Australia should expand its air force as an immediate response to deteriorating circumstances. The Air Force’s air power offers the fastest and most flexible way to secure vital access to air and sea lanes, and give Australia options, in peace and war. Air power is on the beat right now providing constabulary support to that access through the rules-based order. Beijing’s responses show it is working.
But the Air Force needs more capacity to be more visible in more places more often in the region. As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) intensifies its efforts to curtail free access, Australia’s constabulary air presence must be more responsive and persistent. This access has been taken for granted in Australian force structure planning. Consequently, Australian air power’s capability – what it can do – has evolved but its capacity – how much it can do – has not.
In concert with sea power, air power upholds access to the air and sea commons that underpins Australia’s way of life and the Australian government’s options in peace and war. Air power offers unique reach, responsiveness, and flexibility in this role as a peacetime constabulary or wartime combat force.
Air forces tend to downplay constabulary missions, viewing them as implicit extensions of combat roles. By contrast, navies regard constabulary tasks as central to sea power’s utility. This is due to a long history of maritime trade protection and anti-crime missions in peace and war. Nonetheless, air forces routinely provide policing services using combat assets. Beijing’s investments and poor behaviour when encountering Australian aircraft in recent months demonstrate why these missions are important – and highlight air power’s efficacy as a peacetime ‘shaping’ tool.
Off northern Australia in February, a Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) warship targeted an Australian P-8A maritime patrol aircraft with a laser. In May in the South China Sea, a Chinese fighter aircraft recklessly intercepted an Australian P-8A, including dangerously dumping chaff – small strips of metal foil – in front of the P-8A. These incidents show Australia is willing to risk assets and personnel to uphold international law. They also highlight the CCP’s irresponsibility when encountering normal and legal behaviour that does not comply with its demands.
The Australian Government’s decision to publicise the incidents and issue demarches are essential responses. But so too is ensuring Australian aircraft continue to visibly uphold international law in the face of the CCP’s transgressions.
Force structure fundamentals
Doing so needs more capacity than Australia’s existing air power resources provides. Australia’s inadequate capacity is a result of plans resting on two pillars that are crumbling.
For too long, force structure planning centred on firstly, making limited-liability contributions to episodic far-off operations and secondly, assuming unchallenged access to the air and sea commons. Beijing’s rise challenges both pillars. Conflicts of necessity close to home are more likely than they have been for decades. Access to the commons is at risk, as demonstrated most recently by concern about China’s growing Pacific state relationships.
Australia’s force structure debate to date has focused on the implications of the first pillar. ‘Warfighting’ draws the eye more than ‘constabulary’ and is more likely to involve elements from all three arms of the ADF. Tactical and technical details of capabilities for discrete ‘decisive’ battles dominates discussion. Little consideration is afforded the capacities needed to fight multiple battles simultaneously or operate continuously between battles, including in peacetime.
But the second pillar toppling is more consequential – and it is happening right now. The first pillar sits atop the second. Unfettered access to the air and sea lanes has been the foundation of Australia’s discretionary, limited liability military contributions since 1945. Without this access, Australia loses its options and its ‘decisive’ battle forces remain idle.
While the immediate need for more peacetime aerial constables drives the urgency for more Australian air power capacity, the combat requirements for which the Air Force has been structured also grow more pressing. Fortunately, contemporary air power’s multirole capabilities are adept at constabulary and combat roles. The difference is one of capacity to sustain continuous constabulary operations while building readiness for combat.
The P-8A involved in the recent incidents typifies this versatility. Although its derivation from a 737 airliner means it is often and conveniently depicted as a non-combat aircraft, the P-8A is uniquely capable of tracking and – in wartime – destroying submarines and surface ships. The P-8A is also among Australia’s most valuable assets as a presence and upholder of international law on, around, and below the world’s sea lanes.
Competition in the skies
The South China Sea intercept in May demonstrated Australia’s willingness to risk a powerful combat asset to uphold international law on China’s doorstep. Australia’s ability to risk an aircraft so far from home depended on a web of international partnerships and practices built within the international order the mission upheld. Both the P-8A’s physical presence and the enabling partnerships are powerful symbols.
Which is why the CCP has invested so much into building air power capability and capacity. The 2001 EP-3 collision, in which an American surveillance aircraft was forced to land at a Chinese airbase, cost China an aircraft, a pilot, and deep embarrassment. The intercept showed American aircraft operated freely in international waters just off China’s coast. Its inept execution highlighted systemic weaknesses in PLA air power.
Two decades on, China’s near seas are blanketed by surveillance radars. Its coastlines are dotted with fighter bases hosting regiments of advanced fighters crewed by personnel confident in over-water operations. Beijing has built enormous military airbases on the sea – literally – to extend this blanket across the entire South China Sea.
Discussion of the PLA’s growth also focuses on wartime implications, but the importance the CCP places on securing what it perceives to be sovereign territory cannot be overstated. In the Party’s eyes, the continued operation of military ships and aircraft from other nations in China’s near seas is a continuation of Beijing’s humiliation at the hands of foreigners.
The PLA’s growing capability and capacity to respond to foreign aircraft in its proximity stems from the CCP’s desire to demonstrate its control over China’s destiny. So does its increasing probing of Taiwanese and Japanese airspace. The Party is shaping the region through air power.
That it does so alone, recklessly, and with scant regard for international law – witness China’s spurious air defence identification zone in the East China Sea – highlights air power’s utility and flexibility, even in maladroit hands.
And Australia’s opportunity.
Firm foundations to reach farther faster
Like China in 2001, Australia needs to grow air power capacity to shape the region. Unlike the PLA of twenty years ago, Australia’s air force is already highly capable. Moreover, Australian aircraft operate throughout the region via a web of partnerships reinforcing, and benefitting from, international law.
The modernisation of Australia’s air power inventory in recent years has transformed its capabilities. New for old replacements, such as the F-35A for the F/A-18A and the P-8A for the AP-3C, have introduced new levels of sophistication to traditional areas. Capabilities like the E-7A and EA-18G have created new opportunities. Soon-to-be introduced systems like the MQ-4C, MQ-28A, and MC-55A will extend this and leave Australia with a regionally unique array of capabilities.
But even an F-35A can only be in one place at a time and the capacity of the Air Force has remained static. New capabilities, such as the EA-18G’s electronic attack, enhance the potency of Australian air power’s force packages but do little to increase the number of force packages available, or the space and time covered by those packages.
Importantly, many of the aircraft in the Air Force’s inventory are still in production. More aircraft are years, not decades away.
This is more than a question of aircraft numbers. The Air Force is the smallest of Australia’s armed services by headcount despite strong recruiting and retention. The best technical systems in the world do not add up to much without people to make them work when and where they are needed. Workforce – the number of crews available per airframe for example – has always been the key factor limiting the capacity extracted from technical capabilities. The air power workforce challenge is magnified by the need to meet multiple geographically separated demands simultaneously and to sustain operations day in, day out in peace and war.
More assets and more people are needed for more missions. Trading combat air power capability for constabulary capacity risks Australia’s access to the air and sea lanes in conflict when it matters most.
Foremost among the capabilities needing more capacity is gaining and maintaining access to the air. Providing and policing access to the air is far more beneficial – and demanding – than denying access to others. This access has traditionally been air power’s primary responsibility and it underpins the Western way of fighting. But the West’s decades-long dominance of the skies has led many, including air forces, to take it for granted.
The PLA is challenging this dominance. The CCP’s investment in near-seas air surveillance and combat capability and capacity since 2001 underlines the priority it places on securing access to the air. Meanwhile, its probing of Taiwanese and Japanese airspace has made policing sovereign airspace a taxing task for those air forces. Australia too must have the capacity in peacetime to reliably respond to foreign aircraft near sovereign airspace, including – in time – its own.
Australia’s friends around the South China Sea contend with Chinese aerial intrusions with limited resources of their own. Beijing’s behaviour may well prompt invitations for Australian help. Akin to NATO’s Baltic air policing initiative, this is a unique opportunity to leverage Australia’s air power to advance the rules-based order. Australian F-35As safely and professionally escorting a Chinese bomber away from sovereign airspace on a partner’s behalf is a powerful statement.
But putting the F-35As in the right place at the right time with the right skills requires willing partners and the full range of air power capabilities. Sustaining that effort while simultaneously policing sea lanes, securing Australia’s own airspace, and developing the proficiencies needed for conflict needs deep capacity. Australian air power has the systems and partnerships, but it lacks the numbers.
The Australian Government should prioritise securing vital air and sea access and building the capacity to safeguard access in peace and war. Versatile and regionally unique capabilities make a larger Air Force the most flexible way to do so. It is also the fastest as it can draw on active production lines to build on existing capabilities.
But it may require reducing capability in other areas. As air and sea access underpins the viability of virtually all forces, the relative priority is clear. If Australia and its partners do not have reliable access to the air and sea lanes during peacetime, its ability to sustain prosperity, resist coercion, or respond in conflict is denied. Fundamentally, Australia’s access to the air and sea determines its options in peace, and war.
Australia’s air force needs more capacity to provide these options. The Air Force has the foundational capabilities and partnerships to do more for Australia’s security and the rules-based order in peace and war. The CCP’s own initiatives and reckless behaviour show air power is shaping the region. Beijing’s boorishness may well expand the opportunities for Australian air power to uphold the law.
Building air power capacity requires leadership to prioritise the vital needs that give Australia options. Australian air power’s strong foundations and friendships make a larger air force the fastest and most flexible way to do just that.
Chris McInnes is an Executive Analyst at Felix – Australian industry’s home of air warfare expertise.
Backed by over a century of experience in operations, exercises, projects and programs, Felix is the only Australian Defence consultancy to specialise in the complex requirements of air warfare operations and capability development.