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Chicken and Egg: Progressing Air-Land Integration – Nathan Thompson

One of the key ways of improving air-land integration in the Australian Defence Force is through the conduct of effective joint exercises. In this post, Squadron Nathan Thompson identifies some of the barriers to effective air-land integration and proposes a solution through the adaptation of existing Australian Army and Royal Australian Air Force’s single-service focussed exercises.

The Australian Army and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) are very different organisations. These differences are self-perpetuating, with a large contributing factor being the inherent limitations of air power. These limiting factors are being reinforced by the current Australian Defence Force (ADF) exercise construct. This post describes the factors that currently limit conventional land forces’ effective use of air platforms and presents a course of action to drive further air-land integration through joint exercises.

The trouble with air

“If your plan relies on 12 Hercules to complete an air-land operation, you might need to reconsider your plan”Major General Stephen Day, Australian Army, 2015

Air assets are not reliable. Some of the reasons for this, such as weather impacts and maintenance requirements, are unavoidable. They combine to cause short-term negative impacts for planners. The surprise nature of these factors forces planning staff to have to account for them, and therefore not rely on air assets. This reinforces the cycle of Army not integrating with air assets.

In addition to the obvious limitations, there are several more nuanced factors that need to be accounted for with aviation. Examples include safety buffers, engineering tolerances, risk management and other governance impacts, and the synergy between asset capabilities. Understanding these factors requires a significant investment of time in education and training. This investment is impractical for those not involved in air power application, which is a key reason for the requirement for liaison officers. Unfortunately, due to the diversity of assets the liaison officer is required to advise upon, the individual nuances are difficult to fully detail and account for during planning. This contributes to the inability to fully integrate an air capability into the land scheme of manoeuvre.

An example of governance impacting a land force’s ability to use air capabilities is the requirement for drop zones to be surveyed prior to use during domestic exercising. The use of aerial resupply to forward echelon troops becomes impractical as they advance on the battlefield, as a drop zone survey qualified member needs to be with the forward echelon to enable any airdrop.

Compounded by weather and maintenance risk, this requirement means that aerial resupply becomes a rear echelon function, thereby diminishing the air power characteristics of reach and responsiveness.

C-17A Globemaster takes off from Nackeroo Airfield in the Northern Territory during Exercise Pitch Black 2016. [Image Credit: Commonwealth of Australia]

C-17A Globemaster takes off from Nackeroo Airfield in the Northern Territory during Exercise Pitch Black 2016. [Image Credit: Commonwealth of Australia]

Another contributing factor to the ineffectiveness of air and land integration is the difference in planning methodology. Air planning occurs according to time, within the Air Tasking Order cycle. Land forces plan through phasing, with phases progressing as conditions are met. The conditions that land phases are based on have time estimates associated with them, but the estimates are flexible within the assumptions they are based on. This leads to a land sequence of events that is fluid, while air assets appear relatively fixed in time. Without significant White Force or Exercise Control management, this leads to the air assets arriving on station to find that the land scheme of manoeuvre has progressed, and they are unable to contribute effectively.

“We burned holes in the sky for two hours and went home without dropping our weapons”Squadron Commanding Officer from Air Combat Group, 2015

Finally, the Theatre Air Control System is reliant on the Defence Secret Network for information flow, while current Australian Army systems include Battle Management System, Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System, and recently the Mission Secret Network. Lack of systems interoperability detracts from the effective integration of air into the land planning, or worse, the requirement to ‘air gap’ information between systems introduces the potential for error.

The above limiting factors contribute to the Army’s perception that they are required to plan as though their effects alone must achieve their endstate. Because air can’t be relied upon, and because it requires a disproportionate investment to understand, it is easier to plan as though air support will not be a deciding factor.

F/A-18 Hornet conducts a low pass in support of Australian Army units as part of Exercise Predator's Run, conducted in Cultana training area, South Australia. [Image Credit: Commonwealth of Australia]

F/A-18 Hornet conducts a low pass in support of Australian Army units as part of Exercise Predator’s Run, conducted in Cultana training area, South Australia. [Image Credit: Commonwealth of Australia]

The current land exercise construct reinforces this perception through an inaccurate air scenario, inadequate air knowledge within Army exercise control, and a practical inability of the RAAF to decisively contribute to an Army exercise.

The inaccurate air scenario and inadequate knowledge of air within Exercise Control are a result of the investment required for understanding– air threats require detailed understanding of capabilities to allow accurate simulation. Similarly, air detection and air attack threats have a security clearance and legislative burden that restrict realistic domestic exercising. Forces Command (specifically Army Intelligence and 16 Air Land Regiment) have limited resources which do not allow full expertise in simulating air threats to land forces, surface threats to air assets, or understanding the information that needs to be transmitted to support air assets through the Army Air-Ground System.

The practical limitations on Air Force decisively contributing to Army exercises are an understandable result of cost, priorities for limited assets and inadequate Exercise Control involvement. The inadequacy of Exercise Control leads to the problem of air assets not being integrated into the scenario, and therefore not contributing to the ground scheme of manoeuvre. Exercise planning determines flying windows months prior to the exercises; however, exercise control does not integrate these flying windows to ensure they provide maximum opportunity for integration, due to the heavy focus on the land scheme of manoeuvre.

“It seemed like the battle had already occurred, and we dropped our weapons at the end for the sake of it”Aircrew member of Air Combat Group, 2016

To summarise the points above, during Exercise Hamel 2016 there were four planned periods of F/A-18F Super Hornet support, which were identified and scheduled at the Final Planning Conference held in May 2016. The results of these sorties are shown below:

A possible solution

Land forces do not fully integrate air capabilities into their plans due partly to a lack of understanding of how to integrate them. However, it is difficult to understand the capabilities without practiced integration. The current exercise construct does not break this chicken and egg cycle. If air-land integration is to be successful the exercise construct needs to change to force this understanding. It is proposed that forcing a reliance on air capabilities in order to conduct land manoeuvre, whilst requiring air forces to have a defined land objective, will lead to the desired air-land outcomes.

By combining the RAAF’s premier force integration exercise (Exercise Pitch Black) with Army’s Brigade readiness exercise (Exercise Hamel) it is possible to more effectively achieve joint training outcomes. To achieve this, both exercises would commence simultaneously. Hamel would be initiated at the start of the current Large Force Engagement (LFE) training period of Pitch Black during which Air Force would achieve its tactical training requirements. While this is occurring the land forces would conduct the Mission Appreciation Process (MAP) portion of Hamel.

The timeframe of the exercise could occur as follows:

Exercise Hamel has supported greater integration between Army's land forces and its organic air power, such as the Tiger Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter. [Image Credit: Commonwealth of Australia]

Exercise Hamel has supported greater integration between Army’s land forces and its organic air power, such as the Tiger Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter. [Image Credit: Commonwealth of Australia]

The endstate

This post proposes a joint exercise construct that includes Army and Air Force mutually supportive training objectives under one Joint Task Force Commander. Therefore, a key requirement of this exercise is mutual training objectives. If both services have gains to be made this will lead to investment by both air and land planners, with commensurately more accurate inputs and outcomes.

Such an exercise construct will contribute significantly to progress on the Air-Land Integration schedule of work under Plan Jericho. During the planning of the exercise, staff will be required to increase their understanding of their counterparts’ requirements and capabilities. During execution, the Commander Joint Task Force will be required to articulate priorities to his component commands and allocate resources accordingly. Both land and air component staffs will be forced to understand how integrating capabilities will achieve their specified tasks.

Hamel, as it currently exists, does not contribute to the progress of this desired endstate, and should be changed. An exercise construct that forces the land component to rely on air power will lead to greater understanding and air-land integration. This will contribute to breaking the cycle of the chicken or the egg.

Squadron Leader Nathan Thompson is a serving Royal Australian Air Force officer. He is currently posted to 1 Brigade as the Brigade Air Liaison Officer. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Army, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.


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