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Bomber Close Air Support for the Australian Defence Force? The Case for a Land Strike Capability for

The success of the Royal Australian Air Force’s Plan JERICHO rests on the development of innovative ways to exploit the capabilities that will enter service over the next decade. Critical to this innovation will be the ideas of those charged with employing Australian airpower on operations. In this post, SGT G, a current serving Combat Controller, draws on his operational experience to identify the potential employment of the Air Force’s newest acquisition, the P-8 Poseidon, in a land strike role.

Over the past 15 years Australian Defence Force (ADF) Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTAC) have utilised USAF B-52 and B-1 aircraft in the Close Air Support (CAS) role on operations. Originally conceived and employed as nuclear strike aircraft these airframes have evolved into uniquely effective CAS platforms. This evolution has been achieved through a combination of Advanced Targeting Pods (ATP), integration of new weapons and arguably most importantly, a shift in training and culture for those communities.

Bombers such as the B-52 offer distinct advantages over traditional Fighter Ground Attack aircraft in the CAS role. [Image Credit: Commonwealth of Australia]

Bombers such as the B-52 offer distinct advantages over traditional Fighter Ground Attack aircraft in the CAS role. [Image Credit: Commonwealth of Australia]

Characteristics of Bomber Aircraft

The bomber aircraft brings a particular set of advantages to the CAS environment, in doctrinal terms these are best identified as enhanced payload, reach and flexibility, while mitigating the traditional Fighter Ground Attack (FGA) aircraft compromises in terms of dependency and impermanence. Below is a brief expansion of these points.

Payload: The bomber carries a large number of varied weapons allowing for persistent effects, also enabling the aircraft to support high tempo fighting that requires multiple JDPIs (Joint Designated Point of Impact) to be serviced in a compressed timeframe. This capability has achieved a powerful psychological effect on both supported friendly forces and enemy combatants. The ability to strike several dispersed JDPIs simultaneously presents a threat to the enemy that they are unable to effectively counter with their usual tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP) and still posture to repel ground attack.  The varied nature of the weapons available allows JTAC, Ground Commander (GC) and aircrew to derive optimum weaponeering solutions. This is best reflected in the ability to carry multiple high-yield weapons that impose significant payload and endurance penalties on FGA aircraft.

Reach: The bomber aircraft possesses a long unrefueled range, reducing the requirement for tanker support and increasing the range of basing options, reducing dependency. The long periods of endurance allow the bomber to support the GC for extended periods, without the requirement for frequent air-to-air refuelling (AAR). This enables the GC to integrate air power synchronised with the ground operation vice short windows of support.

Flexibility: Equipped with an ATP the bomber is able to support the GC through Non-Traditional ISR, combined with endurance and speed the bomber provides C2 agencies with the ability to rapidly re-task a single platform to rapidly transit and support multiple Areas of Operation (AO) over a large geographic area.

The P-8 bomber

In recent decades, operating a fleet of bomber aircraft has been the preserve of a very small group of air forces. Advances in air defence and the prohibitive cost of operating a niche role aircraft within already shrinking force structures saw the bomber disappear from all but a handful of air arms.

The RAAF's first P-8 will arrive in Australia this month. [Image Credit: MBTPhoto 2016 via Defence Image Gallery]

The RAAF’s first P-8 will arrive in Australia this month. [Image Credit: MBTPhoto 2016 via Defence Image Gallery]

Plan JERICHO calls on Royal Australian Air Force to ‘harness the potential of our current systems’ and to ‘operate and support these platforms in a way that provides agile and responsive options.’ JERICHO envisions a fully integrated force that:

  1. will be more agile and adaptive

  2. have extended reach

  3. hit harder with greater precision

  4. see further

  5. distribute information more quickly

The introduction of the P-8A into ADF service presents the opportunity to realise a capability that supports this vision. At present, the ADF’s ability to rapidly force project a kinetic strike capability in support of a Joint Task Force (JTF) requires a large supporting package of KC-30 and airlift assets.

Employing the P-8A as a strike platform would increase the number of options the ADF are able to provide to Government in support of short notice tasking. In the type of low-intensity war the RAAF is currently fighting such as Operation OKRA several efficiencies may be realised. These include more persistent effects delivered at lower cost per flight hour, reduced AAR requirements and smaller support footprint.

The experience that Number 92 Wing (92WG) gained in performing overland ISR during Operation SLIPPER demonstrated the inherent flexibility of the AP-3C platform and the adaptive culture of the crews who flew them. 92WG developed a highly effective set of TTPs that enabled a maritime patrol aircraft to morph into one of the most highly regarded and requested ISR assets in theatre.

The P-8A offers a quantum leap in capability over the AP-3C, and will possess the following capabilities that make it a highly suitable strike/CAS platform:

  1. High Definition camera

  2. Ability to transmit full motion video

  3. VULOS (VHF/UHF Line of Sight)/Beyond Line of Sight (BLOS) radios

  4. Link 16

  5. 11 x 1553 databus hardpoints

  6. Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR)

  7. Electronic Support Measures (ESM) suite

  8. Close to 4000nm range, plus an AAR capable

  9. Stores compatibility with a wide variety of in-service RAAF air-to-surface weapons

Currently, the P-8A does not have the ability to laser designate or spot track. While not essential, laser designation systems are very useful as an aid to target correlation and handoff. The inclusion of a laser target designator (LTD) and spot tracker (LST) within the P-8A capability roadmap would see this capability added at a relatively small technical risk.

If employed to the fullest of its capabilities the P-8A is ideally suited to the type of operations the ADF has conducted over the last 15 years. It has the organic capability to find, fix, finish, exploit (in the electromagnetic spectrum) and then transmit to a processing, exploitation, and dissemination (PED) node for analysis and dissemination.

Over a decade of experience in the Middle East Region, 92WG developed and refined its TTPs for maritime patrol aircraft to support land forces in an overland ISR role. [Image Credit: Commonwealth of Australia]

Drawing on over a decade of experience in the Middle East Region, 92WG  has developed and refined TTPs for maritime patrol aircraft to support land forces in an overland ISR role. [Image Credit: Commonwealth of Australia]

While it is recognised that adding any training to already heavily tasked communities is not to be taken lightly, there are several mitigating factors that de-risk this proposal

92WG AP-3C crews regularly support Special Operations Command (SOCOMD) units and already have a good institutional understanding of overland ISR tasks. Furthermore, new generation ASW weapons will be primarily Bombs on Coordinate (BOC) capabilities; this should provide significant overlap in switchology and crew procedures.

The range and endurance of the platform will allow it to transit to the locations of stakeholder unit JTACs to conduct CAS serials as part of a broader training sortie. This measure would also broaden the pool of platforms that are available to provide CAS currency to ADF JTACs, leading to mutually beneficial training outcomes.

A Way Ahead

The following items are recommended to facilitate this proposal:

  1. 92WG, in partnership with stakeholder units familiarise crews with the procedures contained within the Joint Publication 3-09.3 Close Air Support to enable them to employ the aircraft in the CAS role.

  2. Engagement with NAVAIR for full air-surface weapons integration and LTD/LST inclusion in the P-8A capability roadmap

  3. The temporary use of JTAC/FGA qualified air-riders to smooth any cultural interface issues

The old paradigm (excepting ASW) of Surveillance Response Group (SRG) as a force to “Find and Fix” and Air Combat Group (ACG) the “Finish” is outmoded and lengthens the kill chain. To paraphrase Lieutenant General John Davis USMC, in a battlespace of fleeting targets every platform needs to be a sensor, shooter and sharer. To quote the first theme of Plan JERICHO:

‘The Air Force of the Future will be a networked and integrated force. Operators and commanders at all levels will need to exploit the full capabilities of each system in the force, and not operate in isolation. Our future force capabilities will transcend traditional organisational structures, our concept of operations and our collective training must evolve to support this.’

If the proposals outlined above are adopted, the RAAF will be able to offer a broader range of options to government in the way it provides kinetic strike effects.

SGT G. is a current serving Combat Controller in the Royal Australian Air Force. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.


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