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Can Air Force prioritise Jointness? – Stephen Edgeley

When it comes to prioritising jointness, Air Force’s history isn’t great. Perhaps it’s time for the RAAF to appreciate that, for its future combat capabilities to be fully effective, it must change.

RAAF helicopters and Australian Army soldiers, Vietnam, c. 1967. Credit: RAAF

RAAF helicopters and Australian Army soldiers, Vietnam, c. 1967. Credit: RAAF

In Air Force Strategy 2017-2027 Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Leo Davies, states that Air Force will “promote a commitment to jointness in Air Force culture such that Air Force members recognise their own capabilities as operating primarily on behalf of the whole Australian Defence Force”. While it is not unusual for a chief of air force to mention a commitment to jointness within an Air Force strategy document, it is unusual to suggest that Air Force culture may need to change to achieve it.

Quite rightly, many have asked why the sudden emphasise on jointness? The more cynical observer may suggest that because Air Force has spent the last five years winning the procurement wars on Russell Hill they can now afford to be magnanimous in their attitude to jointness. Perhaps more accurately, it’s because Air Force recognises that the nature of jointness is evolving. With a greater understanding that joint in the future is more about interdependence between the Services, rather than just coordination and cooperation, Air Force may realise that for its future capabilities to be fully combat effective it must embrace jointness as a priority.

To be frank, Air Force’s history when it comes to prioritising joint capabilities isn’t great. To clarify that statement, when it comes to fighting together at the operational and tactical levels, the men and women of the Royal Australian Air Force show a true commitment to jointness. The same can be said for each of the Services: during periods of conflict they all work jointly to find practical solutions to complex operational issues.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said when, as an organisation, Air Force is required to find the money and people to properly resource joint capabilities. Obviously that’s not true of all joint capabilities, but the ones the Air Force seems to struggle with the most are those that live on the fringes between the Services. For example, capabilities such as air-land integration, forward air control, precision air-drop and unmanned aerial vehicles. These capabilities which fall into the gaps between the Services are only going to increase in size and importance because, as the RAND Corporation’s Carl Builder wrote more than twenty years ago, while the “point of the spear is getting sharper, the shaft of the spear is getting longer and more important as well”.

While members of Navy and Army may believe this lack of joint focus is a coordinated RAAF plot, my belief is less Machiavellian in nature and stems from Robert Jervis’ explanation that observed behaviour is less likely to be planned and coordinated, and more likely to be a series of uncoordinated events. It is my hypothesis that Air Force doesn’t maintain the appropriate priority on jointness because externally, the politics of the Defence acquisition and funding processes don’t reward the Services for valuing joint, and internally, Air Force’s culture and promotion system teach the individual that thinking blue is more valued than thinking purple.

I don’t believe that Air Force consistently and consciously chooses not to prioritise jointness, but the net effects of bureaucratic organisational behaviour and complex internal culture make it more likely that Air Force will unconsciously choose to prioritise independent Air Force activity.

To be blunt, because of the way organisational behaviour and Air Force culture condition individual Air Force members to think and act, if a capability hasn’t got a set of wings attached to it, then you’ll struggle to hold Air Force’s resource-limited and operationally-distracted attention.

I suspect that a similar phenomenon (minus the need for a set of wings) may also be found within Navy and Army, but because Air Force is in the unique position of having to provide air power to the other two Services to enable their core combat functions, Air Force transgressions away from jointness are more visible and tend to carry greater consequence.

While jointness has always been a stated goal of the Australian Defence Force, to enable the organisation to take the next step in the evolution of jointness, in which the requirements for interdependence will ensure that working together will no longer be an option but rather a necessity, Air Force is going to have to choose to prioritise jointness. For this to occur, Air Force and each of the Services to varying degrees will need to remove the organisational behavioural and cultural roadblocks that continue to encourage individuals to unconsciously prioritise independent Service preferences over joint capabilities.

RAAF Kittyhawk close attack fighter landing during the Battle of Milne Bay, 1942. Credit: RAAF

RAAF Kittyhawk close attack fighter (background) landing during the Battle of Milne Bay, 1942. Credit: RAAF

Unfortunately, I don’t have a ready answer on how Air Force will effect this change and comply with the Chief’s direction to promote a commitment to jointness. Perhaps we may see a change in organisational behaviour at the strategic level if the new capability life cycle teaches the Services that Defence values jointness over independent Service capabilities. Which in turn, may flow down through the individual Service headquarters as hard working staff officers are forced to apply a new level of joint compliance and justification to their capability submissions.

In relation to organisational culture, everything I have read on the subject suggests that it is extremely difficult to change an entrenched and stable culture. As recent history within Air Force has already demonstrated, transformational change of that magnitude can only be achieved through determined leadership, continual reinforcement, and by demonstrating that Air Force rewards individuals who truly value jointness.

Group Captain Stephen Edgeley is an RAAF/Williams Foundation doctoral candidate at UNSW Canberra


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