26 Feb 2019
A gap still to be closed in next-generation defence
The Royal Australian Air Force recently greeted the arrival of the first two of its 72 F-35A joint strike fighters (JSFs) as the core capability of a fifth-generation air force, currently meaning the most advanced available.
However, the air force cannot rest on its laurels with the F-35A or assume there is a luxury of time in planning future capability development. Some important capability choices are on the horizon.
First up is whether to replace the F/A-18F Super Hornet fighters later in the next decade with additional F-35A JSFs or upgrade the Super Hornet to ‘‘Block III’’ advanced-configuration standard and retain them through to the mid-2030s. A third option would be acquiring a new type of manned or unmanned capability, that could complement the F-35A.
A key factor in addressing this decision must be filling a capability gap in long-range strikes since the retirement of the long-serving F-111C in 2010.
The F-35A has half the combat radius of the F-111C and a little over half its payload capacity. Certainly, its stealth, networking and situational awareness offer major advantages but it is dependent on tanker support or host-nation support to deploy anywhere much beyond the sea-air gap.
Adversary long-range air and missile capabilities make either of those options risky.
Fixing this gap will take several steps. First, the RAAF needs more capable, longer-range standoff weapons readily available off the shelf for current air platforms, complemented by the navy acquiring long-range sea-based standoff weapons for anti-ship and land-strike roles. The capability objective should be to negate the requirement to have to penetrate deep within adversary anti-access and area denial (A2AD) envelopes to deliver precision effect.
Second, Australia should join programs under way in the US and potentially Europe for next-generation air-combat capability, to acquire a long-range strike and counter-air capability that will emerge from those programs in the 2030s. But we must guard against entering another expensive 20-year acquisition cycle that leads to small numbers of high-end platforms.
This future capability needs attributes such as high speed, reach and mass to counter major-power A2AD threats. Focusing on small numbers of expensive and exquisite platforms that take decades to acquire is not the right model for gaining and sustaining air dominance. Nor would such a traditional approach allow Australia to get inside an adversary’s procurement cycle. We’d be left with a small, boutique air force that takes too long to acquire, is highly expensive and is operationally brittle.
This is not to say that gaining and sustaining a knowledge edge is no longer important. A distributed and resilient wide-area surveillance network should figure prominently in planning for the future force to maximise the Australian Defence Force’s ability to ‘‘see deep’’ into the Indo-Pacific region as an essential enabler for ‘‘striking deep’’ when necessary.
It needs to operate across multiple domains, including in the air and in space. The space domain is important and integrating air and space power is a logical path forward for the ADF.
The role of unmanned autonomous vehicles (UAVs) should figure prominently as they would provide a cost-effective approach to maintaining surveillance at long range, and support strike and air defence into the 2030s and beyond. The air force is already acquiring the first generation of such capability with the MQ-4C Triton and MQ-9 Reaper UAVs. The next generation must emphasise manned-unmanned teaming.
Future RAAF intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance may include a ‘‘high-low’’ mix, comprising swarms of air-deliverable disposable autonomous platforms operating alongside manned platforms, together with smaller numbers of higher-end fully reusable unmanned systems.
As noted, the air force is now thinking about the space domain. Future development of a sovereign space segment for Australia would be a good move.
We’re no longer in a strategic backwater, but in the front lines of a new and dangerous strategic competition. In thinking about future airpower, Australia should aim to take punching above its weight to a whole new level.