil Tarrant, Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Mel Hupield, AO, DSC, explained the importance of this transition, telling Defence Connect, "I'm so thankful and privileged to lead an Air Force as we have and I gain the enduring legacy from those that came before me to deliver an Air Force with world-leading capabilities.
"The F-35 coming into service now as we continue to transition, we've got P-8s, E-7 Wedgetail, it's truly a world-class Air Force. What that's given me is really some luxury in time and ability to think about how I can better use that Air Force, how I can better integrate it as a part of our Joint Force and the capabilities that are represented by those platforms, supported by a very capable, intelligent, and skilled workforce, allows me to actually deliver airpower effects."
One of the primary focus points of the unprecedented level of modernisation and capability development transforming the RAAF is the focus on developing Air Force as a critical component of the 'Joint Force', a concept designed to have each of the respective branches of the ADF developing and operating complementary capabilities seamlessly in support of the tactical and strategic objectives.
AIRMSHL Hupfeld said, "So it becomes more about airpower and what Air Force does to deliver airpower into the Joint Force and so I've had to sit on my hands, certainly in the first six months or so of my tenure, to have a look at how I can make and use all of that, and make best use of the capabilities that have been passed to me, and shape our Air Force so that we can be successful to provide security for this nation, certainly now but also continue to shape it to develop that for the future.
"And next year we celebrate our 100 years of being an Air Force and I think we are, some people would argue, the second-oldest Air Force, I think actually it's about the third-oldest Air Force in the world. So, where we come from, where we're going, and how we shape this Air Force to make it strong, capable, and useful for government for the next 100 years, that's really what we've been looking at over the last 12 months or so."
The Commonwealth government's recent $270 billion funding announcement and the supporting 2020 Defence Strategic Update and 2020 Force Structure Plan build on this concept to support the government's planned strategy of 'Shape, Deter, Respond', with Air Force set to benefit from continuing commitments, including:
- A fully integrated air combat management system to meet future air combat and air control management needs, and assure the ADF’s ability to deter or defeat threats to Australia’s interests amid rapid modernisation of air combat capability in the Indo-Pacific;
- The development, test and evaluation program for high-speed long-range strike and missile defence, including hypersonic weapons, leading to prototypes to inform future investments;
- Acquisition of remotely piloted and/or autonomous combat aircraft, including teaming air vehicles, to complement existing aircraft and increase the capacity of the air combat fleet; and
- Procurement and integration of advanced longer-range strike weapon systems onto combat aircraft to allow the Air Force to operate at greater range and avoid increasingly sophisticated air defences – this will also be supported by the acquisition of loitering munitions.
AIRMSHL Hupfeld explained, "The Force Structure Plan and then the Defence Strategic Update, I deliberately flipped those because it's what we have to work out and this is the discussion that we have at that strategic center level, is we work through a balance, if you like, between policy, capability, and resources.
"And that discussion has to be continually evolving and iterative to understand what it is that we think the government will ask us to do, we match that with the resources that they're prepared to commit, and of course as you can see through bushfires and COVID that's a non-trivial task.
"But with the resources, then, we then have a responsibility to work out what capabilities we think we can acquire to deliver what the government has asked us to do. So it's that cycle of work that occurred in about a four-year cycle leading up to the Defence Strategic Update, such that from 2016's White Paper, the update there to then allow us to deliver a Force Structure plan that really looked at that triangle of policy capability and resources to deliver what was best required for this nation."
Expanding on this, AIRMSHL Hupfeld detailed the growing role of Air Force in responding to rising great power rivalry and competition, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, stating, "We're certainly in a position at the moment, geo-politically, in the strategic environment of great power competition. And so what the challenge for us is that, I think, in the past we've very much focused our capabilities and how we think on preparing for that high end of conflict, with F-18s and air combat capabilities and our ships and tanks, all those things are really aimed at that high end of conflict.
"What's become very apparent to us now, and certainly as an Air Force, is that we need to deliver airpower effects across what I'd call the full spectrum of conflict. And that spectrum ranges from humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, up through what the Prime Minister described as the grey zone, I think that's a term that's well understood by most people nowadays.
"And that happens at every level of that spectrum, as I've spoken about so that we can shape the environment that if we see something occurring that's against our interests, we can deter those actions, and what's the airpower role in being able to contribute in each of those."
AIRMSHL Hupield added, "And then, of course, even in the grey zone, or even in humanitarian assistance and disaster responses such as our bushfires earlier this year, we have to be able to respond. So airpower has a key part to play all the way through that in shape, deter, and respond, and of course if the shape, deter doesn't work and we end up getting some sort of response, then we have to be prepared as I'd said to be able to operate at a high-end of conflict and that's not something that any of us aspire to, but we will engage and we will be prepared, if it's required."
The full Defence Connect Insight podcast with Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld, AO, DSC, is available here.