Brian Weston 'On Target 'Function over Geography: Combat Power through Organisation – Part 3' in Australian Aviation December 2017 p.20
The On Target columns in the October and November issues of Australian Aviation outlined the evolution of RAAF organisational policy up to 1986, with the observation that although the RAAF proclaimed to organise itself on a functional basis, that organizational functionality was disrupted by the reality that “RAAF Formation Officers Commanding” were, in reality, geographically limited “RAAF Base Officers Commanding”. As a consequence, the command of RAAF operational units was fragmented, especially when like-roled units were not co-located.
For instance, when Mirage squadrons were resident at Williamtown, Butterworth and Darwin, the three squadrons reported through different command chains ‒ through their respective Base Officers Commanding at Williamtown, Butterworth and Darwin. Similarly, the RAAF air support squadrons of Chinook, Iroquois and Caribou were spread across Fairbairn, Richmond, Amberley and Townsville with command chains through four different Base Officers Commanding.
These command arrangements meant there was no single appointment responsible for the oversight of either the tactical fighter force or the tactical transport force, until the various command chains came together at the level of the Air Officer Commanding, Operational Command.
This was a serious organisational deficiency and it took some years to carry the argument that “unity of command” over all the assets of a specific air capability was more important than “unity of command” over all the units located on a particular RAAF base.
After some years of discussion, especially at the tactical and operational levels, the Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal “Jake” Newham decided to transition the air force to a fully functional operational organization when he decided that RAAF operational units would be organised into “Force Element Groups” (FEGs).
Newham, with his strong operational background, including tours as Staff Officer Operations and Senior Air Staff Officer at Operational Command, was well placed to decide this issue although initially he introduced the new arrangements with effect 2 February 1987, on a “trial basis”, to give time to win over some doubters. But it was obvious there would be no going back, and Air Force Organisational Directive 6/88 of 1 June 1988 formalised the new FEG arrangements.
In brief, “like” operational units would be grouped together under one commander. For the fighter capability, all fighter units together with the operational fighter training units were grouped into the Tactical Fighter Group (TFG). And, with air defence and air superiority operations being dependent on air surveillance and fighter direction, the supporting air surveillance/direction units of the Air Defence Ground Environment (ADGE) were also included in the TFG. OC RAAF Williamtown became CDR TFG, commanding units located at Williamtown, Tindal, Darwin, Amberley and Pearce.
The Strike Reconnaissance Group (SRG) incorporated the strike reconnaissance F-111C squadrons, together with F-111C operational training. The Maritime Patrol Group (MPG) incorporated the maritime P-3C Orion squadrons together with the P-3C operational training units. OC RAAF Amberley and OC RAAF Edinburgh became CDR SRG and CDR MPG respectively.
OC RAAF Richmond became CDR Air Lift Group (ALG) retaining authority over the Richmond-based C-130 and B707 units and gaining the Fairbairn-based VIP squadron, while losing command of the Richmond-based Caribou tactical transport squadron. Critical to the 24/7 operations of the ALG, was the Air Movement Coordination Centre and the RAAF high frequency radio network through which command and control of deployed air lift and maritime patrol aircraft was maintained.
A significant change was the establishment of the Tactical Transport Group (TTG) comprising the Iroquois/Black Hawk, Chinook and Caribou squadrons, resident at Fairbairn, Richmond, Amberley and Townsville.
In hindsight, as all these units were in the business of “air support”, especially air support of the army, the TTG might have been better titled the Air Support Group, with its command elevated to an officer of air commodore rank rather than a group captain. Both measures would have better emphasized the importance the RAAF placed on air support operations.
The FEG commanders also gained command over the operational/intermediate level maintenance units, such as the 400 series maintenance wings which supported each FEG.
The reorganization also resolved the ambiguity about the authority of the (Base) Air Staff Officer by abolishing the appointment, and returning to the practice of grouping squadrons into wings under the command of Officers Commanding, generally of group captain rank. Two of these wings, No 81 Wing (F/A-18A) and No 82 Wing (F-111C), were also given roles as deployable tactical headquarters which provided the air force with options for the command and control of deployed air operations.
The 1987/1988 FEG reorganization ‒ heralded by the formation of No 1 Operational Group in 1943 ‒ was a seminal event in RAAF history; and, while the FEGs have since been periodically reshaped as the capabilities of the air force evolved, the air force became a more capable combat force because of its more focused, accountable and effective operational organisation.
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.