On Target: The End of Area Commands: Combat Power through Organisation – Part 2

Brian Weston 'On Target 'Function over Geography: The End of Area Commands: Combat Power through Organisation – Part 2' in Australian Aviation November 2017 p.2


The October On Target column in Australian Aviation discussed the importance of organisation as a discriminating factor between the combat power of air forces and outlined the evolution of RAAF organisational policy up until the end of World War II. The column noted the introduction of the operational air group structure by the RAAF, in the South-West Pacific theatre, as a seminal step in the evolution of Australian air power.


Following the conclusion of World War II, it was therefore not surprising the RAAF included the notion of an operational air group in its post-war plan; comprising a force of 16 squadrons organised into five “home defence” area commands and a “mobile air task force” comprising fighter, bomber and transport wings, a reconnaissance squadron, an operational wing headquarters and organic maintenance support.


But with government prioritising a massive post-war demobilization which saw the RAAF downsize from 191,337 personnel in August 1945, to 7,897 personnel at the end of 1948, the RAAF had neither the resources nor personnel to implement its plans.


The RAAF mobile air task force remained unfunded and the organisational concept of five area commands became the basis of post-war air force organisation.


In 1952, the RAAF signalled a small departure from its RAF heritage by designating its “stations” as “bases”, stations being an RAF term. But subsequently, and perhaps with a touch of irony, it was an RAF officer who went on to implement fundamental change in RAAF post-war organisation. Air Marshal Sir Donald Hardman, an RAF officer of high regard, was appointed Chief of Air Staff of the RAAF following the 12 year tenure of Sir George Jones, and it was Hardman who set about organising the RAAF on a functional basis, rather than on a geographic basis; the change taking place on 1 October 1953.


The changes, which coincided with the abolition of Air Force Headquarters and the establishment of the Department of Air ‒ a Department of State of the Commonwealth ‒ saw the five area commands folded into a Home Command under one commander.


Two further functional commands were established: Training Command and Maintenance Command which were soon merged into a single command: Support Command. Later, Home Command was retitled Operational Command.


But the organisational concept of the World War II operational air group had been lost as, at base level, the principle of functional command had not been adopted. On Operational Command bases the mobile wings and squadrons of the RAAF reported to the officers commanding of their respective bases. The RAAF attempted to remove any notion of a geographic restriction on commanders by titling the base officer commanding as a “Formation Officer Commanding”, such as “OC RAAF Williamtown” rather than as a “Base Officer Commanding”, such as “OC RAAF Base Williamtown”.


But with fighter squadrons at Butterworth and Williamtown, and maritime squadrons at Townsville and Richmond, all reporting through their respective “formation officers commanding”, it was clear there was no single commander oversighting either the RAAF fighter force or the RAAF maritime force.


A further command discontinuity occurred when a flying squadron deployed and the command chain varied from the officer commanding of the squadron’s home base to the officer commanding the squadron’s deployment base ‒ “chopped”, in the jargon of the day.


For example, if No 1 Squadron deployed from Amberley to Darwin, CO 1SQN would report to AOC Operational Command through OC RAAF Darwin, not OC RAAF Amberley. This could result in CO 1SQN reporting through a commander who may not have flown a jet aircraft, let alone an F-111C.


In an attempt to simplify command chains and save resources, the RAAF also disestablished its operational wings with commanding officers of flying squadrons reporting directly to a “formation OC”. But the group captain, who was previously an “OC Wing”, remained on the RAAF bases and morphed into the Air Staff Officer (ASO). But, now as a staff officer, although the ASO reported to the “formation OC”, the ASO had no command authority over the units the “Formation OC” commanded (staff officers are not commanders).


The RAAF now had a “staff versus command” issue as ASOs, officers generally of group captain rank, were effectively interposed between the “formation OC” and the various “squadron COs”. ASOs and squadron COs worked through this “staff versus command” issue in various ways but it was often messy; especially as “formation OCs” often delegated differing degrees of authority to their respective ASOs. Clarity of command, and command accountability issues, at RAAF bases were not uncommon.


The introduction of functional chains of command by Sir Donald Hardman was a seminal change in RAAF organisation although, the principle of functional command did not flow down to RAAF bases and their operational units thereon, until the concept of the “Force Element Group” was introduced.


Next month, On Target will discuss the evolution of RAAF Bases into RAAF Force Element groups, introduced on a trial basis, on 1 February 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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