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On Target: Evolving the Force Element Group: Combat Power through Organisation – Part 4

Brian Weston 'On Target 'Evolving the Force Element Group: Combat Power through Organisation – Part 4' in Australian Aviation January-February 2017 p.2

The three previous On Target columns in Australian Aviation have outlined the evolution of RAAF organisational policy to the period when the RAAF formalised the organisation of its operational units into Force Element Groups (FEGs) on 1 June 1988.

The new FEGs were the Tactical Fighter Group (TFG), which included the supporting air direction units of the Air Defence Ground Environment (ADGE), the Strike Reconnaissance Group (SRG), the Maritime Patrol Group (MPG), the Air Lift Group (ALG), the Tactical Transport Group (TTG) and the Air Operational Support Group (AOSG). However, the RAAF TTG was short-lived, disbanding in February 1991 after the RAAF helicopter capability was transferred to the Army with the residual TTG Caribou capability folding back into the ALG.

The development of the Jindalee over-the-horizon (OTH) radar at the Joint Facility, Alice Springs, also had implications for the RAAF ADGE as it added a new dimension to Australia's wide-area surveillance capabilities. Accordingly, the air force stood up No 1 Radar Surveillance Unit (1RSU), headquartered at Mt Everard, near Alice Springs, on 1 July 1992 and assigned the unit to No 41 Wing.

Subsequently, the decision to re-shape the RAAF air defence capability more towards an air battle management capability had further organisational implications. Firstly, all ADF air traffic control services, including at army and navy airfields, were amalgamated within a reformed No 44 Wing and secondly, in 1996, both Nos 41 and 44 Wings were spun-out of the TFG into a new Surveillance and Control Group (SCG).

By 1997 the Defence Efficiency Review and the follow-on Defence Reform Program had begun to impact on the RAAF by transferring much of the individual FEG’s maintenance and organic support capabilities to contractors, reducing some FEGs to a group consisting of only one wing, with an obviously unsatisfactory “one-group-commanding-one-wing” command chain. The SRG was also being exposed to new air defence capabilities, especially the increasing availability of look-down radars which eroded the ability of the F-111C to exploit terrain masking during its final approach to a target.

It was becoming apparent that in future, the F-111C and F/A-18A forces would need to cooperate tactically to ensure F-111C survivability against improving air defences. But the long-standing silos that segregated the RAAF tactical fighter and strategic strike capabilities ‒ a situation going well back to the fighter and bomber heritages of both capabilities ‒ was a significant institutional barrier to fighter/bomber cooperation.

That cultural fighter/bomber segregation was a concern to Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Errol McCormack. With a Sabre and Canberra background; experience participating in the first F-111C cohort (1968); time flying the RF-4C on exchange with the USAF; and his time as OC No 82 Wing flying the F-111C; McCormack “warned” Air Commodore John Quaife of his posting as the first commander of the RAAF Air Combat Group (ACG). After spending 12 months planning the merger of the TFG and SRG, Quaife took up his post as CDR ACG in January 2002, commanding Nos 78, 81 and 82 Wings.

The formation of the ACG was accompanied by further development in the new SCG when, in 1999, No 1RSU moved to Edinburgh as a precursor to controlling not only the Alice Springs OTHR but also the new OTH radars at Laverton and Longreach. Those radars came online in mid-2003, completing the Jindalee Operational Radar Network (JORN).

Further developments followed, which brought the short-lived existence of the SCG to an end, when it was merged with the MPG ‒ a group which had been reduced to oversighting only one wing; No 92 Wing flying AP-3C aircraft.

The SCG/MPG merger saw the establishment on 30 March 2004, of the Surveillance and Response Group (SRG) and with the impending introduction of the RAAF airborne early warning and control capability, the SRG, headquartered at Williamtown, became an FEG of considerable capability, fully justifying the appointment of a commander of air commodore rank. The SRG reached maturity on 1 January 2006, when No 42 Wing was reformed flying the E-7A Wedgetail, joining Nos 41, 44 and 92 Wings in the SRG.

In contrast, the ALG saw a long period of organisational stability as it continued its 24/7 role of air transport operations although, in 1999, it gained capability when No 37 SQN traded its 1966 vintage C-130E Hercules for the much-improved C-130J. The AOSG, headquartered at Edinburgh also continued unchanged but not so the Operational Support Group (OSG) at Townsville, where the RAAF strove to retain some of its organic expeditionary support capability, so unthinkingly stripped by the crude and blunt Defence reviews of the 1990s.

Certainly the 20 years to 2007 saw much organisational change, but it was re-assuring the RAAF was still able to retain an operational organization, in keeping with the principles of functional force element group reorganisation, first implemented in 1987.

Air-Vice Marshal Brian Weston (Retd) was CO No 75 Squadron in 1980, CO Base Squadron Richmond in 1986, OC Base Support Wing Richmond in 1987, and CDR Tactical Fighter Group from July 1990 to July 1993. Brian is a Board Member of the Williams Foundation and this On Target article appears in Australian Aviation magazine.

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