This week saw the Australian Defence Force (ADF) undertake its largest amphibious landing since the Second World War as part of its largest and most complex joint and combined exercise, Talisman Sabre. In this post, Wing Commander Paul Hay argues that the Government’s investment in airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities presents the Air Force and the ADF with unprecedented opportunities to enhance land and littoral operations. But, he argues, exploiting those opportunities will take new thinking and new approaches.

For a decade in the Middle East the Australian Army elements relied largely on US assets to deliver most of their airborne ISR support. The lack of dedicated capabilities in the force-in-being required the Royal Australian Air Force to provide support through a rapidly developed leased Heron unmanned aerial system (UAS) and the use of AP-3C maritime patrol aircraft in an overland role. Manning the Heron capability created some internal capacity and skill challenges, while AP-3C crews needed to maintain their maritime capabilities in addition to preparing for the overland role in the Middle East. After their operations in Afghanistan, the Heron workforce largely melted back into Air Force and the AP-3Cs largely went back to their core maritime roles.

Thankfully, lessons regarding the importance of suitable and integrated ISR systems in supporting the land fight were learned. The Government has subsequently directed significant investment through the Defence White Paper 2016 (DWP16) to remediate this shortfall in the ADF’s organic ISR capability to support to land, and more broadly the amphibious forces. The DWP16 outlines an investment in a tiered suite of airborne ISR capabilities designed to integrate with, and support, land and amphibious elements (Figure 1). The planned suite of airborne ISR capabilities will include the long range ISR and electronic warfare (EW) aircraft operating at high level and long range, a tactical ISR platform providing support to special operations, and an armed medium altitude UAS providing persistent ISR and attack coverage, all integrated to deliver support in the land and littoral environments.

The Defence White Paper 2016 outlines an investment in a tiered suite of airborne ISR capabilities to support land and littoral manoeuvre.

The Defence White Paper 2016 outlines an investment in a tiered suite of airborne ISR capabilities to support land and littoral manoeuvre. [Image credit: author]

These planned acquisitions present Defence with the opportunity to build and maintain an ‘ISR force by design.’ ISR is largely platform agnostic – rather it is about the combination of sensors, suitable and robust communications networks, processing, exploitation and dissemination systems, and a dedicated workforce of ISR professionals that understands the missions being supported. As such, these new capabilities being acquired necessitate a new way of thinking, not just in terms of operating the capabilities, but how we raise, train and sustain the entire integrated ISR force within a tightly integrated organisational command and control (C2) design.

Air Force cannot possibly generate the desired outcomes or exploit these capabilities to their full potential by simply trying to continue to conduct business as usual. These are new capabilities that will provide a massive increase in ISR capacity and effects in the land and littoral environments and necessitate a revolutionary approach to our employment concepts. To be an integral part of our fifth generation Air Force, and effectively support Army and Navy, they cannot be operated in a legacy sense or the investment will be wasted. Army will no doubt be watching how we bring these capabilities into service and may well be asking themselves “is Air Force acquiring these new assets for Air Force, or to support Army?”

As Air Force and Navy have learned over the past few decades, you can’t generate and sustain an effective airborne maritime surface and subsurface warfare capability overnight – it takes years. It requires an intimate understanding of Navy’s needs, what they are trying to achieve at different times in varying environments, acquisition of suitable sensors, equipment and weapons, all underpinned by a robust training system and a dedicated workforce. This same philosophy needs to be applied to providing support for land and amphibious elements.

The transition from the amphibious task force afloat to the land environment is extremely complex undertaking and will require close integration of a number of assets and an intimate understanding by the Air Force elements to support the myriad of entities effectively. It will require a workforce that understands how special force operate, how Army’s combined arms teams’ manoeuvre and interact, and the different support requirements through the phase of an amphibious lodgement by both air and surface craft. This level of understanding will take years to generate.

Supporting these operations will be reliant upon suitable and capable ISR sensors fit for the task and available when needed, appropriate and capable communications networks, and a suitably trained workforce that understands the land commander’s mission aims, scheme of manoeuvre and support requirements without having to be told. This cannot be an afterthought or a secondary task – it must be a primary role for those airborne ISR assets. Where AP-3C crews can readily identify naval vessels and understand the relative threat to a naval task group, the crews operating these new ISR capabilities need to be able to rapidly identify land threat systems and understand what that threat system means to the supported commander and his scheme of manoeuvre.

Unfortunately there is no land-focused formation equivalent to Number 92 Wing, which specialises in understanding airborne support to naval operations. Thus, there is no organisation to own the airborne ISR support to the complex land and amphibious manoeuvre problem. Instead, this support is delivered through what essentially amounts to largely uncoordinated ad hoc support arrangements supplied for each discrete task. Exericse Talisman Sabre 17 offers a contemporary and timely activity for Army and the amphibious elements to consider how they would utilise these future ISR capabilities to support them.

The planned acquisition of these ISR capabilities provides an opportunity to deliver on the Chief of Air Force’s vision for an integrated, joint Air Force. Given the majority of Air Force’s ISR capabilities will be located at RAAF Edinburgh, consider what we could provide to Army if we designed, from the ground up in consultation with Army and Navy, a dedicated formation consisting of the tiered overland ISR capabilities mentioned above to provide land and amphibious ISR support. This dedicated formation might include tightly integrated Special Operations Command, Army, and Navy personnel who are thoroughly invested in training and optimising the employment of those assets on operations. The Air Force personnel in this joint formation would become our experts in support to land and littoral operations, and would understand special operations, combined arms manoeuvre and amphibious operations.

Soldiers from 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment disembark a landing craft from HMAS Canberra during an amphibious beach landing conducted as part of Exercise Talisman Saber 2017. [Image credit: Department of Defence]

The need to train a new workforce offers some additional opportunities to think differently and train differently, and perhaps look outwards at some of the latent capacity that exists in the community to assist. We might want to consider integrating Defence industry and academia into our ISR force design to assist us with experimentation, rapid ISR system prototyping and testing, training our workforce, perhaps even filling some of the ground analytical positions within our weapon systems to provide long term continuity.

The collocation of Army’s 7th Battalion and 16th Air Land Regiment, Air Force’s G-550 long range ISREW aircraft, the tactical airborne ISR aircraft, armed MALE UAS, P-8A Poseidon, MQ-4C Triton, No 1 Remote Sensor Unit and Distributed Ground Station – Australia in Adelaide give Defence a potent suite of joint capabilities in one location. The proximity of Cultana, Woomera, and Port Wakefield training areas and maritime approaches offers opportunities for joint training in nearly all environments. This again provides an opportunity for new thinking – that whole region could be utilised as a joint ISR training and proving ground with the services tightly integrated with Defence Science and Technology Group (DSTG), state government, defence industry and academia as integral parts of the ISR system. Designed well, we could not only create a potent integrated ISR force, but could enhance it through these external partnerships essentially creating an integrated “ISR hub” in Adelaide.

In a previous post, I offered some thoughts on how a dedicated training establishment for the non-commissioned ISR workforce would be beneficial. This training establishment could be extended to train every member of the precinct to develop a professional workforce, be it aircraft maintainers, information systems personnel or aircrew. Most of the fundamental training could be outsourced or partnered, with common training provided across the workforce and only weapon system specific ISR training required in operational conversion units.

The Air Force has a unique opportunity to get it right and create the new structures to exploit integrated ISR forces early and well. Will we try to just fit these new capabilities into our current structures and processes, or will we take the time to review how our fifth generation Air Force needs to be structured, trained and sustained in order to support Army and the amphibious elements?

Air Force could, if we take the time to think, grasp the opportunity and actually deliver to the ADF “an ISR force by design” tightly integrated with DSTG, defence industry and academia and a focal point for ISR expertise in Australia.

Wing Commander Paul Hay is a serving Royal Australian Air Force officer. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.