An Update on the Australian Wedgetail and Its Evolution: A Discussion with Group Captain Stuart Bellingham


2017-04-07 By Robbin Laird

During my visit to Australia in April 2017, I had a chance to continue my discussions with Group Captain Stuart Bellingham, Officer Commanding Number 42 Wing, about the Wedgetail and its continuing evolution.

The Wedgetail has demonstrated in the Middle East and in high end warfare exercises that it is a very good fit for the shift to a fifth generation enabled air combat force.

Most recently, I heard from USAF and RAF personnel involved in the first Red Flag this year, how impressive they found the aircraft.

As one senior RAF pilot put it: “I would never fly with an AWACS if had a choice. I would only fly with Wedgetail.”

Obviously, Number 2 Squadron and Number 42 Wing have made an impact on air combat thinking.

In this year’s Red Flag 17-1, the F-35 and F-22 flew with RAF Typhoons and USAF F-15s along with the Sentinel UK aircraft and the Aussie Wedgetail, along with other assets as well.

A United States Air Force (USAF) F-22A Raptor lifts off from the runway at Nellis Air Force Base during Exercise Red Flag 17-1. Visible in the background (from left) are a Draken International Inc L-159 Albatross; a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) E-7A Wedgetail, and a RAAF C-130J Hercules. Credit: RAAF

But the exercise was notable in terms of the first appearance in Red Flag 17-1 an exercise in which one combat participant noted: “In this exercise, the F-35 reshaped how we are thinking about the use of our entire air combat force.

“The question was not what the F-35 could do for the rest of us; it was what can we contribute to the F-35 led air combat force?”

The Wedgetail certainly found its place in answering that question and in providing unique quarterback functionality to the force and to support functions from an ISR and C2 role as well.

Not only did the Wedgetail show up, but the Officer Commanding 42 Wing played a key role in the exercise as well.

According to an article published in Australian Aviation on February 14, 2017:

GPCAPT Bellingham was the first non-US participant to be Director of the CAOC, leading 250 American, British and Australian personnel. This was the first time a coalition nation has performed this role in such an exercise.

“We are integrated with these capabilities from start to finish, from planning missions, through to debriefing the missions,” GPCAPT Bellingham said.

“Australia has air battlespace managers from No. 2 Squadron and No. 41 Wing who are controlling the Red Flag airspace, and getting first-hand experience how these capabilities can be employed.

“We’re getting real insight into understanding the capabilities and what Australia’s future is going to look like.”

Question: I think Red Flag 17-1 is a good example of how we collectively are shaping a way ahead.

In effect, we are seeing the training of a network of operators who can shape high intensity air operations under the impact of fifth generation warfighting concepts.

The technology is crucial; the platforms are important; but it is the training towards where we need to go that is crucial, rather than simply training to the past.

Is that not where your experience with Wedgetail and working with allies comes in?

Group Captain Bellingham: That is a good way to set up the discussion.

I think the strength of everything we’re doing at the moment only comes from a strong cooperation with our allies. Obviously, we’re a tiny force, and our relevance and real strength becomes fully apparent when we tie our capabilities with those of our allies.

At Red Flag 17-1, we saw the US, the UK and Australia blending advanced assets together to make the entire force more lethal and survivable in the high end threat environment.

Question: The F-35 plays a key role in shaping the battlespace and target identification for other air assets.

What is the Wedgetail’s role in that context?

Group Captain Bellingham: As we evolve the capabilities of Wedgetail, we see key roles it can play as a quarterback in a high-end fight.

And as we upgrade the software and hardware capabilities, it is only by interacting with the other assets in that air combat environment that we can truly evolve new ways of doing things.

It’s not just we’ve updated the software and now we’ve got a great radar. That’s a continuous process, and every time we go to these exercises and go, “You know, that was kind of neat. How do we make that repeatable, and how do we embed that in our doctrine and TTPs?”

Our true strength comes from multiple nations working together and blending their capabilities for the fight, because it is simply very difficult for any one nation to fund and deploy all the high-end capabilities we need.

Our Wedgetail contribution can be seen in this light.

Question: Let us return to the concept of shaping a network of operators for 21st century high-end operations.

How do we best get this done?

Group Captain Bellingham: It is about deploying your new assets, and learning how to use them in an interactive context.

For us, it is starting with Wedgetail, and then moving to Growler, and then to F-35, to P-8, to Triton and so on, how do we shape an effective team to dominate in an air combat environment?

The platforms and technology is crucial but training to where we need to go and cross learning to evolve the combat force is absolutely essential for shaping the air force we need to deploy.

We see our new Air Warfare Centre as a key opportunity to do just that. One evolving aspect is that our Air Force used to conduct Fighter Combat Instructor courses; and we would send a ground controller to the course to participate.

Now the focus is on the evolution of holistic air combat capabilities and as part of that, we have a Wedgetail team participating in the Air Warfare Instructor course.

We’ve got several participants involved from the Wedgetail side: an electronic systems officer, a couple of the air battle managers, we have a pilot, and they’re all working as a team in the airborne early warning and control space.

During the course they will evolve AEW&C tactics which are complementary to the overall Air combat domain and they will all graduate from the course as Air Warfare Instructors.

They are working that quarterback space, to understand the needs and opportunities of that network of operators and how we can change our TTPs to make them more effective.

More broadly, we are focused on being an enabler not just for the air combat force but the joint force.

For example, we are working with the Navy and the Army with regard to supporting expeditionary blue water operations and operating in concert with the new LHD and its evolving concepts of operations in the littoral space.

The enabler function is the key Wedgetail strength in terms of supporting the joint and combined combat force more generally.

Question: Wedgetail is a software upgradeable aircraft and is undergoing modernization along existing lines but you have some expanded capabilities in mind as well?

Group Captain Bellingham: We are modernizing the aircraft to enhance current C2 capabilities but we are looking at ways to exploit its extraordinary radar (via its scalability) to expand into the non-kinetic warfare space.

And we will do that as well through the cross learning we talked about earlier.

We are working really hard at the moment in collaboration with our allies to get a team approach to accelerate our learning.

We are looking to build from the achievements we’ve done so far and build on that cooperatively with our allies.

We’re working to get to the next level, and we’re looking at the next generation of E-7, based on our operational experience and leveraging the collaborative networks we have established with allies moving into the fifth generation enabled air combat force.

Question: A final thought suggests itself.

Without the global engagement of Wedgetail in operations and exercises, the entire development process you described would not be possible.

And the Wedgetail would not be showing up if not for the presence of your KC-30A, a point that could be missed.

How important has the new tanker been to enabling Wedgetail to deploy and to shape its combat learning process?

Group Captain Bellingham: You have raised a very good point.

The two came into the force at about the same time.

Without the tanker, we don’t get the endurance and the ability to stay on task.

We would not have the reach and persistence.

And our part of the world we have vast distances and lots of open water, we need the expeditionary capability that a tanker brings, and a good tanker that can offload a good amount of gas and has great reliability.

The KC-30A, what it’s demonstrated on operations over the last two and a half years has again been phenomenal.

Whilst it had a few initial teething problems with the boom and other things, that tanker is going from strength to strength.

Without it, we’re irrelevant, because we can’t do that expeditionary work which we need to be able to do.

That’s important in the Middle East, but even more important in our part of the world.

Editor’s Note: At the conclusion of Red Flag 17-1, we published a short story built around a video where the senior airmen discussed the exercise.

Red Flag 17-1 Commanders discuss changes to this exercise with participation from the F-35A.

A number of key perspectives are provided throughout, ranging from the key role of the reserves, to the important role of the Wedgetail, to the F-22 squadron having already learned from the Marines with regard to F-35 integration when the F-35Bs came last year, to the Typhoon pilot discussing the role of 4th-5th gen integration and off board targeting.

The sound quality is not always great; but the discussion is quite interesting talking about fifth generation aircraft, 4th-5th gen integration and the key role of Wedgetail working the air battle management across the spectrum of operations.

The USAF could cut the Gordian knot of AWACS replacement simply by buying the Wedgetail and option the UK is looking at currently. 

For earlier discussions with the Group Captain and related pieces see the following:

And we published the following piece on 2-4/17 about the RAAF at Red Flag 17-1.

Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) personnel have deployed to Nevada for Exercise Red Flag 17-1, where they will train in the world’s most complex air combat environment.

Alongside counterparts from United States and United Kingdom, approximately 200 RAAF personnel will support and participate in missions involving up to 100 aircraft, flying over 31,000 square kilometres of the Nevada desert.

RAAF Contingent Commander and Director of the Exercise Red Flag 17-1 Combined Air and Space Operations Centre, Group Captain Stuart Bellingham said the Red Flag training environment was unmatched in its complexity and realism.

“Since RAAF personnel first participated in Exercise Red Flag in 1980, this exercise has informed both how we train our people and develop our air power,” Group Captain Bellingham said.

“Modern air operations must overcome not only ground and airborne threats, but also attacks in the electronic spectrum and the cyberspace domain.

“Exercise Red Flag was established by the United States Air Force to provide personnel with an experience of modern combat operations, and show them how to overcome the threats they might face.”

For Exercise Red Flag 17-1, RAAF has deployed an E-7A Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft, as well as a C-130J Hercules transport.

An essential aspect of the training focuses on personnel who are embedded within the Combined Air and Space Operations Centre, with RAAF personnel leading this key command and control node. This is significant as it is the first time a coalition nation has performed this role during a Red Flag exercise.

Also participating are Air Battlespace Managers from RAAF’s No. 41 Wing, who will control missions with up to 100 aircraft at a time in the exercise; and a Combat Control Team from No. 4 Squadron, whose job it is to ensure aircraft can seamlessly deliver support to ground forces during the exercise.

“Australia’s participation in Exercise Red Flag will enable Coalition partners to better understand how we operate, and likewise consolidates our strong working relationships,” Group Captain Bellingham said.

“This exercise is an ideal environment for our personnel to experience how the Growler and F-35A are integrated within a larger mission.”

Exercise Red Flag 17-1 will involve the United States Air Force’s F-35A Lightning II, and the United States Navy’s E/A-18G Growler – both about to enter Australian service.

“Both aircraft will provide new capabilities to the Australian Defence Force, and will play an important role for RAAF’s future operations.”

Credit: Australian Ministry of Defence:1/24/17