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Preparing to Fight for the Skies Part 2 – Robert Vine

Rbert Vine continues his exploration of the Australian Defence Force’s (ADF) future challenges and options for controlling the air by drawing on history to ask whether current training and exercises are optimised for fighting in contested skies.

Part one of this series outlined the challenge facing the ADF in an environment where offensive and defensive air operations need to be conducted simultaneously and argued for investment in long-range surface-air weapons systems to enhance ADF defensive and offensive potency. Part two considers how doctrine, training and capabilities must be adapted to face the potential challenge of a peer adversary conducting simultaneous offensive and defensive operations.

The Battle of Midway

Battle of Midway [Image credit: WikiCommons]
Battle of Midway [Image credit: WikiCommons]

The Battle Of Midway occurred from 4 – 7 June 1942, and perfectly illustrates  the dilemma of apportioning forces appropriately. This battle saw a Japanese fleet of four aircraft carriers and 248 carrier based aircraft combat three American aircraft carriers with 233 carrier aircraft and 127 land based aircraft. On the 4 June 1942, each side conducted offensive and defensive operations against each other, conducting strike and counter-strikes despite heavy losses.

The battle started at 0620 when Japanese aircraft bombed Midway Island causing severe damage to the aircraft stationed there. At 0710 American  aircraft that had launched from Midway prior to the Japanese attack struck the Japanese carriers. A second raid, comprising US Navy carrier-based aircraft  struck the Japanese fleet at 0755, while Japanese aircraft were returning and re-arming from the Midway Island attacks. Due to the need to change the armament of their reserve force from land strike to maritime strike configurations, the Japanese could not mount a complete defence and lost carriers. The Japanese then launched attacks against the US fleet from their remaining carrier, sinking one carrier. A subsequent American counter attack sank the remaining Japanese carrier.

During the Battle of of Midway, both Japanese and US commanders were faced with the question  of how best to apportion their aircraft to offence, defence and also choose between land or maritime strike configurations. The decision of US commanders to weight towards the offence at a time when the Japanese defence was weakened was decisive in the battle. However, this decision left the US fleet with fewer defences and contributed to the loss of a US carrier.

Training and Doctrine

The tactical scenario in which Midway occurred is not exercised by the ADF, instead each activity focuses on employment of the force in an offensive or defensive role. No ADF exercise trains against an adversary air force that conducts both offensive and defensive missions either simultaneously or is quick succession. Therefore the collective and individual lessons that are learnt from ADF air combat exercises are limited and perhaps erroneous.

The current air combat training paradigm for the ADF can be divided into:

  1. Unit level training

  2. Small force integration

  3. Large force integration

Unit level training is the day-to-day activities of individual units that are necessary to maintain the skills of their workforce and prepare for operations or larger exercises. Small force integration activities occur between 2-3 different platforms types such as fighter integration with air battle management.

Large force integration brings multiple types and large numbers of platforms together to exercise integration of the force towards a certain type of mission in an operational scenario. Examples of large force integration in Australia include Exercise Pitch Black, Diamond Storm and the East Coast Air Defence Exercise.

There are no ADF activities where the operational scenario contains simultaneous offensive and defensive activities, similar to the Battle Of Midway and therefore ADF training  does not replicate the dilemmas posed by an adversary capable of simultaneous offensive and defensive operations. Separate offensive and defensive focused exercises are still a necessary training event to build core skills but there must be a capstone exercise where a coalition force must react to a free-play peer adversary that conducts its own defensive and offensive missions. The use of live, virtual and constructive (LVC) training technologies will be necessary to achieving this level of training at reasonable cost.

No 114 Mobile Control and Reporting Unit air battle managers during Exercise Diamond Storm 2017 [Image credit: Australian Department of Defence]
No 114 Mobile Control and Reporting Unit air battle managers during Exercise Diamond Storm 2017 [Image credit: Australian Department of Defence]

Agile Employment

A more agile concept of allocation so that actions can be rapidly taken to seize the initiative is needed to succeed against an adversary that conducts both offensive and defensive missions. Aircraft should not be allocated specific missions i.e. patrol a certain area or strike a certain target, but instead have their optimised for certain use scenarios. This would be balanced across the force, with some aircraft solely air-air while some would carry an air-ground and air-air payload. The force would then be prepared to conduct offensive or defensive missions at a moment’s notice, planning would still occur but execution would be far more dynamic.

The commander would assess the tactical situation and utilise all resources to the greatest advantage. For example, on detection of an enemy attack, sufficient aircraft to counter this attack would be launched and a force left in reserve. After the attack is thwarted and the enemy’s force depleted our own strike could be launched to take advantage of the need for the enemy to refuel and re-arm his aircraft.

This option provides the greatest opportunity to get inside the enemy’s decision cycle, quickly mounting a full-scale defence of a large enemy attack could occur quickly and then the same force could use the advantages of defending near home base to refuel, rearm and then launch a counter strike before the enemy has returned to base and made their force ready again.

This concept will rely on command and control (C2) and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance  (ISR) platforms to identify opportunities for decisive action and quickly coordinate a response. This will require greater levels of control to be transferred from operational to tactical level so that the necessary agility can be achieved. With these changes, the C2  system will become far more agile and resilient to attacks on the C2 network.

However, agile employment does not optimise the force for any one mission and leaves both  defensive and offensive missions at risk. When a portion of the aircraft are configured with a mixed air-air and air-ground and payload they will be less effective if all are required to scramble to attack an incoming enemy raid. Mitigating these risks will rely on an adaptable air base capability that is able to quickly re-configure aircraft or accept that more weapons will need to be jettisoned. If the force accepts higher risk in the initial phases of an operation and then presses an advantage to rapidly make decisive gains it can rapidly deplete the enemy’s force and reduce the risk to future operations.


The current approach to control of the air does not account for an enemy that will conduct both defensive and offensive operations as well as our need to do the same. War games are required to fully explore the intricacies of operations against an offensive peer competitor and these activities can identify a new operating doctrine which can be practiced in LVC environments.

Investment in long-range surface-air weapons as part of the ADF’s IAMD suite will better position the ADF to counter  ballistic and cruise missile threats and give commanders a greater level of defensive confidence, such that more aircraft can be allocated to offensive missions.

Ensuring control of the air will require investment in IAMD to close this gap and to address the threat to air operations posed by ballistic and cruise missile threats. This needs to be combined with changes to counter air doctrine to converge offensive and defensive counter-air missions into a single counter-air approach. This change will need to be implemented through revised training regimes and joint force C2 concepts. Without these changes, the coalition force may fail to win control of the air, at best find itself in stalemate and at worst, defeat.

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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