The Perspective of Air Marshal Chipman: Shaping a Way Ahead for the RAAF


By Robbin Laird

I have known Air Marshal Chipman since he was the first co-chair of Plan Jericho. My first interview with him was with his co-chair Jake Campbell, now of Northrop Grumman. In that first interview conducted in their offices in 2015, the emphasis was taking the coming of the F-35 as a forcing function of the joint force to create what was identified in later seminars as a fifth generation enabled force.

“In effect, the blending of strike with situational awareness within a distributed C2 environment is one of the key targets of the Plan Jericho effort. And reshaping the template for operations in light of the coming of the F-35 makes sense as a C2/ISR fighter comes into the force, playing a catalytic role for further change, notably in a force which is being reconfigured to a more effective 21st century combat force.”

Now as Chief of the RAAF, the challenge is to reap the advantages of that transition to deal with new strategic situation facing Australia and its allies and to build effective short to midterm change for the ADF with its allies but in way that would lead to successful deterrence in the long term. Much like the original focus of Plan Jericho was to work on the foundation of change, that challenge remains central for the RAAF.

After his participation in the Williams seminar on the future paths of deterrence, I had a chance to sit down with Air Marshal Chipman in his office to expand on his views about the challenges and the way ahead for his air force and the ADF.

I started by raising the point that the other air force commander who spoke at the seminar was General Wilsbach, the U.S. Pacific Air Force Commander. I noted that General Wilsbach has come to several Williams Foundation Conferences, the first being when he was 11th Air Force Commander. His interest in working with Australia is suggestive of the evolving U.S. relationship with the ADF and in particular the RAAF relationship with PACAF. It is not widely known that General Wilsbach has an Australian Deputy Commander, which reflects the nature of the evolving relationship.

Air Marshal Chipman: “General Wilsbach has been a fantastic partner for Australia. He has been interested in our evolution and commits a lot of his time and his intellectual firepower to working with us. He has created a position for an Australian Deputy Commander in his headquarters. We are very fortunate to have someone who recognizes the value of our strategic partnership.”

It also important to respect differences in terms of allied cultures and objectives in crisis situations. I wrote an essay in my new book Defense XII precisely on the question of recognizing differences and working relationships among the AUKUS partners, for example.

Air Marshal Chipman prior to becoming air chief had some experience in Europe working with various allies and organizations and brings that experience to his current job.  He noted: “In terms of our relationship with PACAF, for example, we need to understand what his ambitions are, what his needs are and how we partner to support him. At the same, we need to both understand and convey our requirements for independent operations as well. We need to be clear what part of our defense effort is focused on supporting the alliance and what part is prioritizing sovereign capability.”

Alliance relationships are best understood as overlapping circles in a Venn diagram dynamically evolving in shaping capabilities and commitments, rather than being cast simply in historical terms.

I then turned to the F-35 and the question of moving beyond simple interoperability. The promise of the F-35 as an international program has been to operate as a forcing function for a kind of interoperability which we have not seen before. But this promise has not been fully realized. I asked the Air Marshal for his thoughts on this challenge.

Air Marshal Chipman: “The F-35 enterprise has the potential to be a forcing function for working together much more closely and effectively. The common threats we are facing are driving us to work more closely together. We will be incrementally disadvantaged over time if we are not. If the F-35 does play a forcing function, we will see this in our ability to provide collective logistics support and operate the aircraft as a common fleet.”

I reminded him of what General Carlyle when he was PACAF hoped to see in the future. In a 2015 interview I did with Carlisle, this is what he hoped would happen: “General Carlisle was asked what would be the impact of a fleet of F-35s (allied and US) upon a Commander of PACAF a decade out. “It will be significant. Instead of thinking of an AOC, I can begin to think of an American and allied CAOC (Combined Air Operations Center). By sharing a common operating picture, we can become more effective tactically and strategically throughout the area of operations.”

The coalition aspect is crucial for the ADF. But Chipman emphasized that such cooperation was crucial in deterring the big conflict but will not eliminate the need to manage the spectrum of conflict. To operate across the spectrum of conflict requires capabilities across that spectrum to deal with different conflict or crisis situations.

This is how Air Marshal Chipman put it: “As I highlighted in my presentation last week at the Williams Foundation Seminar, there is strength in numbers to deter the worst possible outcomes but such an approach will not by itself prevent smaller scale coercion. We have to be prepared as a middle power to deal with actions from the adversary that will not trigger a broader alliance response, but nonetheless are important to us.”

I then turned to the question of what are his priorities for the short to mid-term.

Air Marshal Chipman: “My three key priorities are readiness, resilience and resourcefulness. We are shifting our focus from delivering new capabilities through a 10-year acquisition cycle, to integrating the capability we have in service today, to deter actions here and now.

“I have to fight with what I have, and that is as much about tactics, techniques and procedures that we employ as it is about the equipment we buy now. Air Force is in a relatively good position. We have bought good equipment for 20 years, so it is not as if we starting at a position of significant disadvantage. We now have to make sure we can employ what have, and what we might add, optimally at any moment.”

A key aspect of the evolving alliance situation in facing the China challenge is how the core allies Japan, Australia and the United States actually will craft more effective use of the air, maritime and land baes they use over the Pacific thought of as an extended operational space.

If the three countries can work creatively land basing, with seabasing, with air basing with the use of new autonomous systems they can field and evolve an effective force for the long game of competition with China. Certainly, from this perspective, I would view Australia is the strategic reserve of the broader alliance.

As Chipman commented: “I haven’t heard it described that way. But I think that’s what we are working towards. I think that’s the mindset that we have. The idea that Australia provides strategic depth for forces moving forward, is absolutely part of our thinking.”

He underscored that an alliance that could take advantage of the multiple basing solutions which I highlighted, noting that would take “distributed logistics to the next level, where we need to be.”

The featured photo: Air Marshal Chipman attending the Williams Foundation Conference on March 30, 2023 sitting next to the Chief of Army LTGEN Simon Stuart and Air Vice Marshal Darren Goldie, Air Commander Australia.