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On Target: Then Now Always ‒ Centenary of the RAAF Operational Presence and Persistence ‒ Personnel

Brian Weston 'On Target - 'Then Now Always ‒ Centenary of the RAAF' in Australian Defence Business Review, Mar/Apr 2021 p.84

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) celebrated its centenary on 31 March 2021, with the underlying theme of Then Now Always. Then traces the growth of the RAAF from its heritage of the Australian Flying Corps, through peace and war, to the potent middle-weight air force that is the RAAF of today. The Now is the RAAF of today ‒ an exemplary and respected national institution of trust, esteem, service and sacrifice, all of which provides the RAAF with a sound base to meet the challenges of the future ‒ the Always. As much has already been written about the Then and Now, this column will focus on the Always.

There seems little doubt the commencement of the second 100 years of the RAAF will be dominated, possibly for decades, by a challenging and deteriorating geo-strategic scenario in the Indo-Pacific, where an increasingly assertive and belligerent China is determined to expand its power and influence over much of the region.

Past prognostications of the progressive development of China into a valued international player of substance ‒ the consequence of enhanced education, free international trade, greater international capital flows, a growing economy, adherence to post-World War II international protocols, accompanied by an expanding democratisation ‒ are distant memories as the reality is that such a development will put the Chinese Communist Party’s hold on power at risk. The Chinese Communist Party has learnt well from how these developments unleashed internal forces which led to the fracturing of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and fellow- traveller European communist nations, some 30 years ago.

All of which has resulted in a Chinese Communist Party consolidating its iron rule over its citizens, while China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has entrenched himself as leader of China. Xi Jinping concurrently occupies the following powerful appointments: General Secretary of the Communist Party of China; Chairman of the Central Military Commission (Commander-in-chief of the People’s Liberation Army); President of the People's Republic of China; and Chairman of the National Security Commission of the Communist Party of China. Also, Xi Jinping, in 2012, was designated as China’s Paramount Leader and, in 2018, he removed the presidential limits which previously limited the duration of occupancy of the office of President of the People's Republic of China.

With Xi Jinping entrenched as the autocratic leader of the People's Republic of China, the Chinese Communist Party has put in place comprehensive monitoring and surveillance, and control and propaganda systems, to suppress any emergent democratic or populist initiatives especially with regard to free speech. The prospects of the Chinese Communist Party conceding power seem remote.

Internationally, Xi Jinping has initiated an expansion of China’s power and influence, especially regionally, by pursuing initiatives that extend beyond the bounds of accepted post-World War II norms, while marking itself as a global strategic competitor to the United States. Every indication is that Australia will need to contend with the Chinese Communist Party’s rising hegemonic aspirations for years to come ‒ and in that context, the future theme for the RAAF, Always, needs to be set.

In this environment, Australia’s first strategic response will be diplomacy ‒ skilled, professional and astute, comprising both unilateral and multinational initiatives with the emerging Quadrilateral Dialogue between Australia, Japan, India and the United States a prospective, powerful diplomatic tool, notwithstanding the alliance with the United States remains core to Australia’s future national security.

A second response must include the development of Australia’s cyber capabilities as in grey-zone confrontation, cyber-attack by state-sponsored actors is an attractive weapon of choice. A third response is the strengthening and diversification of Australia’s economic base with less reliance on China as a trading partner and with the rebuilding of selected, vital Australian economic and industrial capabilities to ensure enhanced levels of Australian self-reliance; both of which will need to be done in partnership with Australian business and industry.

But all three responses will achieve little unless backed by credible, regional military presence and power; a role well-suited to a potent, middleweight air force with reach, speed, presence, spatial awareness, flexibility, regional responsiveness and strike power ‒ all appropriate attributes of an air force with a future theme of Always, but which raises the question of how the RAAF should further evolve to meet this challenge.

Presently, the capability of the RAAF has been much enhanced with the introduction of the F-35A and its support enablers of the Wedgetail airborne early warning and control capability and the KC-30A air-to-air refuelling capability; plus, the emerging complementary team of the P-8A Poseidon and MQ-4C Triton platforms, together with the EA-18G Growler and the MC-55 Peregrine ‒ all augmented by a capable regional air mobility force of C-17A, C-130J and C-27J platforms.

The question is how should the RAAF evolve further in accordance with its theme of Always in the face of increasing future challenges.

Brian Weston is a Board Member of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation

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