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Preparing to Fight for the Skies Part 1 – Robert Vine

02 September 2018

Since the end of the Cold War, Western air operations and training  have been built on wresting control of the air over target areas from a defensive adversary to enable follow-on operations. But what if the adversary sought to expand their freedom of action in the air while simultaneously repelling Western efforts to do the same? In this two-part series, Robert Vine examines whether the Australian Defence Force’s (ADF) force structure and training regimen is optimised for future operations in which all sides will fight for the skies. In part one, he lays out the challenges and explores the ADF’s current and future force structure options to address these challenges. 

Current ADF counter air training assumes that the adversary will fall into either a defensive or offensive role. While this has occurred in some conflicts, it is unlikely that a peer adversary will constrain themselves to just offensive or defensive operations. Conflicts where Western air forces have had significant over-match, such as those in Iraq and the former Yugoslavian states, have seen the adversary adopt a defensive posture. However, the Arab-Israeli wars and the Iran-Iraq war show that conflicts between peer adversaries will see each side conduct both offensive and defensive operations simultaneously. This poses the question as to whether current air combat training prepares the ADF optimally for future conflicts in which all sides seek to gain and exploit control of the air? As the ADF considers future operations that may see it without assured control of the skies, a review of our force structure and training within a realistic operational scenario is timely.


Australia’s northern approaches and the near region will become increasingly contested over the next 20 years. Neighbouring nations are increasing their military capabilities and nations in the far-region are developing the ability to project their forces into Australia’s backyard. The ADF will be a highly capable fifth-generation force, however,  the vastness of Australia’s northern approaches will place limitations on the amount of the force that can be projected into the near region.

For illustrative context, this paper will use a fictional scenario in which the  ADF is conducting operations the region to resist coercion from a major power. It is anticipated that neither Australia nor the adversary are able to bring their entire force to bear – resulting in forces within the area of operations that are at approximate parity but with some notable differences:

  1. The ADF’s fifth-generation fighter force will have a technological advantage over the adversary’s mix of fourth  and fifth generation forces.

  2. The adversary force will be able to threaten the deployed ADF forces and home-bases with weapons launched from outside of the theatre.

  3. The adversary force will operate a highly capable, layered integrated air defence system (IADS) compared to the ADF’s limited air defence systems.

Both forces have the capability and intent to conduct offensive operations against the other. This raises the question as to how the ADF should conduct its counter-air operations against an enemy that will conduct both offensive and defensive operations.

A Pantsir-S1 (foreground) and an S-400 (background) at a Russian Military base in Syria, December, 16, 2015. [Image credit: Russian Ministry of Defence]

Force Apportionment

The current practice within Western air forces is to apportion available force against mission types, therefore a commander must decide what portion of aircraft should be assigned to defensive, offensive and support missions. For simplicity we will consider a weighting between defensive and offensive missions.

A commander may weight his force towards offensive missions to take advantage of the strengths of offence to mass force against the enemy at a time and place of our choosing. As the context of this operation involves two balanced forces this strategy provides an opportunity to create conditions of temporal overmatch, however it places the defence of the force at risk.

The enemy may conduct a strike against us while we are preparing for, conducting, or reconstituting from, our own strike. Should the enemy surprise us, the majority of our force will not be optimally prepared for defensive operations; aircraft that had been loaded with air-surface weapons will need to engage the enemy with less than an optimal number of air-air weapons on board. It will also delay our own offensive operations and allow the enemy to own the ‘OODA’ loop – potentially attacking us again before we can prepare a response.

In apportioning their force to the offence, the enemy also places their own force at risk, however, with a highly capable, layered IADS they can mitigate the risk of strikes against them. This allows them to apportion a greater number of their aircraft to offensive operations for the same level of risk.

Operational success in a regional intervention may not require offensive counter air missions to deplete the enemies’ ability to control the air. The ADF may be able to control the air within the area of operations by apportioning the majority of our aircraft to defence. In this situation the enemy may not attempt to engage the force, resulting in a stalemate. This may be sufficient to allow the operation to continue but the threat of the enemy force will always require a portion of the friendly force to be held in reserve and prevent them from being fully utilised in support of land or maritime forces.

A strategy of apportioning to defence still holds the risk that the enemy may mass their forces and strike us at a time and place of their advantage. Typically, this risk is mitigated by comprehensive intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) however a prolonged stalemate may allow the enemy to identify our weaknesses. Should they be able to exploit their advantage just once, the resulting losses within our force will result in our defence becoming more difficult with the problem compounding with subsequent enemy strikes until we lose control of the air.

Integrated Air and Missile Defence System

As the above situations illustrate, an adversary with an advanced IADS complicates the allocation of our forces towards offensive or defensive missions. The adversary’s IADS give enemy commanders more  confidence to allocate aircraft to offensive missions, while the ADF’s comparatively limited IADS assets will compel the allocation of more friendly aircraft to defensive missions, thus limiting the assets available for offensive missions.

In addition to this, the enemy possesses vast numbers and types of ballistic and cruise missile systems that we must also defend against. Fighter aircraft cannot defend against ballistic missiles and have limited effectiveness against cruise missiles. The surface-to-air weapon systems possessed by the ADF are also limited in their ability to defend against ballistic and cruise missiles. The most capable air defence system in the current and objective force is the Hobart class destroyer. While this is a capable air defence platform, competing priorities for the ship will complicate its employment. The ship must defend itself from air, land, surface and subsurface attack as a part of a task group that may have different priorities to the air component and may not be in the position required for optimum air component employment. Should it need to defend a surface task group, it may need to operate too far offshore to defend land bases.

The NASAMS High Mobility Launcher firing an Advanced Medium Range Air-Air Missile missile. [Image credit: Defence]

The National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System being procured for the Army will be a significant step forward for Army’s air defence however it is a short range system not suited for theatre air defence. The mobility of this system will be necessary for air defence of manoeuvring ground forces and therefore it may not be available to protect static air bases and logistics centres from attack.

With the current and objective force in mind, an enemy who can coordinate air and missile strikes can potentially  overwhelm the ADF’s defences at little risk to their own forces. The procurement of long-range surface-air weapons would complicate the enemy’s problem by providing an additional layer to the ADF’s response options. A long-range surface-to-air weapons system, fully integrated into the broader IADS, could provide persistent protection of the force, freeing up aircraft to be allocated to offensive missions at a lower risk.

The ADF will be challenged  when determining how best to apportion forces in an environment where offensive and defensive air operations need to be conducted simultaneously. This scenario is further complicated by the comparative advantage of the enemy’s IADS. Part 2 of this series will consider the changes that the ADF could make to its training regimen to prepare for the challenge.

Squadron Leader Robert Vine is an officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.


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