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On Target: 'Australia’s Air Force and its Future Focus ‒ ‘Always’'

Brian Weston Australia’s Air Force and its Future Focus ‒ ‘Always’ 'Australian Defence Business Review – May/June 2021 p 60

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) celebrated its centenary on 31 March 2021, with the underlying theme of Then Now Always, with the March/April On Target column tracking the growth of the RAAF from its heritage of the Australian Flying Corps, through peace and war, to the potent middle-weight air force, that is the RAAF of today ‒ in short, the Then and Now of the first one hundred years of the RAAF.

The On Target column left hanging the question of where to from here although it did flag the rapid changes that had taken place, since 2016, in Australia’s geo-strategic environment of the Indo-Pacific, that will guide the evolution of the RAAF into its second hundred years ‒ the Always.

The geo-strategic changes are generally a consequence of the forceful policies of China, under the governance of the Chinese Communist Party, and its leader, the entrenched and dictatorial Xi Jinping. In that evolving geo-strategic environment, the last On Target column suggested Australia’s first strategic response will be through diplomacy ‒ professional, astute, skilled, and comprising both unilateral and multinational initiatives, with the ANZUS alliance a foundation stone of Australia’s future national security.

A second response would involve the development of Australia’s cyber capabilities as in grey-zone conflict, cyber-attack by state-sponsored actors is an attractive weapon of choice. While third, is the strengthening and diversification of Australia’s economic base, including less reliance on China as a trading partner and of the rebuilding of selected national capabilities to ensure a level of autonomy of vital economic capabilities, done in partnership with Australian business and industry.

It is in this Indo-Pacific and alliance context, that the future development of the RAAF must evolve as diplomacy, cyber-capability and economic power will achieve little unless backed by credible, military power and presence ‒ a role well-suited to a potent, middleweight air force with reach, speed, flexibility, responsiveness, spatial awareness and strike power ‒ an obvious focus for the future evolution of the RAAF and its theme of Always.

But given the rapidity of geo-strategic change, Australia’s defence forces have little time to reshape to meet new strategic challenges, as best illustrated by the timeline associated with the Attack class submarine program, which will not deliver a credible in-service capability of sustaining six Attack class submarines, all operational and at sea ‒ from a fleet of 12 boats ‒ until around 2050.

Fortunately, the RAAF is better placed to meet the new challenges as it can evolve many of its current capabilities to higher levels of capability and preparedness in a much shorter timeframe.

The F-35A capability, already at IOC, will mature and benefit from further development including the early procurement of the longer range air-to-air Joint Advanced Tactical Missile and of the air-to-surface Joint Strike Missile. Similarly, the F/A-18 Super Hornet, EA-18G Growler, E-7AWedgetail and KC-30A air refuelling tanker capabilities should be prioritised for evolving upgrades, such that in 5 to 7 years, these fleet capabilities will be significantly enhanced.

Similarly, new capabilities such as the MQ-4C Triton, MC-55A Peregrine, MQ-9B Sky Guardian, additional P-8A Poseidon armed with the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile and evolving upgrades to intelligence, surveillance, communications, and command and control systems ‒ and possibly including some new capabilities in space ‒ will further improve air force capabilities in the coming 5 to 7 years.

These evolutionary and imminent capability developments and introductions, managed well, and with the necessary augmentation in operational personnel and logistic support, will provide Australia with a further boost in regional presence and credibility in the Indo-Pacific within 5 to 7 years.

The RAAF must also develop plans for the introduction of new capabilities, especially in unmanned and autonomous systems, space, and hypersonic missiles, and bolster its long-range strike capability as well as evolving its operational doctrine to ensure it remains an informed, credible, professional practitioner of aerospace power as the twenty-first century rolls on.

In conclusion, Always is an appropriate theme for the RAAF of the early twenty-first century, with the benefit of having an extant operational capability that provides a sound foundation from which to evolve further to meet the demands of Australia’s rapidly changing geo-strategic environment.

That evolution appears well-suited to a two-track process. The first, an incremental and evolutional path which builds on extant capabilities and capabilities that are coming into service in the next few years, to meet the need for a more powerful Australian aerospace capability within the nearer term timeframe of 5 to 7 years.

The second path should aim to meet Australia’s longer term aerospace needs, over a timeframe of 7 to 15 years, which will bring into service capabilities involving new technologies, and new means of prosecuting power and influence in the national interest through the aerospace domain.

Brian Weston is a Board Member of the Williams Foundation and On Target is published as a regular column in the Australian Defence Business Review.

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