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On Target: Go hard, or go home!

Brian Weston 'On Target - 'Go hard, or go home!' in Australian Defence Business Review, July/Aug 2020 pp 70

One of the themes of recent On Target columns has been how recent force structure decisions have shaped the evolution of the RAAF into a potent middle-weight air force, well-suited to operations in the Indo-Pacific region. But there is a substantial difference between having a capable force-in-being, and being able to sustain a creditable tempo of operations for lengthy periods.

This is not a new a new issue. Indeed, in 1944 in the South- West Pacific Area theatre, RAAF operational units were confronted with such an issue which, expressed bluntly, was to either go hard, or go home.

At the time, the Commander-in-Chief of the South-West Pacific Area, Gen Douglas MacArthur was pursuing a strategy of by-passing substantial Japanese-occupied territory to expedite his rapid advance towards and through the Philippines. The strategy largely rendered the by-passed Japanese forces ineffective, expedited the advance, and also avoided incurring the large numbers of casualties that would have resulted had Allied forces been tasked with clearing every concentration of Japanese forces.

But MacArthur’s strategy depended heavily on the effective employment of air power by the air forces commanded by Lieutenant General George Kenney (USAAF).

At the forefront of MacArthur’s advance was No 10 Group, the RAAF tactical strike group which evolved into the RAAF First Tactical Air Force. No 78WG – comprising 75, 78 and 80 SQNs equipped with the P-40N Kittyhawk (picture below) – was the largest unit within No 10 Group which was commanded by AIRCDRE (later AVM) Frederick Scherger.

With the pace of the allied advancement largely tied to the operational capacity and tempo of the allied air forces, and with limited availability of airfields, Kenney did not wish to allocate any airfield space to units that could not sustain a high operational tempo. That policy soon had the RAAF’s obsolete Vultee Vengeance units returning to Australia.

With the assault on the Admiralty Islands pending, Scherger was called to a meeting with Major General Ennis Whitehead, Commander of Kenney’s Allied Air

Forces, Advanced Echelon Headquarters, in Port Moresby.

Whitehead bluntly informed Scherger that 78WG was to be broken up, with its three squadrons dispersed to Dobodura, Finschhafen, and Nadzab – a decision which would have effectively transferred the Kittyhawk squadrons to the rear. Scherger strongly objected and, after some hours of argument, Whitehead reluctantly agreed 78WG could remain on the front line, but only if its squadrons could generate 1,000 flying hours per month the flying rate of an equivalent USAAF squadron.

RAAF operational squadrons were organised in accordance with RAF doctrine, and that organisational construct allowed a RAAF Kittyhawk squadron to generate 600 flying hours per month. Scherger, noting the differences between RAF and USAAF operational organisation and doctrine, set about radical

change following a visit in March 1944 by Deputy Chief of the Air Staff, AIRCDRE John McCauley. The most obvious change was an increase in the establishments of the Kittyhawk squadrons to 24 aircraft and 30 pilots, but many other changes were also implemented.

Scherger also noted the disruptive impact of the RAAF practice of rotating pilots continually through the squadrons, a consequence of the RAAF setting the length on an aircrew operational tour at nine months. In contrast, the USAAF set the length of their aircrew operational tours at 18 months, interspersed with two three-week breaks for rest and recuperation.

Scherger thought the American system was “infinitely superior with spirit, morale, and operational efficiency increasing all the time. (In contrast) our efficiency graph was like the serrated edge of a saw … with none of the peaks very high”.

On this, it is useful to note that George Odgers, the RAAF Historian, noted, “there was by no means unanimity in the RAAF on the question of tours of duty”. But it is unclear whether this was debate between a highly-experienced and respected operational commander and staff officers residing well away from the operational front.

There can be no doubt Scherger’s initiative achieved the desired change as, in June 1944, 75, 78 and 80SQNs flew 1,318, 1,405, and 1,614 hours respectively. But while it is appropriate to reflect on 78WG’s remarkable achievement the point of this column is to ask how will the 21st century RAAF generate the significant and sustained increases in operational effort that will be required should a nearer-term contingency arise in the Indo-Pacific?

Brian Weston is a Board Member of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation. He served tours in Defence’s Force Analysis Division and the HQADF Force Development Planning Branch.

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