Critical questions around people power at the opening of the RAAF’s 100 years
What makes the Royal Australian Air Force a great air force? And as Australia’s strategic circumstances evolve and its wealth and power accumulate, how does it ‘scale-up’ and remain great while meeting the demands of a more complex and lethal future threat environment?
In a word, people.
For a century, the RAAF has provided the Commonwealth with the ways and means of protecting its vast airspace and projecting national power, aided by the development of exemplar operational, support, and sustainment systems for advanced technologies and weapons. This has significantly enhanced Australia’s international reputation and has attracted global recognition for the quality of its people and their sophisticated relationship with technology.
But options are the most valuable commodity it has delivered successive governments; options which provide governments with choice over which course of action best meets its geo-strategic and political objectives, all delivered by a relatively small but well-equipped force.
However, the next century will introduce new threats and new risks as Australia’s competitors erode the technological advantage and strategic warning times we have enjoyed in the past. The pathway to ongoing success will, therefore, require more than technology: it will need a commensurate investment in people and ideas. Or, in military jargon, personnel and concepts to provide future governments with options which fully exploit the asymmetric nature of air and space power.
In many ways the RAAF’s contribution to wider society during the last century has been understated. In addition to developing its extraordinary tactical prowess, the lower-order effects of building the air force have played out, not least in the establishment of Australia’s post-World War 2 industrial apparatus, and – among others – an exemplar civil-military aviation governance and safety system.
Yet despite these nation-building achievements, the RAAF – like other western air forces – has attracted criticism in the past for an apparent pre-occupation with platforms and technology. To a point, this criticism is fair and has led to a sometimes narrow and technocratic culture. But this culture has also positioned those air forces superbly to meet the huge demand for aerospace-related expertise as its associated culture of operational and technical excellence expands as the fourth industrial revolution takes hold.
Tech-savvy air forces have come of age, but they must now do more. Moreover, the understated pragmatism which has defined the first century of air power should be replaced by a more confident and assertive conceptual narrative based on the unique value proposition of integrated air and space power, and its ability to buy decision-making time and space.
This requires new thinking which steps beyond ‘further, faster, higher’. Air forces, both friendly and adversary, have already proven they can do that, but they need to establish a new conceptual baseline which better-defines the relationship with the future while discarding the doctrinal baggage of the past.
The effort to synchronise the development of future air power capability will need to fill three strategic gaps which demand enterprise level trade-offs and an appetite to do things differently.
In technology terms, the gap is a ‘work in progress’ and involves the design, build, operation, and sustainment of an integrated air and space combat system. The conceptual gap involves the defence enterprise’s ability to understand and exploit the full value of this combat system. And, finally, perhaps the most pressing gap is that Australia’s air force is too small and does not have enough people to meet the emerging strategic readiness and survivability challenges.
When the air (and space) force does grow, the challenge will be to regain and retain the entrepreneurial mindset that accompanied the establishment of the world’s two oldest air forces, the Royal Air Force and the Royal Australian Air Force, when they were formed in 1918 and 1921 respectively.
In short, the air and space force of the next century will need to think big and act small to successfully link the government’s geostrategic policy objectives with tactical outcomes.
Thinking big will need an expansive, systems-thinking approach to air and space campaigning, and a material increase in combat mass delivered by manned and unmanned teams such as those envisioned by the Loyal Wingman project. Also needed will be dense and resilient communications and data networks that enable while not constraining operational flexibility and potency.
Acting small means remaining as an affordable, agile, and synchronised partner within a broader whole-of-government construct, with a focus on air and space power outcomes. The RAAF is well placed to do so, but the future will require some important trade-offs.
SUPPLY AND DEMAND
The pathway to future operational success is constrained by supply and demand factors, many of which are outside the control of Air Force. For the foreseeable future Australia will continue to have a relatively small – yet highly skilled – population from which to recruit its defence force while facing a battle for the best people as the information age economy grows.
Also, the sheer size of the Australian area of interest means more assured access to, and availability of, advanced technology which will be required to better sense and understand what is happening within the broader region. Also, the logistics and support systems must be in place to execute these operations at scale.
Artificial intelligence-enabled sensors and multi-phenomenology data fusion currently employed to support tactical decision-making in platforms such as the F-35A, E-7A, and the venerable AP-3C(EW) will need to scale up to deliver enterprise effects and provide governments with the ability to make smarter decisions at speed.
Air power has always been about supplying the means to acquire decision-making time and space through early warning and defence from, and in, the air. But the demand for 24/7 situational understanding in the Indo-Pacific region has substantially outstripped supply.
Regardless of technology, the RAAF is therefore going to need many more people to enhance its intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) collection capability. That means they will need to grow relative to the other services, as well as making better use of the Australian Public Service (APS) and commercial contractors.
It is quite plausible that the end of the next century will see the envisioned air and space force broadly equivalent in size to the Army.
The emerging strategic context for the RAAF as it moves into its second century contains great opportunity as well as grave risks. These circumstances require a mindset akin to an entrepreneur with a philosophy linked to operational outcomes by a relentless focus on excellence in execution, and delivered without fear of failure having identified and understood the greatest threats to survivability through experimentation and learning from experience.
This must involve a systematic approach to the development of people, ideas, and technology which recognises the critical role of each and their interplay. It must nurture the relationships which provide the cohesion and resilience to deliver outcomes greater than the sum of the constituent parts.
The RAAF has become a great air force because of its people, their ability to translate strategic problems into tactical missions and tasks, and then execute those tasks with great skill and courage. Those people will now need to be trained and prepared to survive and operate at higher tempos over sustained periods against an increasingly sophisticated and potent threat.
The future will require more of these people and with expanded skillsets to fully exploit the potential of an integrated air and space combat system.
In its second century, the Royal Australian Air Force is well set to remain as the world’s best air force for its size – a supremely trained, asymmetric force held at very high levels of readiness, optimised to deliver governments with a decision-making advantage and to deny and disrupt an adversary’s ability to command its own forces.
As Australia’s wealth and power grows, the government of the day is likely to increasingly turn to a more confident and capable air and space force to better understand the strategic environment and provide flexible response options at speed and at range.
This is air force core business, and is a great source of reassurance to the Australian people and its allies.
The article appeared in the Jan-Feb 2021 issue of ADBR.