14 February 2018

In this final post in his four-part series exploring the history of Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) organisational structures, Brian Weston describes the evolution of the RAAF’s Force Element Groups (FEG). Though the introduction of new capabilities, the transfer of helicopters to Army, and the evolving operational environment have led to changes in  FEG composition, over the past 30 years, the FEG as the defining organisational concept underpinning RAAF air power has remained unchanged. 

The RAAF formalised the organisation of its operational units into Force Element Groups (FEGs) on 1 June 1988.

The new FEGs were Tactical Fighter Group (TFG), which included the supporting air direction units of the Air Defence Ground Environment (ADGE), Strike Reconnaissance Group (SRG); Maritime Patrol Group (MPG); Air Lift Group (ALG); Tactical Transport Group (TTG); and Air Operational Support Group (AOSG). The TTG was short-lived, disbanding in February 1991 after the RAAF helicopter capability was transferred to the Army and with Caribou capability folded into the ALG.

The development of the Jindalee over-the-horizon radar at the Joint Facility, Alice Springs also had implications for the RAAF ADGE as it added a new dimension to Australia’s wide-area surveillance capabilities. Accordingly, the RAAF stood up No 1 Radar Surveillance Unit (1RSU), headquartered at Mt Everard, near Alice Springs, on 1 July 1992 and assigned the unit to No 41 Wing (the RAAF’s air defence wing).

Subsequently, the decision to re-shape the RAAF ‘air defence’ capability more towards an ‘air battle management’ capability had further organisational implications. Firstly, all ADF air traffic control services, including those at Army and Navy airfields, were amalgamated within a reformed No 44 Wing (air traffic control wing) and secondly, both Nos 41 and 44 Wings were spun-out of the TFG in 1996, into a new Surveillance and Control Group (SCG).

By 1997 the Defence Efficiency Review and the follow-on Defence Reform Program had begun to impact on the RAAF by transferring much of the individual FEGs’ maintenance and organic support capabilities to contractors, reducing some FEGs to a group consisting of only one wing, with an obviously unsatisfactory ‘one-group-commanding-one-wing’ command chain. This was the case for SRG and MPG.

Another issue was that at SRG, new air defence capabilities, especially the increasing availability of look-down radars, had eroded the ability of the F-111C to exploit terrain masking during its final approach to a target. It was becoming apparent that in future, the F-111C and F/A-18A forces would need to cooperate tactically to ensure F-111C survivability against improving air defences, hence the establishment of the Air Combat Group (ACG). But the long-standing silos that segregated the RAAF tactical fighter and strategic strike capabilities, a situation going well back to the ‘fighter’ and ‘bomber’ heritages of both capabilities, was a significant institutional barrier to ‘fighter/bomber’ cooperation.

That cultural ‘fighter/bomber’ segregation was a concern to then Chief of Air Force Air Marshal Errol McCormack. With a Sabre and Canberra background, experience participating in the first F-111C cohort (1968), time flying the RF-4C on exchange with the USAF, and his time as OC No 82 Wing flying the F-111C, McCormack had plenty of pertinent advice to offer Air Commodore John Quaife of his posting as the first commander ACG. After spending 12 months planning the merger of the TFG and SRG, Quaife took up his post as CDR ACG in January 2002, commanding Nos 78, 81 and 82 Wings.

The formation of ACG was accompanied by further development in the new SCG when, in 1999 1RSU moved to Edinburgh as a precursor to controlling not only the Alice Springs over-the-horizon radar but also the new over-the-horizon radars at Laverton, Western Australia and Longreach, Queensland. Those radars came online in mid-2003, completing the Jindalee Operational Radar Network (JORN).

Further developments followed which brought the existence of the short-lived SCG to an end when it was merged with MPG, a group which had been reduced to oversight of one wing – No 92 Wing flying the AP-3C.

The SCG-MPG merger saw the establishment, on 30 March 2004, of Surveillance and Response Group (a new SRG), and with the impending introduction of the RAAF’s airborne early warning and control capability, the E-7A Wedgetail, SRG, headquartered at Williamtown, became a FEG of considerable capability, fully justifying the appointment of a commander of air commodore rank.

SRG reached maturation on 1 January 2006 when No 42 Wing (airborne early warning and control wing) was reformed flying the Wedgetail, joining Nos 41, 44 and 92 Wings in SRG.

In contrast, ALG saw a long period of organisational stability as it continued its 24/7 role of air transport operations, with some improved capability when No 37 Squadron traded its 1966 vintage C-130E Hercules for the much-improved C-130J in 1999.

AOSG, headquartered at Edinburgh, also continued unchanged but not so the Operational Support Group (OSG) at Townsville, where the RAAF strove to retain some of its organic expeditionary support capability, so unthinkingly stripped by the crude and blunt Defence reviews of the 1990s.

Certainly, the 20 years to 2007 saw much organisational change, but it was re-assuring the RAAF was still able to retain an operational organisation, in keeping with the principles of functional force element groups, first trialled in 1987.

This article was first published in the January 2018 issue of Australian Aviation.

Air Vice-Marshal Brian Weston (Ret’d) was Commander of the Tactical Fighter Group from July 1990 to July 1993. He is currently a board member of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation.