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“That’s not very joint”: Air power identity in joint operations

"That’s not very joint”

The quote came from a senior Air Force officer in response to a suggestion of mine. My suggestion was that Air Force elements on operations needed stronger air power identities if we wanted to tell the story of Australian air power better. No one suggests HMAS Perth or 7th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment handing over to 2nd Cavalry Regiment are not being “very joint” because they identify with their Service whilst on joint operations.

But a look at the Air Task Group or the air elements on Operation ACCORDION tells a different story. This is but the latest example of Air Force elements’ Service identities being muffled on joint operations. The storied but Service-specific wing has become the anodyne task unit. At home, the Chief of Joint Operations’ principal airman has a title that makes him sound like a staff officer . If airmen want to meet the Chief’s challenge  to tell the story of Australian air power better, we must first be able to clearly identify “the air power element of every ADF operation.”

The Air Force clearly recognises the importance of identity. In the past decade, successive Chiefs have taken steps to celebrate the Air Force’s heritage and build stronger Service identities, particularly amongst non-flying elements. Second World War Spitfire squadrons have been reformed to once again control the air, but this time as air traffic controllers. The famous No 460 Squadron – destroyed five times over during the Combined Bomber Offensive – again plays a key role in Air Force strike operations through its target intelligence mission. My experience as a member of a newly re-formed No 87 Squadron provided first-hand evidence of how important a unit’s history could be in establishing unit identity and cohesion. We hallowed Coomalie Creek as our spiritual home; we took pride in the unit’s achievements and that one of “our” Mosquitoes was displayed in the War Memorial. We built links to unit veterans and commemorated those on our unit’s roll of honour, resolving to build on their legacy. The story of our unit was vital in building it anew.

But on operations, airmen seem to have to stifled their Air Force identity. Instead of air power-evoking flights, squadrons, and wings, our nomenclature has been task elements, task units, and task groups with a series of telephone numbers behind them. These task organisations are the doctrinally-correct but colourless labels for force elements that make up an ADF joint task force. HMAS Perth and Task Group 633.1 are both labels for the same unit, but one of them tells a much better story. Similarly, No 36 Squadron Detachment Iraq or 633 Air Lift Flight, or any number of alternatives would have been much more appealing – and intuitively related to air power – protagonists than Task Element 633.4.1.1 in the story of Australian C-130 operations in Iraq. Can I connect your call?

Air Force elements in the Middle East as part of Joint Task Force 633 have gone through several nomenclature iterations since 2003. Separate task groups, an air component, then an air component coordination element, and now air mobility task group. Operation OKRA’s Air Task Group has continued this subdued approach to Air Force identity for the collective elements that together generate air power, embodied in this instance by F/A-18, E-7A, and KC-30A sorties. The collective is a task unit headed by a task unit headquarters. The only constant amongst these various labels has been a studious avoidance of the nomenclature that our major partner English-speaking air forces use to describe a formation of units that collectively generates air power: the Wing.

Australian air power’s operational identity challenge is most apparent in the command and enabling elements that facilitate the collective coming together to generate, sustain, and conduct air power missions. Deployed elements drawn from formed units in Australia usually retain strong home-unit identities whilst on operations. But many Australian airmen deploy on operations as individual replacements or as part of a group cobbled together from disparate organisations for the duration of the deployment. For these airmen, there is no strong home identity to collectively take forward and their organisational identity on operations is all-too-often defined by its “otherness” compared with the formed units.

Telling the story of the unglamorous but vital role played by mission planners in a wing headquarters is difficult enough without calling where they work a “TUHQ.” All the more so when your competition is fighter pilots from storied wartime squadrons. At a time when so much emphasis is placed on the importance of integrating Australia’s air power, we need to be able to better tell the story of all the pieces – individually and collectively – necessary to do just that.

There are a few things we could do immediately to start character development for the story of contemporary Australian air power. Firstly, consign task organisations to the dustbin of doctrinal devotion and refer to individual air power elements on operations by their historic labels: flights and squadrons. Call the formations of units that collectively generate Australian air power on joint operations what they are: wings. Doing so would draw on history to reaffirm the collective’s central role in generating air power. Our sister Services, coalition partners, and the public at large will also stand a much better chance of intuitively recognising the “air power element of every ADF operation”.

Secondly, make Director-General Air the commander of a re-formed No 9 or No 10 Operational Group. This group would serve as the Air Force’s operational group and the de facto air component of Joint Operations Command, formalising an existing arrangement but with a much clearer air power identity. This would also serve to better delineate between the Air Force’s operations and force generation responsibilities, much as the separation between Forces Command and the 1st Division does for the Army.

The only argument against these steps is that they could be perceived as being “not very joint.” But wanting to see a robust air power identity on joint operations does not make one “not very joint”. Quite the contrary: joint operations are about leveraging the strengths of each domain to achieve common goals. They are founded upon exploiting and unifying domain expertise and identity, not suppressing them.

The Air Force has taken positive steps in reinforcing Service identity and culture at home without diminishing the Service’s commitment to joint warfare. It needs to do the same on operations. If we want to tell the story of Australian air power on operations better – and we must – a crucial first step is being able to easily identify “the air power element of every ADF operation”.

Squadron Leader Chris “Guiness” McInnes is an officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. He has served in the “other” bits of air operations repeatedly. 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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