Brian Weston 'On Target - 'Operational Presence and Persistence ‒ Personnel' in Australian Defence Business Review, Jan/Feb 2021 p.72
The previous On Target column noted that while the RAAF has evolved into a potent middle-weight air force well-suited to operations in the nearer, Indo-Pacific region, the current air force capability ‒ and indeed the broader ADF capability ‒ will be sorely stretched if required to sustain a high tempo of operations for lengthy periods. The column also noted that in times of great power competition, competing nations will often place markers ‘in the sand’ to identify those issues and interests that involve a nation’s vital national interests.
In that way, a nation can issue unambiguous warnings to strategic competitors which caution competitors to restrain their activities and expansions so as not to violate a nation’s vital national interests.
But placing markers ‘in the sand’ without clear messaging of resolve may not deter further confrontation as messaging without resolve will likely achieve little. Strategic messaging must therefore be reinforced with actions that indicate resolve, commitment and capability. One avenue for a nation to indicate resolve is through pre-emptive military activities.
Typically, these military activities, while pre-emptive, should be non-provocative and conform to international protocols. Presence and patrol operations, and of the conduct of surveillance and reconnaissance operations, are one such use of a nation’s military capabilities.
In some circumstances, forward-deployed presence and patrol forces alone, may be inadequate to signify both the resolve and capability of a nation to defend its vital national interests, which could require the precautionary deployment of more substantial combat capabilities. The deployment of these forces to supporting locations, probably towards the rear of the theatre but on heightened alert levels, should provide a credible deterrent to escalation.
Given these scenarios, and the distances and strategic disposition of Australia’s interests in the nearer Indo-Pacific, it is timely to enquire about the preparedness of Australia’s defence forces to sustain these operations; the nature of which should not be confused with past patterns of deployments, of one frigate or one airborne warning and control aircraft or one tanker, to the Middle East.
Of particular concern given the scale of Australia’s theatre of interest, the nature of military presence and patrol operations, and of the open-ended timescales involved, is the preparedness of the RAAF, and of the wider ADF, to meet such a challenge ‒ especially regarding the numbers of trained defence personnel necessary in the sustainment of continuing, precautionary, presence and patrolling operations across a vast theatre.
In such a scenario it is not just the need to sustain a higher tempo of operations, but that the increased tempo may have to be sustained for lengthy periods of time which will necessitate the augmentation of front-line operational personnel with qualified and experienced ‘reserve’ operatives, something that is not presently in the air force order of battle.
The introduction of long range, long endurance, unmanned systems will assist, but even unmanned systems require operational augmentation as the numbers of unmanned human operatives increase dramatically once open-ended 24/7 operations are commenced.
Similarly, tactical and operational level control centres will require augmentation to sustain 24/7 operations‒something that was not necessary when the RAAF, and the ADF, avoided this workload by ‘piggy-backing’ limited numbers of operational personnel into coalition‒mainly US‒tactical and operational level control centres.
Further to the rear, command and control centres, data analysis and dissemination centres, and communication centres will need augmentation, together with critical supporting national level agencies including cyber and space.
Where will these specialist personnel come from, given neither the air force, nor navy, has an extant large ‘reserve’ component, and neither are these specialist skills readily available in Australia’s civilian population‒apart from a small pool of recently retired air force and navy personnel.
Unlike the Australian Army, which has a long tradition of using militia, citizen and reserve forces to augment the Regular Army, Australia’s air force and navy have not established credible and substantial ‘institutionalised’ air force and navy reserve forces.
Compounding the limited availability of personnel is that few will have the required level of security clearance to operate and support ADF operations given the high security classification levels of ADF systems‒a seemingly simple issue but, in reality, a far more complex problem.
In conclusion, in the strategic circumstances currently evolving in the Indo-Pacific, it is not difficult to conceive of scenarios that must be confronted with not only determined and skilled diplomacy but also the deployment of operational military forces that lay down the markers ‘in the sand’; such as, a sustained military presence, the conduct of continuing surveillance and patrol operations, and of the precautionary deployment of combat capabilities.
Yet how is this to be achieved when neither air force, nor navy, has the personnel augmentation policies and capabilities necessary to sustain the 24/7 operations of such forces over long periods of time.
Brian Weston is a Board Member of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation