Australia Shapes its Air Power Approach
Mar 15, 2014

During a recent visit to Australia to participate in an RAAF sponsored Air Power conference on the impact of the F-35 on the evolving Aussie air combat approach, I also checked out Australia’s new tanker (KC-30A) and new airborne “AWACS” system (Wedgetail), and took the opportunity to tour their Hypersonics Development Center.

Australia is looking to the future as it builds a modest but effective Air Force around the best available 21st century platforms and technologies. In a discussion with a senior Canadian Air Force officer attending the conference, the point was made that ­“Australia is very relevant to our thinking about the future.”

One must remember that Australia had not procured new equipment for a long period. Now, with the East Timor and Afghan experiences under their belt, they are building out capability to deal with the challenges in the neighborhood. And they are not choosing from low end options; they are shaping a multi-function, multi-mission force able to work with key allies and to support their joint force – able to operate a greater distance, for more sustainable operations.

Heavy Lift
First up was the acquisition of their six C-17s. This aircraft helped launch the re-set of the Aussie Air Force by providing reach, range, and capability, which the RAAF had never had before. And underlying the C-17 acquisition is participation in a global sustainment program, which enhances the ability of the aircraft to operate globally.

Prior to coming to Australia, I spoke with Jim Silva, a senior logistician with the U.S. Pacific Air Forces staff in Honolulu, about this. “With our global sustainment program, if one of our C-17s breaks in Australia, they have C-17 parts. We don’t even have to negotiate anything because there is pre-set agreement that we just trade parts. All of their parts are certified and can be used on any C-17 aircraft around the world. So we can go take an Aussie part and put it on an Air Force airplane, and vice versa; they can even use a U.S. Air Force part if one of their jets lands here in Hickam. The system is managed across the enterprise.”

An important addition to shaping the reach, range and sustainability of the RAAF is the coming of the Airbus Military MRTT tanker to the fleet. The fleet of five aircraft will be fully operational by 2015 and will be joined in the region by six Singapore Airbus tankers – and the Aussies clearly intend to work closely with Singapore to build out a regional collaborative fleet.

Two of the five planes were at Amberly during the visit. Three of the five Aussie tanker aircraft are currently involved in maintenance, upgrade, testing, with residual acquisition activities in Madrid and Australia. The squadron fleet should be at full strength by 2015.

Last year, in combination with the C-17, the KC-30A squadron supported several F-18 deployments to Guam and to Darwin and Tindal, which demonstrated the ability to move an air wing and support it at extended range with tanker and lift support. This year the squadron supported movement of Aussie F-18s from the U.S. across the Pacific and back to Australia. Both operations underscored capabilities that are part of shaping a 21st century Australian force for Pacific defence.

From discussions at the base and in Canberra, it is clear that the squadron is a work in progress but represents a signi­ficant boost in capability for the RAAF – and a clear advantage. Standing up the squadron, finishing the procurement, and starting initial use of the tanker is a prelude for what comes next – adding capabilities to the tanker itself, working through the best ways to work out its interoperable role in the region and beyond.

The squadron has begun operations and support to the RAAF, but is still part of the effort to finish the acquisition process. This is the first operational squadron of MRTT tankers and, as the launch customer, is working through the launch point for the foundational capabilities of the tanker.
There have been problems with the boom on the tanker, but according to the head of the MRTT program in the Australian MOD, is well on the way to being resolved. According to Air Vice-Marshal (AVM) Chris Deeble, “We expect the boom to be to complete testing and undergo acceptance around third quarter of 2014.”

He indicated that the MRTT boom is a very advanced system that provides significantly more capability than existing systems. He has been working on the program for some time and commented that challenges with the boom have been both software and hardware. “There are elements of the hardware which have posed problems aerodynamically; and the integration of the software and hardware to ensure the required operating envelope have taken some time to develop. We are conducting the final Developmental and Qualification Test and Evaluation should be complete by mid 2014. We are focused on providing the RAAF with a firm basis for growing the boom capability by the end of 2014. Working collaboratively with Airbus Defense Systems through these final phases of the program will be key to delivering a world class tanker capability to the RAAF.”

Clearly, the Singapore decision validates the position taken by the Aussie RAAF officer. Indeed, AVM Deeble indicated that supporting Singapore during their acquisition program will remain a ­priority for RAAF and will ensure an interoperable regional MRTT capability.

Early Warning and Control
The next major capability that has been added, is the first software upgradeable aircraft (with the F-35 to follow) to provide for airborne battle management. The Aussies have purchased six ‘Wedgetail’ airborne early warning & control (AEW&C) aircraft from Boeing (built around the 737 airframe) with the revolutionary Multi-Role Electronically Scanned Array or MESA MESA radar from Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems inside (sort of like Intel inside).

I visited the Wedgetail squadron at the Williamtown, RAAF base on 6 March 2014 where I was able to tour the aircraft. Several members joined in a round table discussion with me afterwards.

It became clear that the squadron, which has a distinguished combat record, is approaching the aircraft with a sense of enthusiasm, adventure and willingness to explore new ways it might be used. The backgrounds of the squadron are diverse, with navy and air force operators mixed with a wide range of airborne surveillance and battle management experience – including several years of operational experience with the RAF on the AWACS.

Australia is in the rather odd situation of being at the leading edge of 21st century changes, including working with the USAF’s main contribution to this effort, the F-22.

According to the Squadron Commander, the system is “on the books” and ready to go to serve Australian needs and to contribute to coalition defense.
The Squadron Commander considers the key focus going forward to be three fold: grow, integrate and prepare. Growth: to fill out the squadron and enhance its operational capabilities. Integrate: to build the squadron’s ability to work within the battlespace, to work effectively with other Aussie forces and with coalition partners. Prepare: the system will continually evolve.

The ‘always evolving’ part is not widely appreciated. This is a software-upgradeable aircraft with a defined launch point (IOC) but no fixed end point (FOC). The system will always be evolving and growing as the software code is rewritten to reflect events and demands from the squadron (again similar to the F-35).

The squadron works through its experience and shapes change orders which get sent to procurement authorities to sort out priorities for the next round of upgrades.

How such a new system differs from previous was outlined by one participant in the roundtable as follows: “We have in the same time frame bought a CRC system full up which will look pretty much like it is in 20 years; with Wedgetail, it will look nothing like it does now in 20 years.”

And make no mistake: this is not simply a new form of AWACS. The AWACS is pushing the upper limit of what it can do. The MESA radar on the Wedgetail is a ‘whole other animal’. Over time, it will reshape what battle management radar can do in working with new aviation assets. The Wedgetail versus the AWACS also allows the system to become operational in flight significantly faster. And the Aussies operate the aircraft with no technicians aboard, which means they can get significant results within the operational envelope.

Coalition exercises are seen as a key venue for evolving the capabilities of the Wedgetail over time.

And indeed, this has already proven to be the case. According to participants in the squadron roundtable, when the Wedgetail came to its first Red Flag exercise, it was the new boy on the block and partners treated them, understandably, with kid gloves. But this was in the midst of sequestration so the U.S. was reducing flying time for the AWACS, and the Wedgetail immediately filled in and began to do coalition C2 for the exercise.

Fast forward to this year’s Red Flag Nellis exercise. This time, the Wedgetail was an accepted partner and operated both day and night on coalition operations.

As one participant said: “In a very short period of time, the system has evolved to take on greater responsibilities. And mastering an evolutionary process is what we are positioning ourselves in the squadron, both with regard to our own and coalition forces.”

Another participant noted that “because of the growth potential of the system in response to operational realities, we do not need to waste resources on redesigning the system prior to new capabilities showing up. We are a network management system, so a key driver of the evolution will clearly be other assets emerging and then our working out with the new system our next code rewrite.”

When I talked with General Herbert J. “Hawk” Carlisle, PACAF Commander in Hawaii, he noted as well the important role the Wedgetail can play. “I have been on the aircraft and it just recently participated in Red Flag 2014. It is a very capable aircraft, but when it first showed up at an allied exercise in 2010 it had serious challenges with regard to interoperability. There have been huge strides with regard to its capability to be interoperable.”

Fighter Technology
The final major piece to be added is the F-35, which is embraced by the RAAF leadership as disruptive technology. From their perspective, it is not about doing things you can do now with a replacement aircraft; it is about using a transformational system to do the things you cannot do now.

The Aussie approach was discussed before, during and after a workshop held by the Williams Foundation on behalf of the Australian COS of the RAAF. Entitled Air Combat Operations: 2025 and Beyond, the core emphasis was the impact the F-35 will have on reshaping the Australian combat approach in ways that appropriate to challenges being faced in the region and beyond. Discussions were on leveraging fifth generation technology to generate ongoing air combat development in the decades ahead.

The Australian F-35 will enter into an environment of change, and the central question addressed during this seminar was how to accelerate the kind of change that will be necessary to deal with the threats and challenges in the neighborhood and beyond in the years ahead.

At the heart of the program were three speakers: Squadron Leader Matthew Harper, 1 Sqn, Royal Australian Air Force; USAF LCol “Chip” Berke and the VMX-22 Commander Mike Orr. They addressed the question of what the fifth generation experience was all about and how that experience would affect the evolution of the force in the decade ahead. Having operators address the issue of transformation and transition really focused the audience, which included significant attendance by the next generation RAAF officers.

The USMC began its rotational engagement in Australia at the end of March, and the potential opportunity inherent in the RAAF evolution of combat approaches and that of the modernization of the USMC approach both in the Pacific and in the MAGTF is clear. In other words, the opportunity is not just for training but shaping relevant capabilities for 21st century operations.

Berke and Orr are getting used to being asked to think through the future based on their experiences with these new combat systems.

Colonel Orr was “impressed that the RAAF is engaging in a process of examining the impact of the aircraft well before we are turning wrenches and flying the aircraft. As an air force they are thinking about the strategic impact of the F-35 on their operations, and how they are going to use it as a joint and coalition enabler. There is a clear recognition of what they are getting into. They are not buying it as a one for one enabler but as a tool to do things they simply cannot do today.”

Comments by LCol Berke really hit the nail on the head. “What I enjoyed the most about the interaction was the enthusiasm and embracing the future. This was distinct from my experience at home where skepticism and resistance to change is so constant. The RAAF clearly is embracing the future and are enthusiastic about the coming of the F-35 as a key enabler of the future. There is no question of should we, it’s how do we.”

Australia fully embraces the necessity for the aircraft and are fixed on its transformational role. In short, they are demonstrating that a mid-weight power with limited financial means, operating in a tough neighborhood, can shape a transformational approach to airpower and work towards a better integrated joint and coalition force. It can be done.

Robbin Laird is a defense analyst and journalist based in Virginia.
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