Air Vice-Marshal McDonald Views the Way Ahead for the RAAF in the Joint Operations Space


2016-03-30 By Robbin Laird

During the first day of the RAAF Conference on Airpower, I had a chance to sit down and to talk with the Deputy Chief of Staff of the RAAF, Air Vice-Marshal McDonald.

This is the third time I have had the opportunity to interview him, initially in his previous post as Commander of Air Mobility Group and twice during his current role as Deputy Chief.

The focus of the first interview in January 2015 was upon the Middle East deployment of the RAAF during what the Aussies call Operation Okra, and upon the deployment of a completely integrated air package of fighters, C-17s, the KC-30A and the E-7 or the Wedgetail.

Question: The movement of the RAAF from Australia to Iraq was a major statement about the self-deployment capability of the RAAF enabled by the AMG.  Could you describe this effort?

 Air Commodore McDonald: This was a defining moment for the RAAF and really the first time we self deployed an air combat package, equipment and personnel over such a long distance and in such a short period of time. 

KC-30A MRTT and E-7A Wedgetail conduct Air to Air refuelling testing in the airspace near RAAF Williamtown. *** Local Caption *** Air-to-air refuelling trials between KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport and E-7A Wedgetail From 1-13 June 2015, air-to-air refuelling (AAR) trials were conducted between a RAAF KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) and an E-7A Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW
KC-30A MRTT and E-7A Wedgetail conduct Air to Air refuelling testing in the airspace near RAAF Williamtown.

The maturing of the KC-30A was the game changer, in conjunction with our heavy lift fleet.

 As you know from visiting the KC-30A squadron earlier this year, we have been very focused on assembling a combat focused capability piece by piece. This has not been without its challenges, as the KC-30A still has a foot in both the operational space and project space.

 However, both the project and operational teams are working the issues collegiately. Operation Okra has accelerated the maturing process of the KC-30A. 

The focus of the second interview held in August 2015 at his office in Canberra, Air Vice-Marshal McDonald highlighted the Plan Jericho thought process and how to shape ways to enhance the ability of the air platforms to work more effectively with one another and to become an effective part of the transformation of the joint force.

He discussed the C-130Js and C-17s as an example of how the RAAF was looking at transformation.

Question: An example of your transformation approach has been what you are doing with your C-130Js. Could you describe the process and how you are addressing the future of this platform as a joint asset?

 Air Vice Marshal McDonald: With the KC-30A and the C-17, we really do not need to use the C-130J as a transport aircraft.

 And we are adding the C-27J to do that mission with a wider variety of austere locations in the region where we might need to operate.

 What then with regard to the C-130J?

 A clear path is to make it a combat asset integrated with the ground forces to inert them into areas of interest.

 But to do this effectively we need to add SATCOM and ISR capabilities, which we have done, are doing. 

A Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) refuels a United States Air Force C-17A Globemaster III transport. *** Local Caption *** On 10 February 2016, a RAAF KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) conducted its first air-to-air refuelling with a C-17A Globemaster III transport, flying from Edwards Air Force Base in California. The five-hour sortie saw 39 contacts between the KC-30A and C-17A aircraft, with approximately 6,800 kilograms of fuel transferred to the C-17A via the KC-30A’s Advanced Refuelling Boom System (ARBS). The trial is part of a series of flights being made by a KC-30A with a range of USAF aircraft, and is a precursor to refuelling the RAAF's own C-17As in the near future.
A Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) refuels a United States Air Force C-17A Globemaster III transport.

By doing so this triggers a change in Army whereby they can look to link digitally with RAAF assets to create a more effective joint combat package.

 By enabling them to have all that decision authority, and full understanding of situational awareness aboard the C-130J, you then have a very good joint blade to spearhead an operation.

 And we are doing similar things with the C-17 whereby we have added broadband communication to the aircraft along with Air View 360 to the back of the aircraft to provide situational awareness and communications tools for our troops onboard.

This is Plan Jericho in action, which is a con-ops driven approach.

One looks for the appropriate technology for the appropriate platform to shape the effect which you need to create in the battlespace, rather than having simply a technological driven approach.

In the most recent interview conducted on March 15, 2016 in Canberra, the Deputy Chief of Staff discussed how the RAAF was working with Army and Navy to shape cross-cutting transformation.

This clearly is a work in progress, and whatever success the RAAF has had in launching their new platforms and enhancing their ability to work with one another was important in and of itself, but also as a foundation for shaping more effective joint solutions.

And by joint solutions, he was not talking about how airpower has supported the ground forces for the past decade in the land wars, but shaping new ways to enhance the ability of airpower to intersect with and to reshape the capabilities of the ground maneuver and naval forces in the extended battlespace.

This meant the next round of modernization needed to focus on ways to configure air platforms to provide for greater interactivity with the ground and naval forces as well as those forces providing enhanced contributions to airpower in terms of achieving the desired combat effects.

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Getting to this point has been hard or challenging for the RAAF, as two of the key air platforms, the Wedgetail and the KC-30A, were not esy to bring on line and to become full members of the RAAF.

“Some may disagree, but working through complex problems, such as those encountered with the KC-30A and Wedgetail is crucial learning the skills necessary to find an effective way ahead to deal with next round of complex of problems and challenges.”

And he underscored that the way the RAAF has succeeded is how they will continue to work in the future.

“We needed to get the platforms in the hands of the warfighters as early as possible so that we were addressing real needs as opposed to lists of requirements.

And by getting real combat experience, we could determine where our resources for modernization should be applied to get the maximum effect.”

In the case of the Wedgetail, the ability to work with fighters and to operate in the battlespace is now combat proven; the next round of modification of the software onboard the aircraft really needed to focus on the engagement with the naval forces, or to find ways for naval systems to work with Wedgetail modifications and vice-versa to deliver the kind of joint effect the ADF needed to achieve.

In the case of the KC-30A, with its situational awareness already onboard the aircraft, and with the con-ops being practiced by crews today in combat situations, the way ahead in support of the ground maneuver forces and naval forces was a key consideration for what to put on the aircraft, in terms of ISR, or C2 support.

And working with industry is seen as a key part of shaping the interactive modernizations, which the RAAF and the ADF have in mind.

Air Vice Marshal after the Second Line of Defense Interview at his office in Canberra, August 3, 2015. Credit: RAAF
Air Vice Marshal after the Second Line of Defense Interview at his office in Canberra, August 3, 2015. Credit: RAAF

And in succeeding with now combat proven KC-30As and Wedgetails, has happened as a result of opening the aperature in the working relationship between government and industry.

This is also a key foundational element in the next phase of shaping combat capability.

McDonald went out of his way to praise what he saw as forward leaning thinking from the Army leadership.

Army work on networks in support of the ground forces, and ways to master them operationally in difficult situations, was a key element of how the RAAF needed to think about the intersection of their own networks with the joint force.

He told the story of the now head of the Australian Army when he was then Major-General Campbell and working in the Middle East, McDonald came into his office, while he was writing up his post-operations report and said “I don’t believe I have enough balance in the piece with regard to the air role. Could you please contribute to it?

“He is truly a joint officer, and we in the RAAF can learn from him as we proceed with Plan Jericho.”

With regard to the way ahead, McDonald emphasized “the need for army and navy to understand our RAAF systems and ways we might modernize them so we can provide the best input to them.

We need to understand how best to provide support to one another to get the kind of maritime or land strike outcome is required by the joint force.”

The F-35 is viewed as potentially disruptive technology, which can be a key part of transforming the evolving joint approach.

“The F-35 for me is a platform on which one can increase the desired capability through software upgrades to enable you to mitigate or get around threats posed to the joint force.

In the past, air platforms simply did not enable you to shape such an approach. It is now an essential element of shaping the spiral development of the joint force itself.”