By Robbin Laird
On August 23, 2018, the Williams Foundation held its latest seminar, this one on independent strike. The seminar represents a next phase of examination of the way ahead for the ADF.
Over the past five years, the seminars have focused on the introduction of the F-35 and the generation of new opportunities to shape a fifth-generation combat force.
And the seminars have built out the concept and approach to crafting such a force.
A key question addressed in these seminars was how best to build an integrated force which could go beyond a platform centric approach?
How best to shape a multi-domain force capable of operating throughout the spectrum of warfare?
During the 2018 seminars, the focus shifted from building the force to the conditions in which that force would operate in the period ahead.
How to shape an effective deterrent strategy for higher end conflict and crisis management?
Put in other words, the focus shifted from the acquisition of new platforms and to the process of shaping a more integrated force, to the environment in which that force will operate and shape demands for enhanced deterrent effects from the force.
The seminar in March 2018 addressed the strategic shift and its consequences for the warfighting approach for the ADF and the core allies for Australia.
And with the August seminar, the question broadened to begin an examination of new means to enhance sovereign options as part of an evolving deterrent strategy.
As such, the August seminar began a process of looking at the evolution of Australian defense capabilities through a sovereign lens.
The seminar provided a series of snapshots of how best to understand the challenge and how to shape a way ahead to provide for enhanced sovereign options.
The morning session broadly looked at the question of deterrence in the period of the strategic shift and how the ADF might operate effectively to provide for deterrent options. Several questions were framed as tasks to be worked in the period ahead, notably in terms of nuclear threats, and evolving capabilities and strategies of competitors as well as evolving approaches and interests of key allies.
The afternoon sessions addressed the evolving environment within which strike systems themselves were evolving. Notably, with a fifth-generation force fundamentally changing the sensor-shooter relationship how best to incorporate new strike capabilities?
How best to leverage diverse platforms or capabilities within which strike could be more effective in playing a deterrent function?
A key question on the table was how best for Australia to shape its strike portfolio, lethal and non-lethal, as well as the question of how best to deliver such strike, from land, sea and the air.
What are the best ways to deliver effective deterrent strike for an evolving fifth generation force and how best to do so to ensure the defense of Australia within an effective alliance structure?
Next year’s seminars will continue to focus on the question of how best to evolve Australian defense capabilities from the standpoint of enhanced Australian sovereignty, undoubtedly a key element to be addressed in any future Australian defense white paper as well.
Certainly, a key question facing Australia is how best to build out its strike capabilities and within this effort, how might a missile industry might well be developed to enhance the sustainability and capability of the force.
And as geography returns as a key element in the defense of Australia, how might basing and mobility be introduced as key capabilities in the North and West of Australia?
While a work in progress, clearly considering sovereign options and building them into the evolving force is a key consideration for Australia and the ADF going forward.
In my interview with the Chairman of the Williams Foundation after the seminar, he highlighted a number of the key issues raised by the seminar which will inform the discussion about the way ahead.
Question: How do you view the way ahead with regard to the evolution of the ADF to provide a wider range of sovereign options?
Air Marshal (Retired) Brown: The Defence White Paper of 2016 guides the current modernization effort. It provided a coherent framework for force modernization.
But a lot has changed since then and we need to rethink the strategic guidance and the shape some additional force modernization elements.
The future is much more unpredictable. With Trump, we have seen a honest statement of the priority of American interests. We need to take account of the priority, which America will place, on its interests when we go forward. And to be clear, this is not simply Trump, but the reality of what powers will do in an Alliance as well.
We need a much more sovereign approach to defense.
That’s not saying we should walk away, or not contribute to or benefit from the American alliance. But, we’ve got to be much more prepared to be able to act on our own in certain circumstances.
And by being able to do so, we will be a better Alliance partner as well,
Question: There clearly is the nature of the changing threat to Australia as well, notably in terms of North Korean nuclear weapons and the Chinese pushing their capabilities out into the Pacific and expanding their regional presence as well.
How do you view this part of the equation of the need for greater sovereignty?
Air Marshal (Retired) Brown: We need to have a greater capability to hold competitors at risk at greater range and distance.
The North Korean case shows that nuclear weapons are not going away any time soon. The Chinese have clearly focused on significant investments in longer range strike.
This means as we do the next defense review, we need to focus on options which can allow us to deal directly wit these challenges and to shape how we do so within the reworking of the relationship with our allies going forward.
We need a major reset building upon the force integration process which we have set in motion.
Do Japan or South Korea go nuclear?
We need to have a realistic discussion of the nuclear impact on our defense policy as well.
What makes sense to do?
And how to do it?
Question: The question of the reach of Australian forces in a conventional sense also raises the question of the relationship between Australian territory, notably NW and Western Australia and the evolution of your defense forces?
How does the territorial dimension come back into play?
Air Marshal (Retired) Brown: Clearly, we need to look at ways to enhance our force mobility and to build out both active defense and long range conventional strike in our territories closest to the areas of operational interest, both ours and the competitors.
The Australian Army is focusing in part in the evolution of fires both defensive and offensive, but we need a bigger commitment on this side of the force and with longer range, which could operate from our own territory as well as being projected forward outside of Australia.
Question: How does the strategic shift in Australian industry fit into this calculus of enhanced sovereignty?
Air Marshal (Retired) Brown: It is crucial.
As you noted, the shipbuilding side of industry is clearly about sovereignty and we need to look to expand sovereignty in the strike domain as well.
A key area going forward clearly should be in the missile development, build and sustainment area, where we can clearly build out our own capabilities in relationship with core allies also interested in this process.
And by flying the F-35 with a number of partner nations, there clearly is an opportunity to build out this capability as well.
Question: I assume if you are interested in longer range strike you would be looking to something in the range of a 2,000 mile missile but given the focus on industry and working with allies, wouldn’t a modular build process make the most sense, where you can build various ranges into your missile production based on modularity?
Air Marshal (Retired) Brown: That would make sense.
But I think we need a serious look within our focus on shaping industry that both meets Australia’s needs as well as those of key allies in the missile or strike areas.
We build ammunition and general purpose bombs in Australia but we have never taken that forward into a 21stcentury approach to missiles and related systems. We should rethink this aspect of our approach.
There are plenty examples of success in arms exports; there is no reason we can not do so in the weapons area, for example.
The featured photo shows the Aussie F-111 which provided a longer range strike capability which the Aussies may well build into their evolving force with longer range weapons as part of the fifth generation sensor-shooter relationship. Those weapons could be on the ground, in the air or at sea.
According to an article in Code One, the F-111 played a key role for the Australians.
Australia ordered twenty-four of the swing-wing F-111s in November 1963, thirteen months before the aircraft was first flown. Picking the F-111 was seen by many as a bold move by the RAAF, but the Australian government viewed the aircraft as the right solution for its need for a long-range strike aircraft.
Delivery to the RAAF was delayed by a series of mishaps during the US Air Force’s first combat deployment with the F-111 in Vietnam in 1968. It was also delayed by structural problems. The first six F-111Cs arrived at RAAF Amberley on 1 June 1973, making Australia the first—and, as history showed, the only—international operator to ever fly the aircraft. The US retired its F-111s in 1996.
The Australian F-111Cs were unique to the RAAF. They had the longer wings, sturdier undercarriage, and bigger brakes of the FB-111 nuclear-capable bomber version of the aircraft ordered by the US Air Force. But the F-111C retained the inlets, engines, and avionics installed in the F-111A. The RAAF also opted for the self-protection system equipment of the later F-111Es. Air Combat Officers—weapons systems officers who sat in the right seat—had a control stick on their side of the cockpit and were taught to land the aircraft in case of emergency.
Four F-111As were added to the RAAF fleet in 1982. These aircraft, all veterans of Vietnam operations, were modified with the longer wingtips and heavier landing gear of the F-111Cs.
The RAAF acquired another fifteen US Air Force F-111s beginning in 1993. These aircraft, called F-111Gs, were all former FB-111s operated by Strategic Air Command and modified in the late 1980s with digital avionics for tactical duties. The aircraft were used by the Australians mostly for conversion training and spare parts. The F-111Gs were retired by the RAAF in 2007.
The F-111—affectionately and universally known in Australia as Pig for its ability to conduct missions at night with its nose in the weeds, thanks to the terrain-following radar—was continuously updated during its service.
Four aircraft were modified for reconnaissance in the early 1980s. These versions, designated RF-111Cs, used a wet film-based camera suite with high- and low-scanning cameras and an infrared line scanner. The film cameras were later converted to digital imaging equipment.
The Pave Tack infrared and laser targeting systems were added to the aircraft in the mid-1980s, along with the capability of launching the AGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship standoff missile. In the mid-1990s, the Avionics Upgrade Program incorporated digital flight controls, digital mission computers, multifunction displays, and a new terrain-following radar. In its last decade, the aircraft received electronic warfare updates, including a new jamming pod. They were also modified for using night-vision goggles and for firing the AGM-142 Popeye TV-guided standoff weapon.
The last RAAF unit to operate the F-111 was 6 Squadron at Amberley. The squadron flew the aircraft for the entire thirty-seven years the aircraft served in the RAAF.
Leveraging the F-111 heritage was highlighted in the background statement published by the Williams Foundation when the seminar was announced earlier in the year by Williams:
For over thirty years the F-111 provided an Australian Defence Force strike capability with the strategic reach to provide Australia with an independent strike option should deterrence fail. With the retirement of the long-range F-111, Australia’s future air strike capability now rests in the capabilities of the F/A-18F Super Hornet and F-35A, both equipped with appropriate long-range strike weapons and supported by a capable air-to-air refuelling force of KC-30A aircraft; the air-to- air refuelling force necessary to extend the unrefuelled range of both the F/A-18F Super Hornet and the F-35A to achieve the desired strategic reach.
While Australia’s geo-political circumstances and regional threats are much changed from those which existed in 1963, when Australia committed to acquire the potent F-111 air strike capability, they are now more complex and much less straightforward than the Cold War heritage scenarios of the 1960s. But one aspect remains unchanged; Australia’s strategic geography, where strategic reach continues to support the case for an independent strike capability. The ability to strike at range brings a new dimension into any unfolding strategic scenario which, in itself, may often deter escalation into armed conflict. While in the event of escalation occurring, the absence of a long- range strike capability both limits Australia’s options for strategic manoeuvre and concedes to an adversary the ability to dictate the terms of engagement.
An independent strike capability expands the range of options to achieve Australia’s strategic ends; signals a serious intent and commitment about Australia’s national security; and has the capacity toinfluence strategic outcomes short of resorting to armed conflict.