Replacing the Rhino
30 Sep 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Patrick Bouquet.

The 2016 Defence White Paper (DWP16) signals that ‘options to replace the Super Hornets in the late 2020s will be considered in the early 2020s in the light of developments in technology and the strategic environment and will be informed by our experience in operating the Joint Strike Fighters’. As Andrew Davies and I previously argued, rather than rushing such a decision, Australia should pause to consider exploiting the revolutionary potential offered by Unmanned Combat Air Systems (UCAS).  In this regard, it’s worth looking at the USAF’s Air Superiority 2030 (AS-2030) Flight Plan, which is the latest American perspective on the future of air power.

The USAF is thinking about the implications of improving peer capabilities in fighter aircraft, sensors and weapons, the threat to US advantages in Space and Cyberspace, and the emergence of hypersonic weapons. It concludes that ‘the Air Force’s projected force structure in 2030 is not capable of fighting and winning against this array of potential adversary capabilities.’

It marks something of a change from previous USAF thinking, as the focus isn’t entirely on aircraft. The plan proposes a mix of capabilities operating ‘in and across the air, space and cyberspace domains’, rather than a ‘single capability’ to provide a ‘silver bullet’ solution. The aim is to deploy new capabilities rapidly, rather than wait years or decades for ‘next generation’ platforms. This eschews the concept of a ‘sixth generation fighter’. It notes that ‘gaining and maintaining air superiority in 2030 and beyond requires a new approach.’

So as the RAAF thinks about its future capabilities, should it continue with more of the same, or should it explore more radical force structures? Purchasing more F-35As to replace the F/A-18Fs seems antithetical to current USAF thinking that’s heading in a different direction.

I’m not advocating scrapping the F-35A—they’ll form the core of the ADF’s strike and air combat capability for the foreseeable future. But the USAF has begun to recognise that adversary electronic warfare (EW), cyberwarfare and counter-space capabilities, counter-stealth, long-range ground-based air defences, and advanced beyond-visual range air-to-air missiles will erode the F-35’s current advantages in stealth, data fusion and situational awareness.

AS-2030 raises the idea of a Penetrating Counter Air (PCA) capability, along with an Arsenal Plane (in effect a very large flying launchpad for UCAS, long-range missiles, and potentially even directed energy weapons).  The B-21 Raider bomber is central to the concept, but perhaps the PCA and Arsenal Plane concepts are more relevant for Australia.

The Arsenal Plane would stay out of harm’s way, and expand the ‘punch’ of an air force, with F-35s or UCAS acting as forward nodes in the network to cue munitions launch from the Arsenal Plane in the rear. As for PCA, for which analysis of possibilities begins in 2017, USAF thinking emphasises rapid acquisition of innovative capabilities spread across a networked ‘system of systems’ rather than a single platform. The PCA capability, which could be a mix of manned and unmanned systems, would escort B-21 bombers or protect the Arsenal Plane, if necessary. As is the case now, it would be supported by EW, space, and cyberspace capabilities, but the implication of the document is that air operations would be much more closely integrated with these domains which may assume primacy over air platforms. So as domain boundaries blur, labels like ‘fighter’ or ‘bomber’ will become less meaningful—what matters are delivered effects.

Australia’s strategic geography suggests that long-range, persistence and endurance is important for airpower. DWP16’s Strategic Defence Framework implies a requirement to operate well beyond the ‘sea-air gap’, and the South China Sea must clearly be a key region of interest. Shorter-range manned platforms like the F-35 are not suited in this regard because they could not reach the South China Sea from bases in Northern Australia, even with airborne refuelling. Instead they would be dependent on forward bases, which would then be vulnerable to Chinese land-attack capabilities, or simply not be offered due to political pressure on the host country from Beijing. So larger platforms, like the Arsenal Plane, or a long-range PCA capability, would allow the RAAF to project decisive effect or support a ‘distant blockade’ strategy for Coalition partners, without the risks imposed by short-range systems.

It’s unlikely that the USAF’s AS-2030 document will be the final word on the subject. Aspects of it will be overtaken as concepts are further developed, but it’s an important milestone in an increasingly important debate on the future of airpower. Buying more F-35’s to replace the F/A-18Fs tends to tie Australia into an older way of thinking at a time when concepts are in flux, and we could miss a window of opportunity for exploiting revolutionary capabilities suggested in AS-2030. So Australia rushes into such a decision at its peril.