The Way Ahead for the RAAF in an Integrated Defense Force: The Perspective of the New Air Commander Australia, Air Vice-Marshal Zed Roberton


2017-08-21 By Robbin Laird

During the current visit to Australia, I had a chance to talk with the newly appointed Air Commander Australia, Air Vice-Marshal Zed Roberton.

I have had the chance to talk with him before so this meeting was more in the mode of continuing the conversation and shifting to the focus of his new responsibilities.

And that is where we started the interview.

Question: You have gone from being the head of the fighters in the RAAF (Air Combat Group) to now dealing with the entire sweep of the RAAF (Air Commander Australia).

What is the major difference for you as you shift positions?

Air Vice-Marshal Roberton: I am going from making a contribution to shaping a fifth-generation air force to ownership of the transition.

It is only changing one word, but it is a big change.

The focus changes from working the F-35 / Growler / Super Hornet mix that air combat group has to contribute, to the transition of the entire RAAF into a fifth-generation joint force.

A key challenge is recruiting and training the new force; how to target the right people and how to train them.

Air Commander Australia, Air Vice-Marshal Steven “Zed” Roberton, DSC, AM is greeted by Officer Commanding No 92 Wing, Group Captain Darren Goldie, AM, CSC during his visit to No 92 Wing. Credit: Australian Department of Defense.

We focus on things like categorization schemes, which is our way of accrediting and giving mission assurance for our people.

For example, a section lead, which is our category C, is significantly different for an F-35 pilot than it was for an F-18 pilot. Fundamentally different.

And this is true for Growler and other aircraft types as well.

Question: You have raised the question of the shift in recruitment and training with regard to your pilots.

How would you regard the shift on the demand side for the pilot?

Air Vice-Marshal Roberton: You go from having to manage a package to being a node, a sensor, and a shooter in a network.

We are no longer operating as little bespoke package and building block of a force.

If you’re doing this properly to prepare for a fifth-generation fight, you start them in the middle of the web, and our warfighters understand what they can contribute and where they can draw upon to be a sensor and a shooter in that web.

And that’s not just airpower, that’s across the entire joint space.

This requires us to fundamentally change our exercise approach to train aviators in the kill web. It is a fundamental in dealing with the kinds of adversaries we find in the real world.

We cannot take yesterday’s “block and tackle” combat aircraft approach to train to be the kind of distributed mission commanders we need in the future air combat force.

We need to focus on the sensor-shooter relationship in which we can deliver distributed kinetic and non-kinetic effects.

And this comes from within the kill web.

Put another way, you are training for autonomy in all of the weapon shooter nodes and crafting the overall impact accordingly.

Our decisive advantage is going to be in our ability to operate in high-tempo ops, fully networked.

That’s what will make it a completely unfair fight.

It’s not going to be about mass and numbers; that will always have a part to play.

But our decisive advantage has to be our ability to just run our kill web at high speed.

We have parts of our organization that are now thinking at the tactical and operational level in fifth-generation sense, but we are yet to exercise the enabling and support function in that same mindset.

That’s a challenge for us.

Question: One of your first tasks as Air Commander Australia was to participate in Talisman Sabre 2017.

 What was your role and what did you find during the command post segment of the exercise?

Air Vice-Marshal Roberton: I was a month and half in the job when I had the chance in July to work as the deputy CFACC to General O’Shaughnessy at PACAF for the exercise.

I was on the CPX side, and the scenario was good for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, it commenced on day 42 of a war, assuming established air superiority.

Then the exercise transitioned where a near-peer country came into the war and we had to reestablish air superiority.

It was challenging to deal with the problem.

It was absolutely fascinating to observe asset distribution, and where did you put your fifth gen contributors.

This was fifth gen fighters and systems to reestablish air superiority.

That old metaphor: air superiority is like oxygen; when you’ve got it you never even think about it. But when you haven’t got it, you cannot think about anything else.

And so the surface combatants’ commanders became fascinated with our ability to reestablish air control, and that was fundamentally driven by the disposition of fifth gen assets in the exercise region.

In the Pacific theater, the USAF has F-22s which is great.

However, the US are well behind several other countries in getting F-35s in their orbat.

When we had to reestablish air superiority, the discussion was no longer: where do we put our mass?

It actually became: where is our fifth-generation effect?

And that drove the fight, driving the entire operational design for the campaign.

And it was immensely successful.

We lost air superiority for minimal time with the introduction of a near-peer adversary.

Question: The F-35s are already in the Pacific with the Marines and you soon will have some in Australia.

 How do you view this transition in terms of where you want to go with the entire combat force?

Air Vice-Marshal Roberton: The Marines actually have a very modest number of F-35s here now but they are quite critical in certain areas.

I have a great affinity for the Marines having done an exchange with them.

They are making a great contribution.

There’s no hiding that stark difference between legacy and fifth generation aircraft.

When you actually see it, or don’t see, as the case may be!

And when operators see the difference the reaction is very clear: “So now I get it.

“Imagine what we could do with those systems if they were working with our ground forces, our ships, with our other aircraft like the Wedgetail.”

And that is a major challenge: to work together to take advantage of the new assets to shape an overall fifth generation force.

For example, we’re doing a command-and-control futures study at the moment.

We are trying to get folks to think about how to command-and-control in a higher tempo, contested environment with a fifth-generation force?

We are sponsoring it through our Air Warfare Center, but we’re involving the other services and components.

We are not going to be an effective force unless our army and navy joins the RAAF on that fifth-generation journey.

Air Vice-Marshal Steve Roberton, DSC, AM

Air Vice-Marshal ‘Zed’ Roberton is a Category A Fighter Pilot with 3500 total hours, mostly in F/A-18A through F model fighters.

He entered the RAAF in 1989 as a direct entry pilot trainee having completed a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry and Mathematics at Queensland University. He graduated from Number 153 Pilots Course in 1990 and F/A-18 conversion in 1993.

He flew fighter tours at Number 3 Squadron RAAF Williamtown; an exchange flying F/A-18s with the United States Marine Corps at Beaufort, South Carolina; and at Number 3 Squadron as the A Flight Commander until 2000.

Roberton completed a joint staff tour in Capability Development Group in Canberra and Australian Command and Staff College. He then deployed to the Middle East for Operations Slipper and Falconer for which he was awarded a Chief of Air Force Commendation.

He commanded Number 75 Squadron at RAAF Tindal for three years from November 2003 before returning to Canberra to stand up the Air Combat Transition Office and lead the RAAF’s transition to F/A-18F Super Hornet.

He commanded Number 82 Wing at RAAF Amberley and then completed the UK’s Higher Command and Staff College in 2012. He returned on promotion as Director General Aerospace Development.

AVM Roberton was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia on 26 January 2012 for exceptional service to the ADF in air combat capability during command of 75 Squadron, 82 Wing and leading the Super Hornet introduction.

AVM Roberton commanded the inaugural Air Task Group 630 on Operation OKRA to the Middle East, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, prior to taking command of ACG in 2015. He assumed Air Commander Australia role on 01 May 2017.