Air power in Australia’s future strategy: part one
19 Mar 2014|

An F/A-18 Hornet performs manoeuvres over RAAF Base East Sale during the filming of a Grand Prix television event.

Last week I spoke at the RAAF Air Power Conference in Canberra on the theme ‘Airpower in Australia’s future strategy’ (full text available here (PDF)) the essence of which I’ll set out over the course of two blog posts.

That there’ll indeed be air power in Australia’s future strategy isn’t in doubt. The Air Force has a relatively young fleet of aircraft and current acquisition plans that continue the technological refresh. Much of our air power future is the product of decisions already taken by past Governments and Defence Ministers.

That still leaves room to debate the types of air power we will deploy, the strategic circumstances and the purposes for which air power will be used. In my mind, there are seven key questions relating to air power.

First, do we have the right appreciation of the strategic outlook? Recent policy statements have left mixed messages. The 2009 Defence White Paper painted a picture of greater strategic complexity and uncertainty emerging in the Asia-Pacific. The response to this was a plan for a significant long-term increase in defence spending and a strong focus on maritime capabilities.

Contrast that with the three major foreign and defence policy statements released by the Gillard government. The Asian Century White Paper was remarkable for the optimism it expressed about long-term stable growth in the Asia-Pacific. The Prime Minister’s January 2013 National Security Statement described Australia’s strategic landscape as ‘largely positive’ and ‘relatively benign’. The 2013 Defence White Paper significantly moderated the language on China and on Australia’s role in the region without changing force structure settings or seriously addressing spending cuts.

The policy community needs to come to a balanced view about how to align economics and national security perspectives. We need to think seriously about the continuing challenge presented by the risk of state-on-state conflict. At the other end of the conflict spectrum we need to think in broader terms about how to handle state fragility.

The recently released United States Quadrennial Defence Review states that America’s strategic outlook is becoming ‘more volatile, more unpredictable and, in some instances more threatening’. In my view, the QDR captures the strategic trends correctly. There are definitely risks and threats to Australian interests in the wider region. That’s the starting point for thinking about the utility of air power.

Second, what do current uses of air power in the region tell us about likely future uses? In Northeast Asia, we are seeing the emergence of competitive modernisation in weapons acquisition. Some call this arms racing. This is by no means limited to air power but air power is a key element of the force structure plans of China, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. In Southeast Asia, we see smaller-scale acquisitions that’ll generate limited air power capabilities for a number of states. Singapore is clearly leading in generating high-quality capabilities. Less visible, but just as significant, is the development of more effective air defence systems region-wide and more effective enablers of air power, from training to logistics.

In our broader region, we see the use of air power daily, as a way of demonstrating countries’ interests and capabilities to their neighbours. For example, China’s declaration of an ADIZ; the increasing use of air assets to assert sovereignty or challenge control around disputed territories; the valuable (and helpfully showy) use of air capabilities to mount national responses to disasters; and the roles of industry and acquisition programs to demonstrate national capacities.

In the Asia-Pacific, we see an intensifying pattern of using air power in ways that assert or demonstrate national interest. Even short of conflict, air power will play its role in the more competitive, riskier strategic environment we see evolving.

That leads to my third question: What’s the role for air power in a post-‘Defence of Australia’ planning environment? There won’t be a return to the debates which took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s about air power’s role in the defence of geographic Australia. That pattern of strategic events has moved on. In the 2000 White Paper, the idea that Australia would think about its own defence in the context of regional stabilisation operations emerged as a concept—this could be termed ‘Defence of Australia Plus’. The 2009 White Paper extended that thinking further afield—‘DOA Plus Plus’.

Now we should think more systematically about how far to shape air power and other capabilities to address the ‘plus plus’ aspects of Australian strategic interests. Should these drive force structure priorities? Although the defence of the Australian homeland remains a primary responsibility of government, a direct military threat to Australia is such a remote probability that it seems pointless to design our air power capabilities around only that task.

I suggest we need to think about Australian airpower in terms of three tasks. First, irreducible core tasks we should make sure we can perform without allied assistance in support of our own defence needs in Australia and our nearer region. Second, critical high-end niche roles we’d expect to deliver only in an alliance or coalition context. Third, air power capabilities we should maintain to deliver in a broader regional context.

Many air power capabilities, including for example the Growler electronic warfare aircraft, can be justified against the Australia and nearer region core tasks. And it’s a responsible policy objective to optimise some capabilities for alliance value.

You could argue that opening up a force structure debate beyond the constraints of a defence of Australia strategy will lead to an outbreak of indiscipline in equipment acquisitions. My response would be: ‘what discipline’? The only real discipline is the funding base.

In my next post I’ll discuss the thorny issue of maintaining a ‘strategic edge’ in air power, consider the role of the US alliance and end with some thoughts on the uses of air power in situations short of conventional conflict.

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.