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Talking to the chiefs: Leo Davies (part 1)

Posted By on September 8, 2017 @ 06:00

The war against the Islamic State terror group, or Daesh, in Iraq and Syria has demonstrated the importance of Australia’s soldiers, sailors and airmen working as a closely integrated joint force, says RAAF chief Leo Davies.

‘Joint fighting is absolutely critical’, Air Marshal Davies tells The Strategist. ‘The fight we have now against Daesh has clearly indicated that we fight better in a joint environment’, he says.

‘It’s no longer a navy fight, or an army fight, or an air force fight. It’s a whole-of-government effort that includes the intelligence agencies and others. It’s all of them. By bringing the pieces together we get a better effect.’

Davies says he doesn’t believe the RAAF has explained well enough how effectively it’s performed in this joint environment. ‘I don’t think the army understands what we can do on the battlefield and we don’t understand what the army thinks we can do on the battlefield. There’s a real need for the army, navy and air force, and particularly the intelligence agencies, to have a closer relationship and use that knowledge to fight better.’

One crucial element is sorting out communications and networking, ‘We get to major joint exercises and spend the first couple of days saying, “I wonder if those two things talk”. That’s ridiculous’, Davies says.

In Iraq, the RAAF’s air task group was able to drop bombs with great precision to help Iraqi troops, many of them trained by Australian army instructors, to continue their advance.

‘Air can’t win that fight just by dropping JDAMs’, Davies says. The JDAM, or joint direct attack munition, is a lethally accurate guided bomb dropped by strike aircraft such as the RAAF’s ‘classic’ Hornets and Super Hornets. The air crews can target one end of a building with a ‘low collateral’ bomb containing a relatively small amount of explosive, to avoid damaging a structure next door that might house civilians.

The troops on the ground need to know how the RAAF’s weapons work, says Davies. ‘If the ground troops aren’t trained to know what to do after the JDAM has taken care of a mortar position, then there’s no point hitting it because there’ll be another one there tomorrow. It’s got to be a combined effect—good intelligence to know where to go and proper training to know how to stay alive and take best advantage of what you’ve got available.’

Davies says he’s pleased to hear of a young army officer’s comment to The Strategist that an infantry soldier’s favourite weapon is, indeed, a JDAM. Not so long ago, the RAAF chief says, he’d have thought many soldiers would have said that ‘a bomb’s a bomb’.

‘When you talk to them about fusing, and about a 250-pounder, 500-pounder, 1,000-pounder, 2,000-pounder and options and angles of arrival and ask what effect they want, they’ll say they just want the target blown up. They’re surprised to hear that we can dial in an effect and we can ask them what they want. To me that’s the best appreciation of what we can do.’

Davies says that while soldiers need to understand what the air force can do, the RAAF needs to understand what the soldiers want. ‘We have to have the same language here, a joint language. I don’t think we’ve focused on that enough yet, but we’re getting there.’

Davies says that making the ADF a truly integrated force is a priority of the ADF’s top leaders: the ADF chief, Mark Binskin; the vice chief, Ray Griggs; the head of Joint Operations Command, David Johnston; and the army and navy chiefs, Angus Campbell and Tim Barrett. ‘We have an extraordinary relationship that allows that conversation to happen freely. We back each other in by supporting the joint outcome before we support the service outcome.’

The air task group’s high performance in Iraq reflects well on the RAAF, and on the way it learned lessons from past deployments, says Davies. The task group construct has been practised extensively at exercises in Australia and abroad, and the Wedgetail command and control aircraft performs extremely well as a fighter controller.

‘We’ve grown our targeting and intelligence abilities to the point of sophistication where Australians are not just producing what the ADF needs, they’re recognised internationally. If they say this is good intel, or this is a good target set, then that’s a tick, there’s no questions asked. So when we got to the coalition environment, the reaction we got was “there are the Aussies, they’re good”.

‘We didn’t have to go through that barrier of “we’ll give you this little bit today and see how you go and we might give you some more tomorrow”’, says Davies. ‘That made the transition into theatre really quite seamless. For the size of the outfit we have, we’re dropping more than our fair share of bombs. We’re contributing as much to the intelligence picture as any other nation—except, of course, the US through its sheer mass.’

The RAAF’s KC-30A multi-role tanker transport is constantly refuelling coalition aircraft on their long-range operations, and the Wedgetail is the command-and-control aircraft of choice in the coalition. ‘It’s reliable—not just in getting airborne but in the availability of its systems.’ Davies says the Wedgetail sees more, sees further and sees with greater clarity that any other aircraft of its type. It burns less fuel and stays airborne longer.

‘And our maintenance teams are doing extraordinary things in maintaining and understanding the aircraft.’

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