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A Central Blue debrief with Air Marshal Errol McCormack AO (Retd.)

In the second Central Blue debrief, we talk with former Chief of Air Force Air Marshal Errol McCormack (Retd.) about his Air Force career, which spanned Konfrontasi to the Australian-led intervention in East Timor. During his 39 year career in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), Air Marshal McCormack observed the significant changes that shaped the Cold War Air Force, and which still offer lessons to today’s airmen.

Air Marshal Errol McCormack AO (Retd.) served in the RAAF for 39 years, retiring as Chief of Air Force in 2001. Following a distinguished career, he is now, among other things, Deputy Chair of the Board of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation. At the end of 2017, Air Marshal McCormack sat down with The Central Blue to reflect on his experience in Air Force spanning junior officer tours of Vietnam, progression in the ranks of the peacetime force, and leading Air Force during the Australian-led intervention in East Timor. This post summarises the highlights of the discussion and draws out lessons on organisational change, capability transition, and developing an educated workforce that have relevance for today’s Air Force.

From flying club to developing a professional work force

Air Marshal McCormack joined the Air Force as a direct entry pilot in 1962. For the first ten years of his career, Air Marshal McCormack was either on operations or training for operations.

After graduating pilot’s course and converting onto the Sabre fighter aircraft in 1963, he was posted to Butterworth, Malaysia (a RAAF base at the time). He was soon conducting operations as part of Australia’s response to the Indonesian Konfrontasi.   This rapid transition from training to operations gave Air Marshal McCormack an early insight into the state of the Air Force’s training and categorisation scheme.

When I joined, and we went to Malaysia, our categorisation scheme was virtually non-existent. Three of us arrived in Butterworth into Nos 3 and 77 Squadrons, and they said “Right, six months to go from Category D to Category C.” Two days later, Confrontation started “You’re qualified, you’re on alert”. And we never did a cat[egorisation] scheme. It was on-the-job training. And so we were sitting alert at Butterworth; I had a couple of scrambles.
A 3 Squadron Sabre at RAAF Butterworth circa 1959 [Image Credit: Peter Scully via 3 Squadron Association]
A 3 Squadron Sabre at RAAF Butterworth circa 1959 [Image Credit: Peter Scully via 3 Squadron Association]

The problem was not just the lack of a categorisation system, but the culture and attitude within the organisation towards developing what we would now call technical mastery.  During the early years, Air Marshal McCormack learned a number of lessons about the differences between flying and fighting a fighter jet, mainly because, for the first few decades of the post-World War II period, the RAAF seemed to overlook or ignore the importance of tactical thinking, development, and instruction

One that sticks in my mind is that we (No 3 Squadron) deployed to Singapore, to Tengah, and the aim was to actually have fights with the Hunters, No 20 Squadron Royal Air Force, which were based there. When we got back from having our arses thrashed, the flight commander got into us for not understanding the areas that the Hunter and the Sabre had their relative advantages. But we had never been told anything about that, never had anything like that in a cat scheme. Today you would say that you are deficient in your training if you don’t look at that sort of thing. So, we were very much an aero-club in many ways.

This was not a new problem, in fact it was a problem that Australian airmen faced during the Korean War.

I used to fly with guys that had been in Korea, and I get the impression that it was done much the same as we were doing it [in Butterworth and Ubon, Thailand]. They got a couple of Meteors shot down [in Korea] and they decided that they weren’t going to go into the air-to-air game, but did they really go into theatre thinking they could go and play with the MiGs? If they had stayed at a certain level, could they have out-performed the MiG? I don’t know, but that is the sort of thing they were missing. We used to bounce RF-101s, F-102s, F-4, F-105 Thunderchiefs in Thailand, but there was never any briefs about where you should do it and what you should do.

The influence of the United States Air Force (USAF) appears to have played an important role in increasing the professionalism of the RAAF during the early 1970s, though this may have been taken to extremes in some areas.

I know Les Fisher [Chief of Air Force 1994-1998] told me that the first time the maritime world started getting professional was when they got the P-3 and got the USN publications. The same sort of thing was happening with the F-111. People were coming back from the States with the publications. They went overboard, and went to centralised maintenance and that sort of thing, but I think Les was right that until we started working with the Americans, we didn’t think about those sort of things. We were pretty unprofessional in many things we did. We had a good time.

The professionalism of our airmen today is a far cry from the ‘flying club’ days that defined Air Marshal McCormack’s early years as a fighter pilot; however, we should not take this for granted. A decline in professionalism and combat focus in the Air Force was observed in the aftermath of World War I and World War II; we need to ensure we guard against similar declining standards as our forces return from the extended period of operations in the Middle East Region. The maintenance of high standards and combat focus requires constant attention and maintenance – proficiency in air warfare atrophies rapidly and is difficult to regain.

The need for critical thought in implementing policies

The USAF’s influence on the RAAF during the 1960s and 1970s was, in most respects, positive. The experiences gained by Australian airmen working with their American counterparts and the improved access to publications led to the development of a more educated workforce, but it also led to a centralised maintenance system, an organisational structure described negatively by Air Marshal McCormack. He explained that centralised maintenance came about as an ‘operational economy measure’, but it was clear at the junior officer level that it didn’t work tactically. In separating maintenance from the flying squadron, there was not enough operational flexibility. In attempting to make maintenance flexible, there was a detrimental effect on manpower and esprit de corps – there was no integration and poor morale. Air Marshal McCormack experienced the negative impact of centralised maintenance during his time with No 1 Squadron flying F-111 in the 1970s and contrasted it with his experience flying the Sabre with No 3 Squadron in the 1960s.

Strategic Air Command (SAC) brought in centralised maintenance as an operational economy measure.  Now, if you think what SAC did, it would say: “you, in that aeroplane, next month, will do this sortie.” They tried to bring this centralised maintenance system in to Australia, in tactical squadrons. It doesn’t work. And so, we [No 1 Squadron] used to deploy with a bunch of airmen, who would be given to us by 482 Squadron [the centralised maintenance squadron supporting F-111 operations]. Now they’d work their butt off for us, but we couldn’t reward them when we came back and send them on leave; they went back into the factory. So, from manpower, from an esprit de corps, from all those sorts of things we’d had at 3 Squadron, where we’d have hangar parties, and get together with the troops, and the gunnies would work their butts off to get us airborne, so we’d give them extra time off and all that sort of things that I saw as a pilot officer, I couldn’t do it.
When I was commanding officer (CO) 1 Squadron at the time, under centralised maintenance, we had 20 people. You’ve got the aircrew, admin staff, that’s it. It was so frustrating, because you’d have to deploy for an exercise. So, you are trying to work the crews up to get everything going. And CO 482 Squadron would say “no, we’re down to two aircraft.” But what he was doing was husbanding the aircraft so that the day we deployed he had more than enough aeroplanes to deploy. So, it was a stuffed up system that we had to work around.
RAAF F111s on tarmac during Exercise RIMPAC 82, Bucholz Army Airfield, Hawaii in May 1982 [Image Credit: Royal Australian Air Force]
RAAF F111s on tarmac during Exercise RIMPAC 82, Bucholz Army Airfield, Hawaii in May 1982 [Image Credit: Royal Australian Air Force]

The argument against centralised maintenance finally prevailed and the RAAF eventually returned to squadron-level maintenance, but that took time. When asked what drove the shift of maintenance back to the flying squadrons, Air Marshal McCormack noted that:

It was the case of guys who were affected by it getting senior enough to actually push the case.

Part of the problem at the time was that the RAAF lacked the mechanisms that enabled and encouraged critical thinking and discussion on the organisational and operational concepts that the Service employed. This resulted in the RAAF becoming, as then-CAF Air Marshal Ray Funnell observed in 1988, ‘intellectual beachcombers who comb the beach for interesting-looking bits and pieces that wash in from abroad.’ What was needed was a greater emphasis not only on education but on encouraging the critical discussion of ideas. This is one of the main reasons behind the creation of the RAAF’s Air Power Development Centre (originally known as the Air Power Studies Centre) in 1989, and, more recently, the establishment of the Williams Foundation and the subsequent creation of the Central Blue as an outlet for serving members to engage in critical discussion on the past, present and future of air power. Although progress has been made, there is still much that needs to be done.

I think Air Force is lagging in its ability to contribute to the public discussion on air power. But I feel proud of the fact that Williams is making some impact. We’ve been aiming at the middle-ranked people, squadron leaders and wing commanders. We get them along to the seminars, like the one we just had on electronic warfare, and they say “jeez, I hadn’t thought about that”. And they are the ones that write the papers that then make the difference. So that’s where we are aiming. We still need Air Force to identify to us the areas where they have questions, challenges, and indeed problems. We can then expose that area to more people, get them thinking about it, and help address it.

But one of the problems that has to be overcome is encouraging and motivating Air Force’s middle-ranking officers and senior non-commissioned officers to engage in critical discussion to ensure that we identify potential issues with the way in which Air Force develops, manages, and employs air power. It is an issue that The Central Blue editors are seeking to address through their own efforts in promoting serving members to think and write on the issues that they see as important. When asked what was needed to get airmen writing and contributing to the discussion, Air Marshal McCormack simply stated:

We’ve got to prove to them that they are not going to be hung out to dry. I think the only way you can do that is get some people to write and engage in the discussion, people see it, that there is no retribution. But the problem won’t be solved in the short-term, I think it is a long-term learning process.

The question of the Force Element Groups and their role in Air Force

One area where Air Marshal McCormack noted that there was a need for Air Force to be better in its ability to criticise itself is in determining the optimal shape of the future force. He used the example of Force Element Groups (FEGs), and stated that we should be asking the question “What do you want from them?”. Air Marshal McCormack suggested that, as an organisation, we should be asking if the FEG structure is appropriate, and then developing an organisational response to that question.

But the FEGs have become such a dominant and entrenched aspect of Air Force that it is difficult to imagine any other organisational structure in place. The evolution of FEGs is an excellent example of how one solution might be appropriate for a specific time or operational context; however, the FEGs have led to a number of unintended consequences, most notably the stove-piping of careers to align with internal FEG dynamics. As circumstances and requirements have changed and evolved, it raises the question of how the FEG structure should evolve to meet the needs of today’s Air Force.

Do you know why FEGs were formed? We picked up the RAF system of the officer commanding (OC) base was the master of all he surveyed. And we had helicopters at Townsville, Amberley, Sale. But the OC Amberley who had F-111s, Canberras and helicopters, was apparently an “expert on helicopters.” Because he owned them, he’d fly them, and all those sorts of things. And it was the helicopter people that wrote in and said this is crazy. We’ve got 9 Squadron [Amberley-based Iroquois squadron] doing this, we’ve got 5 Squadron [Fairbairn-based Iroquois squadron] doing this, there’s no coordination between the two, we need to come under a central command. And that was when Westmore [Air Commodore Ian Westmore, OC Amberley in 1986] took that idea and Air Command agreed, well it was the Operational Command in those days, and then the FEGs came in. But it was because of this RAF system of whatever was on the base you owned. Now, the FEG system was good for the standardisation for various elements, and of course you need it now with Amberley and Williamtown [two bases that are home to the RAAF’s Super Hornet and Hornet fleets]. You need it, if you let them go off on their own, you can imagine we could go back to the old aero-club days of having a good time, without someone looking over your shoulder.

Although this system worked well at the time in response to the problems that were then being faced, it was not long before the system became entrenched and difficult to adapt and evolve in response to changes that were occurring. One of the questions that Air Force is now facing is how does this structure work for a new style of platform that has a multitude of capabilities that must be integrated and cannot be operated in isolation. During his tenure as CAF, Air Marshal McCormack began the first reorganisation of the FEGs with the formation of Air Combat Group (ACG) through the merging of Tactical Fighter Group (TFG), responsible for the RAAF’s F/A-18 Hornet operations, and Strike Reconnaissance Group (SRG), responsible for the F-111s. ACG was formed in 2002, the year after Air Marshal McCormack retired.

I was the first OC of the re-formed 82WG, under Strike Reconnaissance Group. And the reason I formed Air Combat Group as chief was because of my problems as OC 82WG trying to get the fighter world to actually work with and not against us. They wanted to be red ir all the time, and they would get the F-111s to just go off and do strike. But wait a minute, we are going to have to work together on ops. The only way to get past this was put the Hornet and the F-111s together. We have to ask the question: what’s the best solution for the organisation? My direction to John Quaife [who led the Air Combat Group formation project] was: this is the solution, now come up with how we get there. Unless you’ve got people in positions of power, you’ll just muddle along.
A F/A-18 Hornet from 3 Squadron from RAAF Base Williamtown flies alongside a F-111 from 1 SQN RAAF Base Amberley. [Image Credit: Royal Australian Air Force]
A F/A-18 Hornet from 3 Squadron from RAAF Base Williamtown flies alongside a F-111 from 1 SQN RAAF Base Amberley. [Image Credit: Royal Australian Air Force]

During the time when the ACG-merger was being planned, Air Marshal McCormack identified that other changes needed to be made, but there was concern that Air Force could not absorb such massive changes occurring simultaneously. Regarding the merger of Maritime Patrol Group (MPG), responsible for P-3 Orion operations, and Surveillance and Control Group (SCG), responsible for the RAAF’s air surveillance and control capabilities, into Surveillance and Response Group (the new SRG) that occurred in 2004, Air Marshal McCormack noted:

The only reason I didn’t pull 92 Wing [P-3 Wing] out of MPG when I started the ACG project, was because the system wouldn’t have been able to handle the merger of TFG and [old] SRG [to form ACG] at the same time as a change to the surveillance groups was coming. I said that was a bridge too far, so we will leave that for other people to do.

The solution to managing the organisational inertia that would need to be overcome in any re-evaluation of Air Force’s organisational structure, according to Air Marshal McCormack is a cultural change program, one that would rectify the stove-piping that occurs in FEGs. This includes the regular movement of personnel across FEGs to prevent stovepipes from becoming too powerful. We are already starting to see this occur in Air Force with command positions in operational wings being filled by people with backgrounds outside of the wing they are now commanding. This may be an early indicator that organisation change may be more easily achieved in the future.

Technical and strategic masters as Chief of Air Force

The final question posed to Air Marshal McCormack was one most CAFs have been asked in many different forums: Does CAF need to be a pilot?

In any organisation, if the boss doesn’t have domain knowledge you are heading for a failure. Since I have been working in industry a few companies almost went broke, because the managing director at the head didn’t have the domain knowledge of what they were all about. I suggest for an air force the necessary domain knowledge is of ‘air combat operations’.

The follow-up question, which remained unasked, is: what how will changes in the application of air power into the future redefine the requirements of domain knowledge in the future force? The answer to that question may redefine the next generation of Air Force leadership.


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