Catherine Roberts makes history as engineers fly high in Air Force

By Harley Dennett

September 27, 2019

Air Vice-Marshal Catherine Roberts, AM, CSC at No 34 Squadron. Department of Defence.

Air Vice-Marshal Catherine Roberts has ticked off a few firsts for her more than 20,000 worker strong organisation. Among them, this week stepping in as the acting Chief of Air Force — notable because she’s not a pilot by training.

Roberts is from one the STEM professions that is building the Fifth-generation Air Force to win against the increasingly complex threats of warfare in the Information Age.

She’s also the inaugural Head of Air Force Capability, the official champion for air power capability. As the first engineer entrusted with the big-picture design of Air Force’s future she’s focussed on smart people, smart tech.

“I want to set up our Air Force for the future – one with people, teams and capabilities that can deliver formidable joint force effects,” Roberts tells The Mandarin.

The new two-star position in Air Force Headquarters is responsible for conceptualising and shaping the future needs of Air Force.

Having previously managed the $22 billion dollar Aerospace Systems portfolio, Roberts has had a uniquely different background compared to the flying background of former Air Force leaders.

“I have worked over the past 30 years to support the projection of air power on operations, maximise what we can get out of the systems we own, and getting the most capability from our acquisitions.”

“Developing professional mastery in air power is something that was essential to managing the very large aerospace systems portfolio, and the combination of that experience is what is essential to my new role.

“Importantly, there is a senior executive role that everyone in Air Force can aspire towards even if you are not a pilot.”

Roberts urges Air Force to move beyond traditional career paths so it can recruit and transition the future force with advanced skills in space control, electronic warfare, cyber- and network-operations. With the introduction of these exciting technologies, there will need to be people who can design and operate them.

“Air Force needs the right people with the right skills – what those skills needs to be is changing, and we need to prepare for those changes,” says Roberts.

“Air Force also needs people with skills in diplomacy, influence, and innovation to help move beyond traditional models and mindsets.

“To be successful we must develop great partnerships with Australian industry, our allies, and regional neighbours who are all part of our ecosystem that enable us to provide Air Power effects that span humanitarian assistance and contested warfare.”

Roberts says that the world is changing quickly, both on a technological and geo-political level, and these changes require Air Force to be more agile and more responsive to provide security and prosperity for all Australians. 

Cautioning against a return to stove-pipes and single-service mindedness, AVM Roberts says that Air Force needs to innovate to overcome present challenges and constraints.

“One of my priorities in this role is accelerating Jericho initiatives to unlock the potential and talent we have in Air Force,” says Roberts.

“The EDGY Air Force program is providing opportunities and funding to turn the best ideas from within Air Force into reality – don’t sit on your great ideas, go direct to Jericho today. You have my support to help us deliver and transform into a fifth-generation air force.”

The addition of a two-star focussed on future capability means that Air Force now has greater opportunity to capitalise on innovation and accelerate the journey towards becoming a fifth-generation air force.

“Air Force’s future effectiveness won’t be achieved simply by replacing planes, radar systems and weapons,” says Roberts

“Our fifth-generation capabilities and people must be integrated with the Joint Force so we can combine all our effects to protect Australia and our national interests.

“And since Air Force fight from our air bases, we also need to improve our infrastructure and integrate information technology that are hardened against emerging threats.

“We need to more rapidly acquire advanced capabilities that are essential for the diverse range of roles that Air Force is called upon to deliver in modern conflict, relational stability operations and humanitarian assistance.

“Artificial intelligence is one example of those capabilities that enable human-machine teaming so we can operate a lean workforce focussed on high-end warfighting and strategy – which continues to be where our people excel.”

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