top of page
Line Concept Level 3 page 2.PNG

5th Gen Air Force: An Opportunity for Air Force to Adapt Physical and Medical Employment Standards

In this post Squadron Leader Ryan Ashen argues that the changing workforce requirements of the Royal Australian Air Force as it transitions to a ‘Fifth Generation Air Force’ presents an opportunity to review its employment standards. The physical and medical standards of a Fifth Generation Air Force personnel may be quite different.

I believe that a Fifth Generation Air Force provides Air Force with a once in a lifetime chance to modify our current cookie-cutter approach to recruitment and retention. To do so, one area that must be considered is employment standards. Much like we are reforming our culture and modernising our strategy to exploit those material capabilities and meet the future requirements of Australia, we must adapt the mandatory physical and medical criteria for service. As a result, we have the potential to harvest wide-sweeping benefits.

Over the coming years, Air Force will acquire a multitude of new weapon systems, capitalising on technological evolution and exploitation of the ‘Information Age’. While technological advancement has increased the agility and efficiency of our systems, it presents new challenges with respect to our methods to generate the air power effects vital to our national interests.

In order to realise the full capability of those weapons systems enabling a ‘Fifth Generation Air Force’ the Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Leo Davies identified the need for a consistent approach for air power practitioners to know, communicate and understand what Air Force is doing and why we are doing so. Outlining Air Force’s 10 year strategic plan, Air Marshal Davies detailed five vectors, critical to future success – one of which is People. In my opinion, the greatest challenge facing our future workforce and therefore the opportunity for the greatest rewards exists in correctly identifying those essential, desirable, and relevant qualities of fifth generation airmen.

The workforce challenge is complex. First and foremost, we must understand and appreciate our goal and our needs; then we must identify, attract, recruit, train, educate, challenge and retain a workforce with the character, aptitude and values vital to employing our future platforms. There is no doubt that our future personnel will require different skills and abilities than those critical to our 20th century successes. I question whether our current model, particularly the physical and medical standards of a ‘deployable warfighter’, are relevant for all weapon system manning requirements. Furthermore, does maintaining our current ‘one-size-fits-all’ criterion based on yesterday’s needs, preclude a number of otherwise highly suitable candidates from tomorrow’s service?

MQ-4 Triton [Image Credit: Commonwealth of Australia]

MQ-4 Triton [Image Credit: Commonwealth of Australia]

Implied by Air Marshal Davies at his unveiling of ‘Air Force Strategy 2017-2027’, air power practitioners are well versed on the abilities, definition and intended quantities of a fifth generation fighter aircraft – the F-35 Lightning II. A Fifth Generation Air Force is, however, a fully networked force, not just a force that acquired a fifth generation fighter. Outlined in the Defence White Paper 2016 are a number of other material acquisitions to enable a fifth generation force – the MQ-4C Triton multi-intelligence mission remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS); a medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) combat RPAS (for example MQ-9 Reaper, MQ-1 Predator); a Distributed Ground Station (DGS) charged with providing Commanders with both time-sensitive and deeper-level fused intelligence analysis to add context and understanding to the relatively narrow tactical situational awareness provided by onboard sensors and processing. These assets, combined in an Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) enterprise capable of exploiting sensor product external to the collection asset in as near to real time as communications systems and bandwidth permit will achieve the dispersed exploitation and dissemination needed by all modern Air Force weapon systems in a genuine Fifth Generation architecture.

To quote outgoing Deputy Chief of Air Force (DCAF), Air Vice Marshal Warren McDonald, ‘The systems we use are changing. The threats to our national security are changing. And of course society is changing. We simply have to adapt and embrace any opportunities that will make us stronger’. The weapons systems touched upon above challenge the design of the modern warfighter, and as a result allow Air Force to optimise their standards for those personnel required to best resource the delivery of fifth generation air power.

Jarrod Pendlebury, recently challenged the traditional capability-centric argument for an inclusive workforce in his post on this blog. While I agree with his argument, people are a critical Fundamental Input to Capability (FIC) and we must therefore not lose sight of the capability aspect of personnel policy. When you are purchasing a new personal item, you do not shop at one establishment, or consider a single brand; rather, you explore the entire market place, in order to identify a product that best meets all of your individual needs. In the same light, Air Force must exploit the entire supply of available people to position itself for optimisation as a fifth generation organisation. To quote a previous Director of Personnel – Air Force when questioned about Project WINTER (Women in Non-Traditional Employment Roles) ‘It’s not about political correctness, it’s not about tokenism, it’s about smart business’.

Does a remote pilot of a MALE RPA need to be able to first fly a manned platform? Does a sensor operator of an MQ-4C need to prove that they are able to cope with the physiological effects of the airborne environment to optimise a sensor from a desktop computer? Does an analyst scrutinising imagery from a number of complementary but largely different sources need to be able to deploy to the front line? And, does an ICT specialist, responsible for protecting our sensitive future cyber networks need to be a physically and medically fit for trench warfare? The US Marines certainly think so; however, in the same light that the Commander of the Marine Corps Cyberspace Command suggests that a cyber warrior must ‘first be a Marine, then a rifleman’ one might argue that a sniper must first be a qualified and accomplished coder. The later concept is unrealistic, and would lead to significant fiscal and time inefficiency, not to mention the significant risk of wastage.

HERON RPA Ground Mission Station crew and instructors prepare for another days mission. [Image Credit: Commonwealth of Australia]

HERON RPA Ground Mission Station crew and instructors prepare for another day’s mission. [Image Credit: Commonwealth of Australia]

A future workforce shortage resulting from an aging population and low reproduction rates has been well documented and analysed. A Google search of the benefits of workforce diversity detail the dividends for the broadest possible construct of our workforces. However, while both of these concepts are complementary to my reasoning that Air Force must adapt their standards, they are in large part not relevant to my argument. Rather, Air Force needs the best available cognitive abilities to optimise our ability to meet our future challenges. Defined by the Australian Network on Disability as ‘any condition that restricts a person’s mental, sensory or mobility functions’, approximately 12.5% of Australian’s aged under 65 are living with a ‘disability’. I do not suggest that all 2.1 million Australian’s of working age who are living with a disability would be suitable for uniformed Service; however, our future strategy, challenges and capabilities would suggest that some conditions that have previously prevented military service are no longer relevant.

Distributed operations facilitated by RPAs and DGS capabilities (not to mention those elements charged with maintaining the vital datalinks and communications networks) can support medical and physical conditions that have traditionally precluded warlike service – such capabilities are wholly, or at least in part controlled and interfaced from within an office environment. Thus they can be operated, supported and maintained by personnel who are less able bodied (wheel chair bound/have prosthetic limbs) than has traditionally been the case; or, suffer heart, respiratory or circulatory disease.

Additionally, those same technologies that allow fifth generation platforms can negate the challenges caused by colour blindness, poor eyesight, hearing limitations and allow Air Force to target what we need – cognitive aptitude and personnel who adhere to Air Force values .The additional benefits that may result are unknown; however, consider as an example, a person who is ‘colour blind’ or rather, perceive the colour spectrum differently to a majority of the population – does this allow us the opportunity to identify something in a black and white image that would otherwise have gone unnoticed.

In recent years, Air Force, and the military as a whole has grappled with a number of reforms and concepts – First Principles Review, Pathway to Change, New Horizon, Plan Jericho to name a few. At the heart of all of these reviews is the necessity to challenge culturally entrenched beliefs about the way we have always done business, to a more contemporary approach – an organisation optimally positioned to meet the needs of defending Australia’s interests, be they social, economic, or political interests. Social media recruitment campaigns run by the ADF in the wake of the 2017 Avalon International Airshow were riddled with comments from Australians wanting to serve, but unable to pass recruitment battery based upon inconsequential ailments. To truly become a Fifth Generation Air Force is it time that we challenge the entrenched belief that everyone must be able bodied and a physical warrior?

Squadron Leader Ryan Ashen is a serving Royal Australian Air Force officer. The opinions expressed above are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, Australian Defence Force or the Australian Government.


bottom of page