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  • Tomorrow’s Air Force Airbases: Fit for Purpose, Robust and Resilient

    This week we welcome back Dr. Peter Layton who turns a spotlight to a sometimes-understated aspect of airpower: Airbases. As airpower generation points, airbases are critical enablers of capability, but they face a raft of potential threats – everything from natural weather phenomena, to kinetic strikes during hot conflict, to cyber and other ‘nuisance’ operations during cold peace. Absorbing and recovering from such impacts can look quite different for a range of base contexts. To better characterise and understand these various threat-resilience-capability continuums, Layton identifies 4 base archetypes that help frame clearer thinking about future airbase design and investment. The Chief of Air Force’s strategic intent update makes airbases a priority for future investment. Airbases certainly seem ripe for change. Conceptually, they have barely changed since World War Two when grass runways gave way to concrete ones. In this the Chief has laid out three criteria for the RAAF’s airbases: be fit for purpose, robust and resilient. In terms of purpose, RAAF airbases need to generate airpower from peace into major conflict. For this, they need to be in the right place; geography is important. In that regard, the RAAF’s southern Australian bases are very distant from potential flash points. The Air Force will need to deploy forward to bring air power to bear. In terms of robustness, airbases are large static facilities, easily targeted using kinetic and cyber weapons. In time of war, the most concerning kinetic weapons are precision guided weapons and in particular cruise missiles and ballistic missiles. Their proliferation means hardening an airbase is of little use anymore. Instead dispersion, that is hiding, is the better option. In this, the Iranian ballistic missile attacks on al Asad Air Base are instructive. The Iranian’s apparently used commercial space imagery for targeting and were able to achieve surprisingly accurate attacks. Forewarned, the US moved personnel and equipment from the area. CENTCOM General Frank McKenzie said later that the strike could have killed up to 150 Americans and destroyed 20-30 aircraft if these measures had not been taken. Iran was not a peer competitor; such attacks in a major war would be much larger, more numerous and widespread. Kinetic strikes are a wartime problem but cyber is a clear and present danger. In times of conflict the rate of cyber-attacks will step up but it is already an ongoing threat against any and all RAAF airbases. There is also a new appreciation emerging of natural disasters. Fires and floods are getting bigger, while there are more Cat 4 and 5 cyclones. Moreover, natural disasters can cascade and once triggered set off further events with impacts that can be both non-linear and distant to the triggering event. Southern Australia’s 2020 bushfires almost led to a major wide-area protracted power outage, just as the cold weather did later in Texas. Such an outage could disrupt airbases and communication networks including base personnel and their families. In terms of resilience, airbases need to be able to absorb a shock and continue to operate. In this, the shock needs to be kept to a manageable scale. If it’s very large, resilience measures can be overwhelmed and any recovery during a limited duration conflict is then unlikely. Moreover, it’s necessary to define what an airbase is to be made resilient to, when it needs to be resilient and for how long. In this, an airbase is a large facility; are some parts less important than others? Lastly, the notion of what returning to operations can range from: surviving a shock in some reduced form; continuing operation in the presence of a shock; recovering from a shock to the original form; or absorbing a shock and evolving in response. Which of those four options is desired? Let’s pull these disparate threads together into a simple quad chart. The x-axis line runs from the large southern bases across to deployment air bases, likely offshore. On the y-axis the line goes from today’s cold peace to a hope-not hot war. The chart then covers where, and in what context, airbases will need to be fit for purpose, robust, and resilient. It’s a chart to make us think about what the design of future airbases needs to be, and implicitly where to invest. Lookin’ Out My Back Door The Lookin’ Out My Back Door quadrant is the best of all worlds. The airbase is well practised in carrying out standard flying operations on a regular and ongoing basis. There is ready access to a large workforce and the ability to generate more quickly through using contractors. The airbase is well integrated into national and global supply chains. There are threats however, with cyberattacks prominent. The rise of compound and cascading disasters suggest that the airbase may need to be able to function for a short period independently of the local energy and communication networks. There is also a potential issue from nuisance commercial drones. On such airbases, the primary aim is to improve efficiency. Down on the Corner The Down on the Corner quadrant involves deploying to a northern or offshore base for an exercise that may feature a heavy international engagement strand. There will be considerable reliance on the local infrastructure and support network. RAAF staff will be a scarce asset with few available on the airbase, particularly for protracted operations. Supply will often be using commercial means with specialised maintenance items and stocks brought from Australia, at times on dedicated RAAF air transport. Cybersecurity remains a threat with the possibility of drone interference higher than in Australia. Compound and cascading disasters could still be an issue. The nature of deployed operations though is that when trouble threatens, there is always the pack up and leave option. In such an airbase, the primary aim is effectiveness; each deployed person needs to be as productive as possible. Bad Moon Rising The Bad Moon Rising quadrant involves southern bases in times of war. The main changes from the cold peace would be the higher rates of effort demanded and possibly for an extended period; the sizeable numbers of airbase personnel sent forward to run deployment airbases; the sharp rise in numbers and sophistication of cyber-attacks; and some argue the possibility of kinetic attacks from the occasional submarine launched cruise missile. Such a context means that the airbase might need operating by reservists with limited training or more likely, by newly recruited staff with enthusiasm but not much else. The advances in training that digital technology brings may be really important to bring these new people up to speed. This might be for both maintaining the airbase facilities and in sustaining the airbase’s flying operations. In terms of threats, the airbase will come under significant space-based surveillance using a variety of sensors. Moreover, it must be expected that software malware placed in systems years before will be activated to cause general disruption. This disruption might be on the airbase, but also in local and national energy and communication systems. Independent airbase operation may be necessary. Who’ll Stop the Rain The Who’ll Stop the Rain quadrant is the worst case, particularly in terms of kinetic attack. Activities will need to be dispersed so as to ensure a single attack does not inflict catastrophic damage. Regular movement may also be needed to ensure survival as attacks continue. Accordingly, a primary aim is to keep in front of the adversaries targeting system, so the location of critical items like aircraft, supplies, maintenance support and personnel is always uncertain. Precision attacks then become problematic. To back up dispersion and movement, the airbase will include active measures to fool and deceive an adversary. In this, deployed operations by their nature are always short of people while in a combat situation exposing fewer people to danger is always desirable. There are hard issues of resilience under fire. Let’s sum up. The airbases in the bottom half of the diagram aim to deliver air power as efficiently as possible. Decisions can be driven by cost-benefit analysis. In contrast, airbases in the top half of the diagram need to focus on achieving effectiveness gains. Decisions are driven by how to best increase the airbases’ outputs, hang the costs. Across all quadrants looms the spectre of cyber-attack. Crippling an airbase might cut air operations but even having someone watching online what you’re doing is bad too. Having software experts at hand looks essential, not just a nice to have, especially in the diagram’s top half combat operations. Airbases are central to air power. They need to be as the Chief sets out: fit for purpose, robust, and resilient. If not, others may steal a march. The RAAF might have the better aircraft, but with mediocre air bases might deliver less effective air power than an adversary can. That’s not a war winning place to be in. Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University and an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (UK). He is the author of the book Grand Strategy. His other posts, articles and papers may be found at: https://peterlayton.academia.edu/research.

  • Australia Under Attack from China: How the U.S. Can Provide a Near Term Response

    Ed Timperlake and Dr Robbin Laird, Australia Under Attack from China: How the U.S. Can Provide a Near Term Response, 12 June 2021 Link to article Australia Under Attack from China: How the U.S. Can Provide a Near Term Response | Defense.info The Peoples Republic of China has picked a fight with the wrong two allies, Australia and the United States. Just recently, the Peoples Republic of China has just directly threatened Australia with an act of war. Their bellicose conventional attack threat It is now in play and it is time to realize that the Pacific is coming to a boil with Chinese’s state media being very bluntly directly threatening Australia. “China has a strong production capability, including producing additional long-range missiles with conventional warheads that target military objectives in Australia when the situation becomes highly tense.” The great rule often stated that if someone is threatening to kill you is that it is best to believe them. One is immediately struck that the Chinese statement highlighted the word “conventional warheads,” as well as implying an arms race in strike weapons along with escalation pre-emption by highlighting striking “when the situation becomes highly tense.” Stressing a conventional warhead attacks is a strategic goal of China to avoid triggering any discussion inside the Australian political process of that nation developing an independent nuclear strike force. The PRC is well aware that Atlantic nations have nuclear situation in which Russia faces three nuclear powers: the United States, the United Kingdom and France. However in the Pacific, it is reversed with Russia, China and North Korea having nuclear weapons facing the United States as a nuclear power. It is best to always leave stepping into the strategic nuclear deterrence warfighting world to the citizens on the nation considering supporting such a move. However, the great peacetime and wartime combat conventional warfighter alliance between Australia and the United States has historically proven to be strong and lasting. What makes it an equal partnership is Australia is not only always metaphorically “punching above their weight” but they have proven to have invested in an advanced Air Force, and Navy and are working to have a very capable 21st century kill web enabled force. The challenge for Australia’s conventional deterrence strategy is distance and the F-111 answered that need earlier for the Australian Defence Force (ADF) The greatest long distance raid by USAF F-111, was codenamed El Dorado Canyon a successful attack from England, flying around Europe to attack Muammar Qadhafi in Libya, with a total out and back route of flight of over 7000 miles. When looking at Pacific distances from Australia, the distance from Australia to PLAAN Hainan Island sub-pens/and their navy port from Australia is less than 3000 nautical miles the Heavenly Gate in Beijing slightly less than 4000 miles. Consequently, the PRC best note that there is a famous flying event ordered by Admiral Nimitz right after WWII which was the flight of PV2 “Truculent Turtle’ flying non-stop from Perth Australia to Columbus Ohio with a crew of four and a baby kangaroo. The Navy aircraft covered 11,235 miles. That record stood until enter the USAF and B-52s in the early sixties. And as former USAF Chief of Staff Buzz Moseley put it very succinctly that US and Allies shoot back: “There is not a place on the face of the earth that the USAF will not fight their way into.” The current direct PRC threat leads immediate expediency to help Australia in their quest to replace the F-111 by long range strike capabilities. And as the ADF does so, and examines options, clearly the United States is a key partner. Such a US/Australian partnership reaches back to very early in the twentieth century, when sea power ruled the Pacific. In 1908 Australian PM Alfred Deakin invited the U.S .Great White Fleet to make port calls at Sydney, Melbourne and Albany. This was the first time a non-Royal Navy ship was in Australian waters, and history records that “Australia ordered its first modern warships a purchase that angered the British Admiralty.” In the long term, the Australian government is committed to building long range strike and has committed to spending serious money in this area. But that is in the mid-term, what does Australia do now as part of a crisis management approach to such a threat? There has been a growing focus of attention within Australian defence with regard to having longer-range strike options inherent within the ADF. For example, Marcus Hellyar recently posed the possibility of Australia perhaps acquiring the B-21 from the United States, but this is a mid-term option at best. Again, what does one do now to respond effectively to dangerous sabre rattling? Clearly, this is an area where cooperation with the United States can provide both allies with enhanced deterrent options now and shape a more effective way ahead in the future. For Australia, it is about how to build in long range strike into the ADF over the mid-to-long term. For the United States, it is to better understand how bombers and the U.S. Navy fleet can work much more effectively together. In other words, there is an option which provides a building block for the way ahead with regard to a long-range strike enabled ADF and for the United States to learn how to more effectively operate its joint naval and air capabilities in the Pacific both with their own services as well as with allies. In the past, the United States has brought B-1 bombers to participate with the ADF in Northern Australia. Now by deploying a rotational force of B-2s to the North of Australia, a stealth bomber capability could be brought to the defence of Australia. It would be an important input to responding to China, but also, simply underscoring to the Chinese that their military buildup in the Pacific and specifically directed against Australia is not in their own interest. For now, it is a modest response, but already USAF bombers integrated into the ADF has to be taken seriously with regard to any continued direct threats against Australia. By training the Royal Australia Navy and the Royal Australian Navy to work with the B-2s, B-1s and B-52s, those two key Australian power projection forces can train with an operational long range strike asset. What can be demonstrated is that long range strike is not primarily focused on downtown Beijing, but primarily upon enhancing the deployed naval and air force by providing rapidly deployed enhancements to air-naval task forces throughout the Indo-Pacific region. Australia could also determine if the B-21 is the right fit or are their other ways to bring longer range strike to the operating force? It would also help guide the way ahead for building out the kind of sovereign missile industry Australia desires. It is not simply about buying extant U.S. or European kit. For it is also clear that allies like the United States need a different approach then they have followed to date to get a less costly and more effective mix of strike assets as well. And as the United States shapes a more effective support to allies approach in the region, a key part of what the US Navy and the US Air Force clearly need to work on is much more effective integratability of the bomber force with the operating fleet. In our forthcoming book for USNI Press on maritime kill webs, 21st century warfighting and deterrence, we argue that a kill web approach both empowers significantly greater collaboration between the air and sea services but does so in terms of having a more survivable, lethal and distributed force with integration of bomber and fleet operations. And this is not about preparing to fit World War III; it is about effective crisis and escalation management. Part of the way ahead, would be to build reinforced bases from which U.S. bombers could operate in the near to mid-term as Australia builds out its own desired capabilities as well. These clearly would be used for rotation to exercise with the ADF or to reinforce Australian defence in a crisis. It is about taking the U.S.-Australian alliance forward in an effective way to deal with the defence of Australia today and not simply speculate about the long-term options. It is about also demonstrating to the Chinese leadership that bullying is not going to lead to the compliance of the liberal democratic states to the future Chinese global order. The Chinese leaders need to pause and consider what Australia as an arsenal for democracy might mean to their future as well. For a detailed examination of the recent evolution of Australian defence strategy and policies, see link in the article for Robbin Laird's book Joint by Design (30% discount is available for Williams members if purchased directly through Second Line of Defense. Use the code Williams) For an earlier version of this article published on Breaking Defense, see the following: https://breakingdefense.com/2021/06/supporting-australia-to-deter-china-helps-america/

  • Supporting Australia To Deter China Helps America

    Dr Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake, Supporting Australia To Deter China Helps America, 11 June 2021 Link to article Supporting Australia To Deter China Helps America - Breaking Defense Breaking Defense - Defense industry news, analysis and commentary Article text As the Biden administration focuses on ways to improve deterrence in the Pacific, reinforcing Australia’s defense against China is a good place to start. Working closely with Australia now can send an important message to Beijing that political intimidation, backed by economic and military threats, is not in its long-term interest. For those not following the Chinese campaign against Australia, Chinese leaders have made it very clear they believe Australia must comply with their plans to dominate the Pacific. The Chinese threat has been stated clearly in the Chinese state media: “China has a strong production capability, including producing additional long-range missiles with conventional warheads that target military objectives in Australia when the situation becomes highly tense.” If someone is threatening to kill you, you’d best believe them. Examining China’s direct threat closely, one is immediately struck that the focus is upon conventional strike, as raising a nuclear threat might lead to a reaction from Canberra that the Chinese might regret — even more than having to deal with the prospect of an Australian defense buildup that includes new long-range strike capabilities. Paul Dibb, a noted Australian strategist and former intelligence official, has argued that China’s moves are significantly reducing the country’s warning time in the face of any attack. “The Chinese have been clearly communicating for some time that it is now time to teach Australia a lesson. They used similar language against Vietnam in 1979 prior to their invasion,” he said in a recent interview. “And there are many ways they could generate force to pressure Australia, without directly striking the country, such as take us on in our 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone, threatening our offshore energy platforms. And by so, doing put the challenge directly to Australia.” In the long term, the Australian government is committed to building long-range strike and has committed to spending serious money in this area. But what should Australia do now as part of a crisis management approach to such a threat? What does one do now to respond effectively to dangerous saber rattling? There is an option which provides a building block for the way ahead with regard to a long-range strike capability for the Australian Defense Force (ADF), and for the United States to learn how to more effectively utilize its naval and air capabilities in the Pacific both with its own services, as well as with allies. The United States has brought B-1 bombers to participate with the ADF in Northern Australia. By deploying a rotational force of B-2s to the North of Australia, a stealth bomber capability could be brought to the defense of Australia. It would be an important immediate input to responding to China, but it would also underscore to the Chinese that their military buildup in the Pacific — especially that directed against Australia — is not in their own interest. By training the Royal Australia Navy and the Royal Australian Navy to work with the B-2s, B-1s and B-52s, those two key Australian power projection forces can train with operational long-range strike assets. There further is discussion in Australia about whether buying the B-21 is the right answer for longer-range strike or are there other options. Thus, rotational US bomber deployments would also help guide the way ahead for building out the kind of sovereign missile industry Australia desires. It is clear that the United States also needs a different approach than it has followed to date to get a less costly and more effective mix of strike assets itself. As the United States shapes a more effective approach to support allies in the Indo-Pacific, a key part of what the US Navy and the US Air Force clearly need to work on is much more effective integration of the bomber force with the fleet. One measure for the near term could be building reinforced bases in Australia from which US bombers could operate, while Australia builds its own capabilities. These bases would be used for rotations to exercise with the ADF or to reinforce Australian forces in a crisis. This is all about taking the US-Australian alliance forward in an effective way to deal with the defense of Australia today. It is about also demonstrating to China’s leaders that bullying is not going make Australia or any other liberal democratic states submit to a Chinese global order. The Chinese leadership needs to pause and consider what Australia, as an arsenal for democracy, might mean to the Peoples Republic of China’s future. Robbin Laird, a defense consultant and member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, is a research fellow with the Williams Foundation. Ed Timberlake, a graduate of the US Naval Academy and former Marine squadron commander, works with Laird. He has worked on Capitol Hill and held senior positions in the Defense Department.

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