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#jointstrike Part 2: Deterrence, Strike and Australian air power – Jenna Higgins

12 Aug 18

This post is the second of a two-part series on deterrence. The first sought to define deterrence holistically as an option for national strategy. This post examines how Australian air power has been influenced by the concept of deterrence, and specifically, how this has influenced developing a strike capability.

Putting aside considerations as to whether conventional deterrence is the most appropriate strategy for Australia, there has been a long-standing tendency within air forces to equate ‘deterrence’ with ‘strike’. This tendency lends itself to a belief that if we have a fleet of bombers, then we will automatically deter. This conviction endures in the 2016 Defence White paper which states that ‘A potent strike and air combat capability’ is ‘essential to our ability to deter attempts to coerce or attack Australia and our national interests, including the ability to seize the initiative, and defeat potential threats as far from Australia as possible’. But why is this the case?

The very beginning…

Long before the RAAF had clearly articulated its doctrine, or a Defence White paper as we know them today had been published, Australia was intuitively employing strike aircraft in support of national deterrence. The defence of Australia during World War II serves as a useful example. Australian air power, along with the allies, shaped the minds of future decision makers through the success at The Battle of Bismarck in March 1943. Using USAAF B-17, B-25 Mitchells, P-38 Lightnings and RAAF Beaufighters, the allies sunk 12 Japanese warships, thus eliminating any possibility that Australia might be invaded. In effect, allied air power had applied ‘defensive deterrence’ by dominating the air/sea gap through the northern approaches.

‘Offensive deterrence’ was also being exercised as a national strategy with the RAAF operating 254 B-24 heavy bombers by the end of the war. [1] The acquisition of these aircraft enabled the RAAF to potentially prepare for the use of chemical weapons – that is, weapons of mass destruction – that the Air Force had tested and stockpiled during the war, but which it never used.[2]

Post World War II

The decade following the Second World War significantly shaped how the Australian government, and specifically the RAAF, viewed deterrence. This was epitomised in 1954 when Chief of the Air Staff (CAS) Sir Donald Hardman told the Air Board that ‘an air force without bombers, isn’t an air force’, a conviction which was held just as strongly by his successors. While Hardman and his senior colleagues embraced the concept of deterrence, it was not always clear that their reasoning has been well thought-out. At the time, bomber aircraft were synonymous with terror because of the experience of World War II. Consequently, ‘people generally thought of bombing in apocalyptic terms, the mere presence of an Air Force with a reasonable bomber fleet might serve as a deterrent.’[3] While valid in hindsight, the flaw in this strategy was its failure to understand how future wars might be fought, a growing concern with collateral damage, and the ability to accept risk while also generating fear.

Following the Second World War and against this background, the RAAF looked to bolster its strike force; however, the government was less inclined. A survey of Australia’s triennia Strategic Basis documents between the late 1940s and early 1970’s shows little official inclination to embrace conventional deterrence as an explicit military strategy.[4] This was until the Cold War. The Cold War changed the equation significantly, with conventional deterrence becoming an important factor in strategic debates during the mid 1970’s and 80’s. This was evident in 1976 with the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre (SDSC) suggesting that the principal task for ‘Australia’s defence policy was to develop a posture that would help in establishing credible deterrence which can keep aggressors from her shores without suffering human casualties or physical destruction which inevitably and increasing accompanies the actual use of force.’[5]

This resulted in a requirement and prioritisation of a strong maritime strike capability – that is, for a defensive deterrent force – in order to ‘give an enemy pause’.[6] The 1976 White Paper Australian Defence followed, and included a discrete section entitled ‘Strike, Reconnaissance and Deterrence’. The core of the RAAFs strike force resided with 24 F-111C aircraft, which supported the RAAFs ability to ‘deter aggression’.  Minister for Air Peter Howson said of the purchase ‘it was the presence of air power and the psychological threat it presented that was the basis of the RAAF’s deterrence, proving the overriding consideration was posture rather than a rational assessment of capabilities.’

Post-Cold War – an official policy

By the mid 1980’s, the focus on conventional deterrence once again waned and was replaced by a strategy of denial. The 1987 Defence White paper clearly articulated the defence of Australia’s air-sea gap to the north and rejected the concept of deterrence.[7] This forced the RAAF to conduct an internal review of the concept of deterrence, and to articulate what air power could actually achieve in the defence of Australia. The CAS at the time, Air Marshal John Newham, was troubled by the White Paper’s apparent ambivalence toward strategic strike.

Newham argued that regardless of the scale of hostilities, it was essential for the ADF to have the option of striking an enemy force at its source. Consequently, it was suggested that while the RAAF may have lacked the capability for offensive deterrence, it could still be capable of supporting a defensive deterrence strategy.

With only a handful of platforms; no matter how capable the F-111’s were, without modern weaponry, the credibility of Australia’s strike capability was questionable. For a defensive deterrence strategy to be accepted, the RAAF had to acquire Precision Guided Munitions; for without precision, the collateral damage and subsequent risk would be problematic. With that said, as India’s leading air power scholar Air Commodore Jasjit Singh (retd), pointed out at the 1991 RAAF Air Power Conference,  the combination of Harpoon-equipped F-111s, P-3s and F-18s, gave the RAAF the most potent maritime strike force in the Asia-Pacific[8] thus highlighting that perception is everything. In this case, defensive deterrence was achieved in the region due to the perceptions of a joint strike capability. It is not a single platform or weapon alone that created a valid threat or deterrent, it was the ability to generate an effect.

An undefinable threat and protagonist

With a shift away from a single source threat epitomised by the Cold War, a new period of unpredictably was, and is still at play. An ‘unpredictable new international order, which is culturally diverse and prone to both political fragmentation and weapons proliferation[9] now shapes how the concept of deterrence must be applied. Low level conflict is now more likely than the threat of an all-out nuclear war, and a deterrence strategy must acknowledge this. This is not to say the nuclear threat has been eliminated, but simply that it must be acknowledged that this tactic will not always deter, depending on who the protagonist is. Where nuclear deterrence is not the appropriate choice based on the protagonist, a technological edge may fill the void within the realm of conventional deterrence. In this sense, ‘some analysts suggest that deterrence theory can be emancipated from Cold War thinking to emphasise a more dynamic modality of strategy. ’[10] As such, it could also be reasoned that the supremacy of Western conventional forces rests on new joint strike and precision weapons. Gary L Guertner indeed argues that conventional deterrence requires ‘technological superiority, a form of collective security, forward presence, strategic agility and theatre defence’.[11] To achieve this, a true joint approach is required.

The 2016 Defence White paper states that Australia ‘must be prepared to carry out offensive strike operations against the military bases and in-transit forces of a potential adversary’ and that this will be achieved through ‘strategic strike capabilities, including air strike and special operations capabilities’. While an independent strike capability expands the range of options to achieve Australia’s strategic ends, as well as signalling a serious intent and commitment about Australia’s national security, it probably is not optimised. Defining who the potential adversary is – their strengths and weakness as well as their strategic culture – all dramatically shape how Australia might successfully deter. In the interim, as ASPI advises, ‘the single most important task of the RAAF is to raise the costs and risks of threatening Australian territory to any would-be aggressor. A key part of the role of Australia’s future air combat capability will be the way it enables or conducts maritime denial operations.’[12]

Squadron Leader Jenna Higgins is an Air Combat Officer in the Royal Australian Air Force and a co-editor at The Central Blue. You can follow her on twitter at @jenna_ellen_. The opinions expressed are hers alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.


[1] Stephens, A., 1997, Power Plus Attitude: Ideas, Strategy, and Doctrine in the Royal Australian Air Force 1921 – 1991, Canberra, p82

[2] ibid

[3] Stephens, A., 1997, Going Solo: Royal Australian Air Force 1946 – 1971, Canberra, p362

[4] Department of Defence, Key Elements in the Triennial Reviews of Strategic Guidance since 1945, Submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, 17 February 1987, Inquiry into the Management of Australia’s Defence and National Security, Official Hansard Report, Submissions and Incorporated Documents, Volume II.

[5] O’Neill, R (ed), 1976, The Defence of Australia – Fundamental New  Aspects, ANU, Canberra

[6] Ibid p131

[7] Department of Defence, 1987, The Defence of Australia, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.

[8] Stephens, A. (ed), 1991, Smaller but Larger, Conventional Air Power into the 21st Century, RAAF Air Power Studies Center, Canberra.

[9] Evans, M., 1999, Conventional Deterrence in the Australian Strategic Context, Working Paper No.107, Land Warfare Studies Center, p7

[10] Ibid p9

[11] Guertner, G., 1992, Deterrence and Conventional Military Forces, Strategic Studies Institute – U.S. Army War College, p5

[12] Commonwealth of Australia, 2016, Report: Planned acquisition of F-35 Lightning II (Joint Strike Fighter), Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.


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