The Defence Strategic Review’s recommendations for Australian air power should be a viewed as an endorsement of Australia’s air arm, rather than cause for concern. The recommendations were sensible but unspectacular, especially compared to the fundamental reorientation of the Army’s land combat capability and reset of the Navy’s surface fleet.
The Review, led by His Excellency Professor Stephen Smith and Air Chief Marshal Sir Angus Houston (Retd), saw that strong foundations meant the immediate priority for the Air Force was scaling up to grow capacity and improve resilience. Smith and Houston have added thrust to Australian air power’s current vector by directing investments that boosts the potential of the Air Force’s existing inventory. This growth will challenge the Air Force but will be far less disruptive than the wholesale changes planned for the rest of the ADF.
Indeed, the Review appears to have deliberately minimised near-term disruption to the Air Force precisely because of its comparative fitness-for-purpose and broad utility in a denial strategy to 2030. Over the next decade, Australia’s air arm gives the Government much-needed insurance against the risks generated by disruption in other parts of the ADF.
The largest single immediate action for Australian air power flowing from the DSR is the $2 billion allocated for upgrades to Australia’s northern airbases. These bases are the unsinkable but still vulnerable aircraft carriers from which Australian and allied air power operate across and from Australia’s vast northern reaches.
This work, which the Review noted is long overdue, will help turn these bases into more robust carriers able to launch, recover, and sustain a larger volume of air power. The direction to simplify and accelerate the introduction of integrated air and missile defence systems reinforced the Review’s priority on securing the airbase foundations of Australia’s air power.
Crucially, Smith and Sir Angus recognised these airbases are integral to Australia’s air power and assigned responsibility for them to the Chief of Air Force, rather than Defence’s central estate organisation. This is important because infrastructure is only part of the problem. Just as an aircraft carrier must be crewed and operated as a fighting ship, so too airbases must be crewed and operated as fighting positions oriented to the overriding purpose of getting aircraft off the deck.
Turning the infrastructure investment into operational capability will perhaps be the Air Force’s major test over the next decade. Since 1945, Australia’s air arm has not needed to build the ‘survive to operate’ approach to airbases and air power practiced by NATO in Europe during the Cold War. NATO air forces subordinated all other considerations, including economy and efficiency, to ensuring bases could and would launch available aircraft on last orders even when isolated and under attack.
Realising an Australian analogue will be expensive and challenging but is necessary in Australia’s new strategic circumstances. The Air Force and Defence will need to reverse decades-long resourcing arrangements oriented to streamlined and efficient airbases. More importantly, it will need to drive the development of a culture in which ‘survive to operate’ becomes a reflex for the Air Force’s aviators.
The Review’s call for a “new approach” to training and crewing combat aircraft is the single most effective way to increase Australia’s air power because more crews can literally multiply the fleet’s capacity. Contemporary combat aircraft can reliably sustain very high rates of operation, but only if enough flight, maintenance, and support crews are available to keep up.
For sustained periods on alert – such as the Japanese and Taiwanese air forces confront in the face of PLA intrusions and for which the ADF should prepare – crews are consumed much more rapidly than airframes. Doubling the number of Australian F‑35A pilots available will increase capacity far more than an additional squadron of F‑35A.
But it will also be harder than buying more aircraft. The ADF’s training systems, like its airbases, have been streamlined and optimised for efficiency over decades. The Air Force has focused on developing just enough high-quality crews to maintain a skills base and punch above its weight in strictly controlled, niche contributions.
Reservists, with few exceptions, find it difficult to maintain currency and proficiency on frontline platforms. Increasing crewing and training should not mean more of the same. A broader mix of skill levels, proficiencies, employment arrangements, and training models is surely feasible and appropriate for the focused force recommended by the Review.
Resetting these systems to generate more quantity of sufficient quality will be a substantial organisational challenge. It will also be expensive as, despite the utility of simulation, increasing the number of trained and proficient crews demands more flying. This is consistent with the Review’s concept of “accelerated preparedness” but not the lack of immediate additional Defence funding.
The Review’s remaining air power recommendations were conspicuously non-disruptive, either repeating existing plans and confirming actions likely to occur anyway. Collaboratively developing the MQ‑28A with the United States is one such example.
Fitting the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) to Australia’s F/A‑18F and F‑35A fleets and the Joint Strike Missile on the F‑35A – recommendations to which the Government has agreed-in-principle – are relatively straightforward enhancements common to US forces. The Review did not mention it but the Air Force’s P‑8A fleet will also probably become capable of carrying the LRASM – four per aircraft – as the US Navy’s efforts to integrate LRASM on the P‑8A are well underway.
These are important and minimally disruptive steps that will improve the ADF’s primary strike force and ability to execute a denial strategy to 2030 and beyond. The point has been lost in the DSR and surrounding discussions, but air-delivered weapons are – and will continue to be – Australia’s most flexible, efficient, longest, and hardest-hitting strike options.
The welcome investments in land-based and ship-launched missiles provide valuable persistence in key locations but cannot match the range, flexibility, and mass of air-launched weapons. The new land-based missile systems to be introduced into ADF service are certainly “long-ranged” for armies but their range – and warhead – are significantly smaller than that offered by an air-launched LRASM or Joint Air‑Surface Standoff Missile.
Smith and Sir Angus’s views on the B‑21 and Defence Space Command further indicate a desire to minimise distraction for the Air Force in the near term. The B‑21 was never a feasible option for Australian acquisition within the Review’s timeframe given its maturity and overwhelming focus on entering USAF service as one leg of the US nuclear triad. Pursuing access to this sensitive program at the same time as the implementing the DSR, nuclear-powered submarine arrangements, and other parts of AUKUS would consume scarce resources without accelerating the arrival of an Australian B‑21 fleet. Better to reconsider the matter after the dust has settled.
Similarly, the recommendation to transfer the Defence Space Command from the Air Force to the Joint Capabilities Group will allow tighter focus on growing Australia’s air power capacity and resilience to insure against disruption in other parts of the ADF.
Smith and Sir Angus’s efforts, and the Government’s acceptance of their recommendations, has set a new, focused course for the ADF. The Review’s sweeping and disruptive recommendations for the Army, the Navy, and joint elements of Defence reflect concerns over their fitness for Australia’s challenging new circumstances.
By contrast, they appear to have concluded Australia’s air arm is fit-for-purpose and provides crucial stability during a turbulent time. Their Review has added thrust to Australian air power’s existing vector by prioritising airbases and workforce and affirming planned enhancements. The Review appears to have sought to minimise disruption to the ADF’s aerial insurance policy out to 2030 by focusing attention and postponing issues that can wait.