“If we lose the war in the air, we lose the war; and we lose it quickly.”
– Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery
The 2000 Defence White Paper said it best: “air combat is the most important single capability for the defence of Australia, because control of the air over our territory and maritime approaches is critical to all other types of operations.”
Air combat exemplifies the Australian way of warfighting and represents the tip of the defence force spear. Being fundamentally asymmetric means air combat capability sets the conditions for operational success by providing access to the air domain. This access, and the high-technology backbone at the heart of air combat capability, allows Australia’s defence force to integrate systems from every domain. As a result, the ADF gains early warning, situational awareness, command and control, and the ability to generate effects – both physical and virtual – at very high speed.
Australia’s air combat capability therefore remains the most reliable and efficient mechanism for buying time, space, and options for Australia’s leaders. Balancing lethality, survivability, and affordability, air combat creates the broadest range of opportunities and choices at the lowest political risk for the government of the day.
Moreover, increased investment in air combat capability makes sense in military terms, because it leverages Australia’s comparative strengths and is exactly what Australia’s competitors least want. It disrupts their priorities and plans, imposes significant financial penalties and, critically, introduces
uncertainty, doubt, and fear into the minds of their commanders. All this while maximising the impact of Australia’s small population by leveraging advanced technologies.
But how much air combat capability is enough to meet contemporary and emerging operational requirements. And how can air combat capability be usefully measured given that it is a complex, flexible, and integrated system of systems?
As Winston Churchill once said, “Air power is the most difficult of all forms of military force to measure, or even express in precise terms.” Even the principal role of an air combat system – to achieve control of the air – is much easier to measure in hindsight when the outcome of the operation is known.
Air combat capability is, therefore, typically measured simplistically in terms of the number of platforms and their individual performance characteristics. While platform numbers help to quantify a minimum viable capability, this metric reinforces the notion that air combat is all about platform versus platform engagements. In reality, air combat is a competition between complex systems that extends to much more than platforms, deep into sustainment chains, and well beyond the air domain.
This challenge is nothing new. More than a hundred years of real-world air combat experience and analysis confirms that success in air combat is the product of integration between all the elements of the system to generate and sustain the technical, organisational, informational, industrial, and human performance levels required for combat advantage.
KEEP IT SIMPLE
The architect of the world’s first integrated air combat system, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the RAF’s Fighter Command during World War 2 (pictured below-right), described the system in platform terms even though the success of ‘The Dowding System’ was due to it being far more than just fighters.
Dowding said, “The best defence of the country is the fear of the fighter. If we are strong in fighters we should probably never be attacked in force. If we are moderately strong we shall probably be attacked and the attacks will gradually be bought to a standstill… If we are weak in fighter strength, the attacks will not be bought to a standstill and the productive capacity of the country will be virtually destroyed.”
Dowding avoided where possible the daily friction of tactical engagements. He left that to the likes of Air Vice-Marshals Keith Park and Trafford Leigh-Mallory. Instead, he focused on the strategic competitiveness of his command by ensuring its resilience and sustainability beyond the outcome
of today’s battle.
In 1940, he argued to prioritise the defence of British airspace over urgent needs in France as he realised any fighters sent to France would be lost and could do nothing to turn the tide as the Allied defences collapsed. Since his appointment in 1936, he had campaigned to ensure Fighter Command’s building blocks were in place. These included training, air bases, fuel, new technology (principally radars), the industrial capacity necessary to build and sustain them and, crucially, the concepts and organisation to bring them together as a coherent whole.
Dowding’s instinctive ability to conceive air combat as a system-of-systems was born from deep thought, domain expertise, and technical know-how at an enterprise level. But it was his sheer bloody-mindedness and ability
to describe it in simple terms in the face of competing priorities which ultimately saved the day.
It goes without saying that designing, building, operating, and sustaining a modern, integrated air combat system is exceptionally difficult and beyond the reach of many nations. However, if you get the basic architecture and industry relationships right then it is relatively straightforward, low risk, and inexpensive to scale-up.
A hundred years of experience in developing relationships, deep technical skills, and tactical expertise means the Royal Australian Air Force has been able to integrate some of the world’s most advanced platforms affordably, quickly, and with relative ease. The F-35 is a case in point as it introduces
untold benefits to the broader Australian Defence Force, not least in creating time and space to innovate and develop advanced concepts such as the Airpower Teaming System ‘Loyal Wingman’.
The substantially successful acquisition of and transition to advanced fighter, tanker, ISR, command and control, and mobility platforms over the past decade leaves the ADF extremely well-placed to exploit what White Papers have described as its most important capability. And there is more to come, with the retirement of the AP-3C electronic warfare capability and the arrival of the MC-55A Peregrine and MQ-4C Triton.
FUTURE ASYMMETRIC REQUIREMENTS
Looking to the future, a likely constant is that Australia’s defence will depend upon a military force drawn from a relatively small population, particularly when compared to its vast geography and global influence as a trusted trade and security partner.
These circumstances will drive the essential need for a highly-integrated force structure which leverages the most advanced technology and a highly-trained workforce. Moreover, such a force must be able to rapidly respond to contingencies near and far in discrete force packages, tailored to the conditions and constraints of the task at hand.
These force elements must be capable of conducting offensive and defensive tasks in the physical and virtual worlds. To do so, they must be able to gain access in the face of advanced threats, make sense of dynamic and ambiguous situations, positively identify targets in the air, on land, at sea, and across the electromagnetic spectrum. They must employ data-hungry weapons and systems with precision and discretion, and in accordance with rules of engagement and government policies.
This means a greater effort will be needed to ensure Australia’s air combat capability is better understood as a highly integrated and complex system-of-systems spanning every domain and involving aircraft, networks, sensors, refuelling, engineering, logistics, training, command, bases, infrastructure, information technology, weapons, and – most importantly – skilled and experienced people.
In doing so, it will demonstrate that despite its level of sophistication, the air combat force is remarkably affordable in human and dollar terms. Its cost-effectiveness climbs further when one considers the high degree of flexibility and controllability that its small footprint and agility affords governments.
Australia needs more air combat capacity, and the starting point is more people. Keeping it simple by connecting and scaling-up existing capabilities will rapidly create more ideas, opportunities, choices, and ultimately power.
Air combat is Australia’s best option to leverage its comparative advantages in terms of advanced technology and talented humans. No other capability can generate the variety and flexibility of options air combat affords in such tailorable, low risk packages.
Quite simply, air combat delivers Australia’s best possible bang for buck.
This article appeared in the December 2021 issue of ADBR.