By Chris McInnes
The Royal Australian Air Force’s second century poses new challenges for the service as the comfortable assumptions that shaped its first century crumble.
One hundred years of contributing to operations led by others leaves the RAAF ill-prepared to lead operations, but this is precisely what it must be prepared to do in the next century. This will be a profound institutional challenge, but is one which presents opportunities, and one for which the RAAF’s proud achievements provide firm foundations.
The RAAF built a fine leadership record in technical and managerial spheres over its first hundred years. From a tiny base in 1939, the RAAF built itself into the world’s fourth largest air force by headcount in 1945. The service’s implementation of airworthiness and technical regulations since the early 1990s has become a benchmark for military aviation and safety around the world, while its force element group (FEG) structure was an innovative construct that positioned the service superbly to manage individual capabilities. These are just a few of many examples of positive RAAF leadership.
But examples of strong institutional leadership from the RAAF on operations are harder to find. During World War 2, the RAAF’s organisational leadership – or lack thereof – in the European theatre was best summed up by historian Alan Stephens, as an, “institutional disaster.”
Unlike the RCAF which aggregated Bomber Command’s Canadian squadrons under a single group led by a Canadian, the RAAF did not pursue opportunities to direct or influence the operations of Australians in the bomber offensive against Germany. As a result, the RAAF gained limited institutional insight into the challenges of running a major air war.
In the Pacific, the RAAF did command its own units in the guises of Nos 9 and 10 Operational Groups and 1st Tactical Air Force, directed by RAAF Command under AVM William Bostock. However, this learning opportunity was squandered by appalling in-fighting between Bostock and AVM George Jones, the RAAF’s chief from 1942 to 1952, and the reality that Australian forces were effectively sidelined after the New Guinea campaign concluded. Jones had Bostock summarily retired in 1946, despite high praise from Bostock’s wartime American operational superiors, and with him went virtually all the RAAF’s experience of operational higher command.
The RAAF’s leadership during WW2 is perhaps best summed by the title of an authoritative book on RAAF higher command during the war by Norman Ashworth, How not to Run an Air Force! While the RAAF could proudly claim in 1945 it was the fourth largest group of people wearing the same air force uniform, it lacked the operational coherence and direction to truly be the fourth largest air force. During WW2, the RAAF excelled at generating and contributing small units to operations run by larger air forces.
This approach persisted after the war. Australia’s air contributions to Korea, Malaya, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other conflicts comprised individual force elements operating in isolation from each other. Australia maintained national command of its air units and Australian airmen performed admirably in embedded or liaison roles, but the RAAF provided little operational leadership.
There were of course exceptions to this rule. Australia led air operations in its region on multiple occasions, including the 1999 intervention in East Timor and the response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. While valuable, these operations did not require the RAAF to lead a full spectrum of air operations or face the strain of sustained combat.
In 2014, the Australian air task group (ATG) to combat ISIS in Syria and Iraq formed and deployed as an integrated package comprising eight F/A-18F Super Hornets, a KC-30A tanker transport, and an E-7A Wedgetail AEW&C aircraft. This was an impressive achievement and an improvement on past practice, but it should not obscure the reality that the package’s individual elements operated separately and under the direction of American operational commanders.
While the ATG was well-led by first-rate individuals, their span of responsibility and influence over the campaign was limited. Moreover, the RAAF’s lack of formed expeditionary command and control elements made the work of these individuals more difficult and was perhaps the principal deficiency in the RAAF’s otherwise impressive force package.
Two enduring characteristics of Australia’s geostrategic environment enabled this highly successful approach. Firstly, Australian air power maintained an enormous technical and tactical regional superiority. Circumstances in which Australian air power alone or in the lead would have to fight for control of the air or operate in contested areas were exceptionally unlikely. Secondly, the RAAF could reliably rely on larger air forces to lead coalition operations which might involve combat or genuine opposition.
With these reassuring assumptions in place for one hundred years, the RAAF could comfortably overlook the need to build and maintain the capabilities necessary to lead and manage complex air operations. Indeed, these assumptions enabled it to refine its management and contribution of individual force elements to a fine art, including through the creation of and evolution of the FEG.
But this focus on managing individual capabilities comes at a cost. The FEG structure means personnel can become very senior indeed without significant exposure to capabilities from other FEGs, much less the challenges of leading and managing all the elements necessary to generate and sustain air operations.
Australia’s Five Eyes partner air forces maintain command echelons to do just this, in the form of wings in the USAF and RCAF, stations in the RAF, and bases in the RNZAF. Crucially, these are significant in-garrison command appointments at the group captain level and mean senior officers, and many other personnel, in these air forces have first-hand experience leading and applying all the elements necessary to sustain air operations, from aircraft and armaments to administration and amenities. In the RAAF, the first in-garrison opportunity to hold command of all elements needed to sustain air operations is found at the Air Commander Australia, a two-star position.
These assumptions and their consequences are not valid for the RAAF’s second century. Firstly, Australia’s region is now home to some of the most capable and rapidly advancing air and space forces in the world. As partners or adversaries, these forces generate a different model of regional operations with which the RAAF must contend. The RAAF should not always expect to lead operations in the region but, as one of the most mature and experienced air forces in the region, it should aspire to play a key role in supporting others and building regional leadership capabilities.
Secondly, Australia’s great and powerful friend has wearied of global leadership and declined in relative power. Even before the rise of the Trump Administration’s ‘America First’ policy, the Obama Administration’s ‘lead from behind’ approach during the 2012 operations in Libya compelled Britain, France, and NATO to lead with American support.
The US’s limited role during the 1999 East Timor intervention was an early indication of this trend in Australia’s region. Add to this the strain that increasing US-China competition throughout the Indo-Pacific is placing on US forces, and the RAAF should anticipate that its traditional ‘big brothers’ will be looking to others to lead in Australia’s near-region.
Consequently, the RAAF must build the capacity and capability to lead complex air – and now space – operations in its region, either in coalition or isolation. There are positive steps underway.
The Air Warfare Centre’s establishment and focus on integration is important, and the restructure of 78WG as a tactical air wing focused on air-land integration is also a step in the right direction. These measures arose from sustained strategic direction since the launch of Plan Jericho in 2015 to better focus the RAAF on integrated capabilities and operations. The most recent RAAF strategy continues this trend.
But the pace needs to accelerate, and more investment is required. Building operational leadership capabilities in the RAAF is not simply a matter of running training courses, episodic exercises, procuring equipment, or encouraging personnel to read more widely. It is the combination of these things as well as a significant shift in the service’s culture and focus and a recognition that operational leadership requires the generation and maintenance of command-and-control force elements, just like any other force element. For the RAAF, this requires development of the wing as the key tactical leadership echelon, just as it is in in Australia’s Five Eyes partners.
Part of this culture shift is also a recognition that operational leadership is not a generalist skillset that comes with time and experience, nor one that resides in commanders alone. The skills needed to lead complex air operations, let alone multi-domain operations, are specialised, perishable, and collective. The aptitude for such skills is also likely to be found in workforces beyond those that have traditionally dominated command and leadership role in terms of rank, background, and seniority.
In seeking to grow these leadership skills and capabilities, the RAAF should be cautious about approaches that seek efficiencies or to economise in other areas to free up resources – the hard-won strengths the RAAF has built up over the last century remain fundamentally important to its success. The deteriorating circumstances that drive the need for investment in operational leadership do not diminish the need for ongoing technical and tactical excellence. The answer to this challenge is and, not or.
But as the RAAF looks to its second century, the imperative to build leadership capabilities is also an opportunity to craft a high-value niche in the Indo-Pacific air and space power community. At present, there is no Indo-Pacific equivalent to NATO’s Tactical Leadership Program or the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Air Warfare Centre. These initiatives focus on building the leadership, planning, and execution skills necessary at the wing level for integrated air operations.
The RAAF should explore building an Indo-Pacific equivalent to train, develop, and exercise operational leadership capabilities within the Indo-Pacific air and space power community. The RAAF has the foundations for such a program such as major international exercises like Pitch Black, superb training schools, and large and increasingly well-equipped training ranges. These foundations are currently episodic or focused internally, but provide a firm base upon which the RAAF can build an enduring capability.
An Indo-Pacific Air Warfare Centre in Australia would strengthen regional engagement and build operational leadership capacity among like-minded regional air forces. The initiative could be run in partnership with advanced air forces such as Singapore, Japan, and the US, with training and development opportunities open to all. Importantly, the RAAF leadership capabilities would reap a disproportionate return on investment as its personnel and systems routinely engaged with partners from across the region to practice and apply the art and science of leading air operations.
The RAAF can no longer just contribute to operations its second century; it needs to lead. The comfortable assumptions of its first one hundred years are gone, driving an imperative for greater independent capacity. The RAAF’s first century leaves a fine foundation from which this imperative can become an opportunity for the RAAF to lead the development of a collective air and space power community that strengthens security for all in the next century.