With the development of hypersonic missiles — and ultimately aircraft — flying at several times the speed of sound, space-based systems, armed drones and uncrewed combat aircraft, the Royal Australian Air Force is fundamentally changing as it turns 100.
Heavily involved in World War I as the Australian Flying Corps, the nation’s military aviators were part of the army until the RAAF was formed in March 1921.
RAAF chief Mel Hupfeld says the RAAF is the region’s most technologically advanced air force, but technology alone will not see it succeed.
‘We’ve spent the last two decades concentrating on expeditionary operations in the Middle East,’ says Air Marshal Hupfeld. ‘That’s no longer our strategic imperative through the lens of the defence strategic update. We need to further invest in airbases and to project air and space power into our region across “shape”, “deter” and “respond” [the update’s three strategic objectives] — and we need to do so every day from our national support bases.’
The ability to achieve strategic effects below the threshold of declared conflict will be the measure of success, says Hupfeld. ‘Arguably, we’ve not always been sophisticated in identifying that nuance. The latest air force strategy will see us realise our potential for the joint force.’
The strategic update found that the security environment had deteriorated far more rapidly and in ways that could not have been predicted four years earlier when the last defence white paper was produced. Australia could no longer assume it would have a decade’s warning of a looming conflict.
As the Australian Defence Force applies the measures in the update and the accompanying force structure plan, new weapons for the RAAF will include long-range anti-ship missiles.
To guide the RAAF’s evolution, Hupfeld issued a strategy setting out how it must adapt to carry out operations in the grey zone as part of an integrated approach across the ADF.
He says a simplistic model of ‘peace’ and ‘war’ no longer adequately describes the geostrategic environment and malign actors exploit the grey zone to avoid clear escalation points that legitimise a traditional military response.
‘We must develop our people. This means professionalisation, increasing our diversity and drawing from our whole population.’
Hupfeld says that as the RAAF’s capabilities are enhanced, it isn’t all about flying platforms. ‘Our capabilities are potent and effective because our people are talented, skilled and trained to the highest standards, the critical asset to achieve the edge. We have to continue to invest in them as we have done with the air force’s new platforms.
‘If our combat aircraft fly against an adversary with a similar level of capability, I’ll back my people. Our team’s skills and tactical awareness are first rate. Not that I want to do it, but I’ll pitch them against pretty much anyone out there.’
At home, teams specialised in areas including combat control, mobile air load, and deployable health and aeromedical services and catering helped in the response to the 2019–20 bushfires and pivoted to assist in the pandemic.
On missions against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, RAAF aircrew often flew for 10 hours or more—a long time strapped into a seat. To equip personnel for such missions, ‘contemporary human performance optimisation’ programs, embracing performance psychology and sports science, enhance mental and physical performance for increased combat effectiveness.
Hupfeld says that while technology becomes more complex, the basic need to strive for perfection and deliver precision remains. ‘More than ever, this requires personnel focusing on the fundamentals and the removal of unnecessary distractions. This is the core premise of sports psychology through the creation of high-performance teams.’
He says discussion of future capabilities needs to move away from a platform-centric approach to an effects-based one. That means exploring the gaps and opportunities in the RAAF’s ability to generate effects that exploit range and action from different domains — land, air, maritime, space and cyber — rather than focusing on one solution.
Long-range multi-domain strike is not confined to a particular aircraft and relies on a system of systems.
The RAAF’s capabilities increasingly include technologies and systems that don’t fly. One such system is the Jindalee Operational Radar Network, set up to look far out to Australia’s north and being expanded to watch over the Pacific.
The RAAF’s airbases and its ability to deploy and operate from austere and sometimes damaged airfields was showcased most recently in disaster relief in Fiji.
Rapid development and enhancement of information warfare capabilities covering several domains including space is a key feature of the strategy.
Hupfeld rejects suggestions that the RAAF has lacked an effective long-range strike capability since the F-111 was retired in 2010. ‘This is a far more capable air combat force than when the F-111 was withdrawn.’
So, given Australia’s size, the scale of the region and the vulnerability of support aircraft such as tankers, how does the RAAF achieve the range to keep potential enemies at a distance?
Hupfeld says air combat power is critical to protecting Australia and its deployed forces, and to providing a credible capability to hold an adversary’s forces and infrastructure at a distance from Australian shores.
Integrated air and missile defence will give deterrence and protection for the joint ADF, including tankers and early warning aircraft like the E-7A Wedgetail.
‘Medium-range ground-based air defence missiles will release platforms such as air warfare destroyers and frigates, and fighter aircraft, from inner-layer defensive roles so that they can defend vulnerable support aircraft, and other friendly forces. Coupled with the Wedgetail, Australia’s fighter force can defend for other aircraft, ships or land forces throughout the region,’ Hupfeld says.
‘Releasing these highly mobile, multi-role platforms from close-in defensive roles allows them the freedom of movement to hold potential aggressors at risk, increasing the deterrent effect.’
As a fighter pilot, and despite negative publicity about the ‘fifth-generation’ F-35 joint strike fighter, he has no doubt that it’s the right aircraft for the RAAF.
‘It’s a crucial part of an integrated system tied together with the Super Hornet, Growler electronic-warfare aircraft, the tanker, surveillance aircraft, intelligence databases, space capability enhancements and cyber activities, and more broadly integrating with air warfare destroyers and the army’s air defence systems. The F-35 replaces nothing, but changes everything,’ he says.
The government is committed to purchasing 72 F-35s with 33 already delivered, and the RAAF has an option to purchase 28 more.
Will the additional aircraft be F-35s?
‘We look at all options,’ Hupfeld says. ‘What’s the sixth generation of airpower going to look like when we decide on the next round of F-35s? Is F-35 still valid if there’s a sixth-generation aircraft? Will sixth-generation air combat capability be an aircraft? I don’t know the answer to that, but they’re the things I keep my eyes open for.
‘The [uncrewed] loyal wingman is an example of what may be part of the solution when we look at the next phase of our air combat capability program. And I’d never say never to any of those.’
If the sixth-generation aircraft may not be an aircraft, what might it be?
‘This is where I’d want to get my smart young think-tank people to come in and see what they imagine. Given my experience and the baggage I carry, I have to think really hard to not imagine something like an F-35 with a pilot in the cockpit,’ says Hupfeld, ‘but it could be a space-based system operating with a ship armed with a directed-energy weapon or a railgun. There are many options we want to look at. Our younger generation aren’t constrained in their thinking like I can be.’
A development, test and evaluation program for high-speed long-range strike and missile defence, including hypersonic weapons, is underway and prototypes will be built to inform decisions on future capabilities. That includes collaboration with the US on the Southern Cross Integrated Flight Research Experiment known as SCiFIRE.
Remotely piloted and/or autonomous combat aircraft, some designed to team with crewed aircraft and ground personnel, will increase air combat capacity.
Advanced longer-range strike weapons will extend the reach of combat aircraft and allow them to avoid increasingly sophisticated air defences.
Advanced loitering munitions will allow the ADF to strike in an increasingly complex environment, and better self-protection systems will improve the survivability of aircrew and aircraft.
Hupfeld says the ability to rapidly deploy defensive missile systems across Australia and within the region is paramount.
The combined effect of the three services operating together is crucial, he says. ‘The air force provides reach and responsiveness and the army and navy provide persistence in their area of operations. The inclusion of both land and maritime long-range strike capabilities highlights the increased importance of holding our adversaries at risk further from Australia.’
In the decades to come, the RAAF will have different skills and weapon systems, agile bases and multiple redundant networks, ‘and we’ll be active in space’.
‘Utilisation of our weapon systems, airbases and people will be transformed from the traditional airpower of our past 100 years to the generation of broader air and space power effects.
‘Our personnel will be strategically aware, they’ll know their place in the joint force and their responsibilities to the government, and they’ll appreciate the strategic effects they achieve every day.’
This force will be agile in its thinking and able to seize opportunities.
‘My intent for the air force highlights that we need to be comfortable operating with constant competition,’ Hupfeld says. ‘Our strategy is to give our people the tools to be creative. Being aware of the strategic effect in everything we do is the key to success. We need to recognise opportunities and seize them wherever possible.’
The future force is likely to include crewed, uncrewed and optionally piloted aircraft.
Hupfeld says uncrewed aircraft development is progressing at a rapid pace and they’re likely to excel in a number of roles and complement crewed aircraft.
But all air forces will have crewed platforms for a long time yet. It’s far too early to predict if, or when, they’ll cease flying crewed aircraft in all roles.
‘Our co-development activity with Boeing’s loyal wingman, the Airpower Teaming System, is teaching us a lot about what’s possible, but also what’s needed to own and operate an uncrewed platform.’