Towards a sixth-generation air combat capability for the RAAF
12 Jan 2023|

Last month, the world got its first look at the US Air Force’s new long-range bomber, the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider. The company has called it ‘the world’s first sixth-generation aircraft’ and says it will incorporate enhanced stealth technology based on new manufacturing techniques and materials. The B-21’s open-systems architecture will allow new technology, capabilities and weapons to be ‘seamlessly incorporated through agile software upgrades and built-in hardware flexibility’.

The importance of the B-21 as a potential capability choice for Australia is covered in a recent ASPI report by Marcus Hellyer and Andrew Nicholls. But the ‘sixth generation’ tag alone is important, because it highlights the path for the USAF’s ‘next-generation air dominance’, or NGAD, system. NGAD isn’t a platform but a system of systems combining a crewed multirole combat aircraft with loyal-wingman-type autonomous systems.

Australia’s development of the MQ-28 Ghost Bat loyal-wingman system for the Royal Australian Air Force means that it’s already well positioned to contribute to NGAD, were Australia to approach the US with participation in mind. Capabilities such as the Ghost Bat may be relevant to some of the other next-generation air combat systems being developed around the world. And the MQ-28 itself could be developed into a larger, more capable platform that could sit at the mid-point between the F-35 fifth-generation fighter and a larger platform such as the B-21.

Australia’s strike and air combat capabilities rest on 72 F-35As, all of which are expected to be fully operational this year. Sometime this year, the Department of Defence, acting on advice from the defence strategic review, will consider acquisition of either an additional 28 F-35As or the MQ-28A Ghost Bat under Project Air 6000 Phase 7. Whichever platform is chosen, it will ultimately replace the RAAF’s 24 F/A-18F Super Hornets by the early 2030s. The RAAF also operates the E/A-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft, with a total of 11 currently in service. So, the RAAF’s strike and air combat force seems to be coalescing around the F-35, potentially the Ghost Bat, and the Growler.

At the same time, the USAF is charting its path through NGAD to replace the F-22 Raptor, and the US Navy continues to work on its F/A-XX concept to replace its F/A-18E/Fs in around the same timeframe as is being considered for the RAAF’s Super Hornets. The UK, together with Japan and Italy, is looking to develop the ‘global combat air project’, of which the Tempest sixth-generation fighter will be a central component. This marks a historic step both for Britain in forging new ties with Japan that will give the UK a larger role in Asia, and for Japan in collaborating with new partners beyond its traditional partnership with the US. Meanwhile, France’s Dassault Aviation and Airbus are set to move to the next stage of development of the ‘future combat air system’, a sixth-generation fighter that like NGAD is a system of systems rather than a single platform.

In effect, the development of Western airpower is approaching an inflection point in a transition to future air combat architectures. The consistent trend across all three major projects—US, French and UK–Japanese–Italian—is crewed–autonomous teaming, with a high-end sixth-generation crewed platform at the centre of a networked air warfare capability.

It’s important that Australia take full advantage of this moment to pivot decisively towards next-generation capabilities that could initially complement, and ultimately replace, the F-35A. The objective must be a larger and more powerful RAAF with greater range and ability for ‘impactful projection’ across the Indo-Pacific. To get there, Australia should consider investing in partnerships on the next generation of air combat systems. Initially, that would comprise an autonomous component, such as the locally developed MQ-28A Ghost Bat or an evolved successor, and F-35s. At the same time, though, Australia needs to commit to acquiring a sixth-generation crewed combat aircraft in the 2030s that’s optimised for long-range air defence alongside autonomous systems. It would be a mistake to ignore the potential offered by sixth-generation capabilities in favour of relying only on the F-35A through to the 2040s. Acquiring additional F-35s under Air 6000 Phase 7 shouldn’t be the default capability solution, because it won’t address the RAAF’s lack of a long-range capability.

The retirement of the F-111C in 2010 left a clear gap in Australia’s long-range strike capability that has yet to be filled. Under the current force structure, the RAAF cannot operate deep inside the highly contested anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) environments that are likely to exist to the north of the Indonesian archipelago. At the same time, the challenge posed by China’s long-range air and missile capabilities, which can strike at northern Australian bases from inside that A2/AD envelope, will make it more difficult for Australia to support the US and other key partners in the Indo-Pacific. So far, there appears to be no effective capability response to the Chinese long-range missile threat, though maybe something will emerge from the defence strategic review when it reports in March.

Australia’s force structure lacks the means for defending Australian bases or supporting forward coalition forces directly from Australia without forward host-nation support. Developing long-range strike—perhaps with the B-21 or other capabilities—is only one element of a more complex capability solution to the distant defence of Australia. Undertaking long-range offensive and defensive counter-air missions with a mix of crewed and autonomous platforms—at long range and by exploiting effective stealth and crewed–autonomous teaming—must also be a requirement.

The development of advanced air combat capabilities could certainly be promoted as a new priority area for AUKUS, allowing Australia to work with the US on NGAD and the F/A-XX as well as with the UK on the Tempest. It would complement work already done with MQ-28A Ghost Bat and, were Australia to acquire the B-21, it would make sense for such a capability to be seen as part of a system of systems with fifth- and sixth-generation crewed fighters, long-range bombers and loyal-wingman-type autonomous systems.

By seizing the moment apparent in this inflection point in airpower, Australia should identify a goal of developing a larger and more powerful air force, with greater operational reach, even in highly contested airspace. Such a force could operate directly to deter or, if necessary, defend against the growing threat posed by China’s long-range strategic air and missile capabilities. Without this, Australia will be unable to deliver impactful projection far beyond the archipelago to its north. That would, in effect, be more of the same: a focus on the defence of Australia based on an assumption that we can effectively defend the sea–air gap.