2016-03-19 By Robbin Laird
The Williams Foundation hosted a seminar on new approaches to air-land integration.
The terms of reference for the conference were as follows:
Air forces need to be capable of delivering air and space power effects to support conventional and special operations in the land domain.
Air-Land integration is one of the most important capabilities for successful joint operations.
The last decade has seen a significant shift in how airpower has supported ground operations.
With the introduction of systems like Rover, the ability of airpower to provide precision strike to the ground forces saw a significant change in fire support from a wide variety of air platforms.
Precision air dropping in support of outposts or moving forces introduced new capabilities of support.
Yet this template of air ground is really focused on air support to the ground whereas with the shift in the global situation, a much wider set of situations are emerging whereby the air-ground integration approach will become much wider in character, and the ability to insert force rapidly, as a precision strike capability, and to be withdrawn will be a key tool in the toolbox for decision makers.
Fifth generation enabled operations will see a shift to a distributed C2 approach which will clearly change the nature of the ground-to air command system, and the with the ability of fifth generation systems to generate horizontal communications among air assets outside the boundaries of a classic AWACs directed system, the change in C2 will be very wide ranging.
The seminar will explore how the ADF can take advantage of Army’s Plan Beersheba and Air Force’s Plan Jericho to enhance Air-Land integration.
Quite obviously, the evolving capabilities of the USMC are clearly convergent with the approach, which Williams wished to foster for the future of the ADF.
Lt. General Davis highlighted at the beginning of his presentation that when he attended the Avalon Air Show and then head of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) introduced Plan Jericho, it was clear that the Marines and the RAAF were on the same page.
“I went back to the Commandant and said that we need to work more closely with the RAAF because with Plan Jericho they are onto something big with regard to innovation.”
The presentation was hard hitting, comprehensive and clearly on target for the Australian audience.
As Air Commodore Steve Roberton, Commander Air Combat Group and a former exchange officer with the USMC, commented, “If you think this was hard hitting, it was mild compared to some Marines.
The Marines are gung ho about the future and shaping new combat capabilities.
They do no like to lose.”
This theme was central to Davis’s presentation – the entire point about combat innovation was to be the best force, which America could deliver to any global crises at any time.
“We want to be the best partner to our friends; and the most feared enemy of our foes.”
Technology is important to this effort, and he highlighted that the Osprey being brought into the force was a generator of “disruptive change,” but the kind crucial to real combat innovation.
“But change is difficult; and the critics prevalent.”
He noted that if we held this conference 12 years ago, and the room was filled with Marines we would hear about all the things the Osprey could not do and why we should not go ahead. “If we brought those same Marines into the conference room now, they would have amnesia about what they thought then and press me to get more Ospreys and leverage it even more.”
But it is not just about technology – it is about “equipping Marines, not manning the equipment.”
His point was that you needed to get the new equipment into the hands of the Marines at the earliest possible moment, because the young Marines innovate in ways not anticipated when the senior leadership gets that equipment to them.
The Marines like at risk differently from the cubical commandos.
I recall a conversation I had with a well-known and oft quoted aviation analyst who told me that the Marines should have waited few years before using the F-35B because doing so now was “risky.”
I pointed out that it was inherently risky flying legacy aircraft into ever more challenging conditions than getting new equipment into the hands of Marines who would innovate rapidly in ways that could not be imagined in the chat corridors Inside the Beltway.
Davis provided several examples of innovation, but one was about the F-35.
He argued that there was no doubt that the F-35 is the right plane for the USMC.
Now that it is in the hands of Marines, they are innovating in ways which the leadership really did not anticipate and much more rapidly than might be imagined.
He described an event where the Commandant was going witness a Yuma to Nellis scenario in which F-35s would be used to support Marines in the maneuver space.
He went to the Marines working the exercise and asked: “Was everything ready for the Commandant?”
The answer was: “Sir we are not going to do exactly what you asked for and are not ready to do it that way?”
Davis commented: “The Commandant is just about here, what are you talking about?”
The Marine answered: “Frankly, the scenario you suggested was not tough enough for we wanted to take our F-35s into a more advanced SAM belt to get through and then support the Marines on the ground.”
Davis was a bit taken aback, but the innovation already evident by the squadron pilots was rewarded with a demonstrated success on the Nellis ranges.
The Commandant was impressed, and although a ground combat Marine, he argued “we need to get that plane into the hands of Marines as fast as we can.”
The DCA noted throughout his presentation that the RAAF focus on bottom up innovation with the Plan Jericho processes was what the Marines felt was central to real combat innovation.
And shaping the way ahead was really about leveraging the new platforms, shaping key enablers and then ensures that whatever follow-on platforms are bought that they build upon but push the innovation envelope.
He saw the tiltrotar experience as a crucial baseline and saw the future of Marine Corps rotor wing as tiltrotar.
He saw the Cobras, Hueys, and Yankees replaced over time by a new generation tiltrotar aircraft.
He favored developing one, which would be two seaters, and able to be either manned or unmanned to provide for the kind of flexibility which the Marines would want to reshape the capabilities and approach of the assault force.
His version of the Plan Jericho approach to building a more integrated assault force was as follows:
Every platform a SENSOR, every platform a SHOOTER, every platform a SHARE/CONNECTOR, and every platform an EW NODE.
And throughout he highlighted that the Marines were preparing for the high end fight and enhanced capabilities to operate throughout an expanded maneuver space, and able to operate from land, and sea sequentially, concurrently or jointly as the mission demanded.
With regard to equipping that force, he saw the need to build on fifth generation capabilities, multi-mission everything, spiral develop everything and leverage bottom up combat innovation.
He concluded that he saw a great opportunity to work with an ADF in transformation as the Marines went down a similar path.