Talking to the chiefs: Leo Davies (part 2)

RAAF chief Leo Davies recalls sitting in a classroom learning to fly the F111 bomber. ‘You had to learn every nut, every bolt, every system, every emergency checklist, every pressure’, Air Marshal Davies tells The Strategist. ‘Then you had to learn how to operate it.’

Even though the technological complexity of the RAAF is increasing exponentially, Davies says personnel are adapting much more quickly to new equipment than anyone expected. ‘To my mind we’ll shrink conversion times. In the transition from the P-3 Orion [maritime patrol aircraft] to the P-8 Poseidon, we found they went naturally to it, like a 10-year-old with an iPad.’

Davies says it’s taking much less time to convert crews to new aircraft. ‘This idea that, “Wow, we’ve got this modern technology and it’s going to take ages for people to adapt and we’ve got to have special training”, is wrong’, he says. ‘It’s actually the reverse. They take to these new systems faster than they would have learned to operate the systems we had before.’

When he became chief of the RAAF, Davies wrote a ‘commander’s intent’. It’s not a Clausewitzian-style grand strategy of how to go to war, he says. ‘It’s about how to manage our business. That described for me, and more importantly forced me to describe for air force, what I thought were the important elements of leading the RAAF. It’s a way to articulate what’s important so that Corporal Smith on the hanger floor in [RAAF Base] Amberley or Pearce can understand what’s important to air force and why certain decisions are made and how they can help.’

And in terms of building a ‘fifth generation’ air force, the RAAF chief has no doubt he’ll be able to find the people he needs to run its F-35 joint strike fighters, the submarine-hunting Poseidons, the Wedgetail command and control aircraft, the KC-30 tankers and the other new hardware in the arsenal. ‘We’ve got enough smart people so it’s not a numbers game directly.’

A priority is people management. ‘It’s about the RAAF’s attraction to a young person finishing up primary school and starting high school’, Davies says. ‘Why would air force be an attractive place to work? What would entice them to go on with their education to join air force and what would allow us to get the best young people who come out of high school?’

The RAAF’s people are more important to its effectiveness than its equipment, Davies says. ‘If we get that right, and we are on the path to getting it right, we could hand them a tennis ball and they’ll make it work. The innovation will come, not so much from the equipment but from the people who use it.’

Davies says the days when a RAAF career meant constantly uprooting the family to move from base to base are over. ‘Many of us think of an air force career as spanning 30 years and 15 removals, get a haircut and get yelled at, and march and do drill and fly good aeroplanes and fix good aeroplanes and stock good warehouses. That’s way too narrow now.’

For a long time, careers were managed along the lines of people being able to turn a spanner, control an aircraft, drop a bomb or fill any other role. ‘It’s much more than that now’, Davies says. ‘It’s about becoming air power advocates, spokesmen and spokeswomen for air force and air power who will allow army and navy and defence industry to be educated, to know what we do and how we do it and how they might help us. Young people are looking at all this as being less military but still having that edge of “I could go to combat”.’

Personnel could leave to work in industry and then bring that experience back into the air force.

Davies says the RAAF is attracting many international ‘lateral’ recruits. ‘Most have been to Australia, they’ve seen Australians on exercises or they’ve been with us on operations. They’ve seen our equipment and how we manage our people and families. They’re largely at the O3 to O5 level (flight lieutenant to wing commander) so they have experience. They’re here because they want to fly a Hornet or because they want to fly P-8 Poseidon rather than a P-3.’ Recent arrivals have come from the US, Canada, Britain and India.

Another key task is to make the transition to the F-35 as smooth as it can be. The older ‘classic’ Hornets would gradually be phased out and Super Hornets would replace them on operations. If it’s decided to keep the Super Hornets flying well into the future, that will mean upgrading them.

The classic Hornet is as good in its ground attack role as any other aircraft in the Middle East theatre, says Davies. In some conditions its sensors perform better than those on the Super Hornet.

The RAAF plans to buy 72 F-35s at this stage and Davies says it will need to decide in about 2022–23 whether to ask the government if it wants to increase that to 102 and, if so, which of the three variants of joint strike fighters should be bought. ‘And is there something like a UCAV [unmanned combat aerial vehicle] in that 2030 timeframe that would be better suited to the role we need to do? Amongst those options is another squadron of F-35s.’

That would get F-35 numbers up to 92 or 94 and then, over the life of the F-35, there’d be the opportunity to buy ‘attrition’ aircraft as replacements.

Is there likely to be an unmanned F-35? ‘Not in 2020, 2025 or 2030’, says Davies. ‘But in 2035 or 2040, I reckon that’s a real possibility, whether it’s an F-35 design or a sixth-generation fighter. It could look different but with the characteristics we like about the F-35.’