Times are tough and money is tight. “The pursuit of value for money [is] imperative” for the Government and the Defence Strategic Review led by Professor Stephen Smith and Sir Angus Houston. Scaling up Australia’s proven air arm offers Professor Smith and Sir Angus a low-risk, value-for-money way to buy time and choice for the Government.
Growth across the ADF is necessary, but the long delivery timelines and the constrained speed and reach of surface forces leave gaps air power is well-placed to cover. The Review should consequently recommend rapid investment in airbases, workforce, and area denial capabilities including the fighter, KC‑30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport, and P‑8A Poseidon fleets.
Value for money…
Three characteristics give air power particular value for money in the prevailing circumstances. First, air power is the ADF’s fastest response option across the vast air, sea, and land expanses of a dynamic Indo-Pacific region. Second, the versatility of air assets means single investments reap rewards across missions and circumstances, including enhancing the ADF’s surface forces. Third and most important, Australia-based air power is self-reliant and gives governments time and choice when most needed.
Geography must return as the logic for Australia’s defence investment, with threats more proximate and powerful than at any time since 1945. Two factors are prominent.
First, the region is dominated by water, with thousands of islands offering platforms to influence nearby seas. Movement depends on air and sea transport vulnerable to observation and disruption from the air. The Pacific campaigns from 1941-45 were “battles for airfields” for good reason.
Second, the distances are vast. The nearest foreign soil to Darwin is a ‘mere’ 500km distant, while near neighbours of Guam, Honiara, Manila, Singapore, and Sydney are 3,300km away. From Washington, an equivalent journey will get you to Phoenix and (almost) Las Vegas. From London, you will find yourself 800km beyond Moscow; from Tokyo, almost 1,200km past Beijing.
Air power covers these distances with unmatched speed. Darwin’s near neighbours are about four hours direct flight time away for a KC‑30A carrying rescue teams after a natural disaster. The same flight time will see RAAF aircraft arriving at any of the South China Sea’s southern chokepoints, or they can be overhead the Pacific anywhere between Manila, Guam, and Honiara.
On one day, Darwin‑based aircraft may be over the Solomon Islands; the next, Singapore. Aircraft can sustain operations day-after-day, either covering many locations or providing a persistent presence in a few.
For friends, including surface forces, this means help – transport, supplies, information, protection, or firepower – is never far away. For foes, it means a constant risk of observation and attack. For this reason, air and sea power are the key instruments in a maritime strategy of preserving friendly access to the seas while denying it to malign actors.
Air power’s versatile capabilities mean the same assets provide options across circumstances. An F‑35A Lightning II can find and strike ships in the Bismarck Sea and conduct reconnaissance on its return journey. The following day the same aircraft can provide air defence over the Arafura Sea or locate and disrupt hostile defences to support ship-launched missiles.
The returning KC‑30A can carry evacuees and overcome a fuel shortage in the disaster zone by ‘topping up’ from another KC‑30A which can then refuel a P‑8A to extend its search for a submarine. The P‑8A can go on to find a missing fishing boat and alert local authorities before continuing the hunt.
RAAF assets can operate across the region from Australian bases, giving government “full national control over the tasking and operations… within broad strategic agreements.” Operating from Australia minimises the need for vulnerable forward footprints, extended supply lines, and potentially provocative pre-positioning. With sufficient tankers, Australia-based air power can offer governments long-range options using routes consistent with international law and tailored to sensitivities.
Critically, right up until – and possibly after – weapon launch, an Australian government could cancel a strike and return the aircraft to their base. Alternatively, it may choose to have the aircraft make their presence known to ‘signal’ Australia’s capability. A 2013 RAND study found long-range air power’s flexibility, responsiveness, and signalling abilities made it an especially valuable crisis management tool. As tensions grow, air power can give Australian governments time and choice when most needed.
Australia’s air assets are sovereign and self-reliant, but they are also regionally unique, and interchangeable with the United States. RAAF aircraft, weapons, and bases are operated and sustained in Australia by Australians within interoperable global supply chains. Australia could manufacture air-launched weapons through the Sovereign Guided Weapons and Explosive Ordnance project.
Consequently, in little more than a week the same Australian aircraft could make a unique contribution to Five Power Defence Arrangement activities, seamlessly join US-led operations in Japan, and return for sensitive missions in Australia. American aircraft concurrently operating from Australia could draw on local sustainment and load Australian-made missiles.
Air forces can deploy and withdraw swiftly without external support beyond basing, as demonstrated by Australia’s air operations against ISIS. Australian governments can consequently make timely high-profile contributions while limiting the ADF’s footprint and the risk of quagmire.
In sum, it is hard to think of a better way for Australia to “put real substance on the notion of ‘self-reliance within an alliance construct’” than investment in air power.
… at low risk.
Air power’s low risk comes from its potent and proven operational capabilities, training systems, and sustainment arrangements. New weapons and aircraft will enter service in the next two to three years, but the foundations are in place.
According to Defence’s annual reports, the RAAF – a predominantly technical service – reliably meets recruiting targets and consistently maintains the ADF’s lowest separation rates. This makes it fertile soil for planned ADF workforce growth, which is primarily targeting technical skills. The production lines for many of Australia’s aircraft remain active with new orders recently placed for RAAF aircraft, including the F‑35A, KC‑30A and P‑8A. More air power is years, not decades away.
Australia’s aerospace industry is efficient and sophisticated, employing over 13,000 people according to the most recent Commonwealth Government report. The sector is optimised for sustaining in-service aircraft but nurtures cutting edge technologies, such as components for the F‑35A and Joint Strike Missile, and uncrewed aerial systems.
More importantly, Australia’s aerospace industry is a proven self-starter. Australian industry conceived and designed the autonomous MQ‑28A Ghost Bat, the first combat aircraft built in the country for more than 50 years. Australian government support – and interest from the United States – came later.
Reaping the security and prosperity returns on investment in Australian air power does not require new industries or technologies, it just needs scaling up.
Professor Smith and Sir Angus should prioritise air power to leverage its value for money and low risk. Focusing investment in three areas with high payoffs is the fastest way to scale up Australia’s air power and buy time and choice.
First, key airbases at Learmonth near Exmouth in Western Australia, the Darwin/Tindal complex in the Northern Territory, and at Townsville in north Queensland need to be strengthened, defended, and provisioned. These bases are the foundation for securing Australia and its approaches.
Second, accelerate the expansion of the RAAF’s workforce to better exploit existing assets. More air and ground crews can increase aircraft availability and usage. Additional airbase, support, and industry personnel will be critical to sustaining higher operational tempo and defending airbases. Growth in the RAAF’s headcount improves the ADF’s overall workforce resilience and flexibility.
Finally, prioritise investment in potent proven air‑launched area-denial capabilities. Weapons, such as the Long-Range Anti‑Ship Missile and Joint Air-Surface Standoff Missile, should be among the highest priorities for local weapons production. The quickest way to add more range and lethality for the ADF is to grow the fighter and P‑8A fleets to carry more weapons, and double the KC‑30A inventory to extend their reach.
These assets’ versatility generates value across missions in peace and war.
… to buy time and choice.
Money is tight. Investment in air power is low-risk because it leverages proven capabilities and performance in operations, training, sustainment, and industrial innovation. Its value for money is manifold: from increasing Australia’s sovereign options – including the effectiveness of ADF surface forces – to building stronger partnerships. Single investments pay off in multiple areas.
Times are tough. Air power gives governments flexibility to manage crises in an increasingly tense region. It can facilitate, observe, or disrupt movement – or signal Australia’s capability to do so – with unmatched speed across the maritime expanses of the Indo-Pacific. This buys time and space for, and fills the gaps between, the ADF’s surface forces.
Australia-based air power can do this while minimising forward footprints and extended supply lines. It is self-reliant and interchangeable, giving government the option to make high-value coalition contributions while retaining full control and the option to rapidly redeploy if required.
Professor Smith and Sir Angus should recommend scaling up Australia’s air arm through investment in airbases, workforce, and area denial capabilities. This leverages air power’s value for money and low risk to buy the Government time and choice when it needs both.