On 27 February, Chief of Air Force Air Marshal Leo Davies officially launched ‘Air Force Strategy 2017-2027’, a vision for the Royal Australian Air Force to transition and become a fifth-generation Air Force.

The Strategy, aimed primarily at Air Force decision-makers, outlines five strategic vectors that will guide Air Force’s trajectory over the next decade. It was written to address a perceived gap as Air Force, according to its Chief, ‘lacked a coherent document that outlined where we are heading as an organisation’.

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Chief of Air Force discusses the Strategy

The Strategy is closely linked to Plan Jericho, Air Force’s program of initiatives to foster innovative thinking and exploit new capabilities, but aims to embed the Jericho approach across Air Force to become an enduring feature of the organisation.

The five strategic vectors identified in the ‘Air Force Strategy 2017-2027’ are Joint Warfighting Capability; People Capability; Communication and Information Systems; Infrastructure; and International Engagement. Of these, Chief of Air Force highlighted Joint Warfighting and People Capability as those areas that would require the most fundamental changes.

Joint Warfighting Capability

Over recent decades, the Australian Defence Force has made huge advances in its joint warfighting capability. Joint command and control of operational forces is now core practice, particularly with the establishment of Headquarters Joint Operations Command. But differing doctrine, lack of joint training & education, and rivalry for resources can all contribute to a backdrop of tension and misunderstanding between the services. The two central issues limiting joint warfighting, as described in the Strategy, are acquisition and culture.

The Strategy outlines Air Force’s intent to maximise integration of its current systems, and achieve full integration of future systems, with other Defence systems and procedures. Rather than individually procure equipment and then reverse engineer solutions to make it work together, the Australia Defence Force will be ‘joint-by-design’ through an improved capability acquisition process. Jointness in non-traditional domains such as space and cyber will also be increasingly important as modern defence forces’ recognise the enormous impact they have on operations in the more traditional domains of air, sea and land.

Air Force has traditionally been poor at developing its people to be effective contributors to joint headquarters, instead focusing on highly specialised individual training. Thus the People Capability vector outlines a pathway to ‘promote a commitment to ‘jointness’ in Air Force culture’, with Chief of Air Force outlining his aim that people in the organisation ‘begin to put the joint effect before our own Air Force requirements’.

People Capability

An emphasis on people has become a focus for modern organisations, which recognise that attracting, recruiting and retaining the right personnel is critical to achieving organisational goals. In Air Force, perhaps more so than the other service arms, investment has previously concentrated on platforms over people. Technology alone cannot be relied on to maintain a decisive advantage in warfare – it is often obsolete soon after being introduced, has become more accessible to our adversaries and is likely to be targeted early on in a major conflict.

Instead Air Force members’ cognitive skills can provide a greater capability edge, where they are able to out-think and out-play the adversary. Thus the Strategy aims to create a ‘fifth-generation workforce’ that is ‘comfortable with uncertainty’. This will require major shifts in how Air Force delivers its program of professional military education and training, which has struggled to be effective in its aim of increasing professional mastery.

Communication and Information Systems

The objective of the Communication and Information Systems (CIS) vector is to increase the compatibility of Air Force’s disparate systems, as well as ensure they are robust and redundant on operations. As with the ‘joint-by-design’ concept, the goal is that CIS should be networked with existing systems when acquired, and not through later workarounds and ‘stitching’ of systems. The Strategy also emphasises the requirement to operate in contested and degraded electronic environments, and the need to increase its members’ technical proficiency in electronics systems.

Infrastructure

Air Force operates from its bases, but over the years relatively little thought has been given to whether its infrastructure is optimised to support modern operations. The Infrastructure vector seeks to reconsider the role of bases as a capability enabler, and ensure they are hardened and adaptable enough to survive future conflict. The Strategy aims to develop new operating concepts for its bases, to include mobile and agile basing.

International Engagement

The 2016 Defence White Paper described Defence international engagement as part of a broader Government approach to building international partnerships alongside trade, diplomacy, foreign aid and economic capacity building. Key outcomes of greater Defence international engagement are enhanced interoperability, greater access to information, and provision of opportunities for mutual development. Effective international engagement can also reduce the potential for armed conflict by increasing ‘transparency and trust’ with a range of regional and global partners. The International Engagement vector is based on the person-to-person relationships developed by Air Force personnel, facilitated by improved cultural awareness and language training.

Exercise Pitch Black 2016

International cooperation on Exercise Pitch Black

Strategy for change

The Strategy deliberately focuses on areas requiring change, and is an important step forward for Air Force in that it implicitly acknowledges shortfalls in how the organisation has previously approached its business. Thus the focus on infrastructure and information systems acknowledges the relative neglect of these ‘unsexy’ elements of capability; and the emphasis on joint warfighting acknowledges that Air Force – perhaps never quite overcoming its late start as an independent service – can occasionally be insular and self-serving.

The Strategy is representative of a more mature service that understands where it fits within the Australian Defence Force, within the Department of Defence, within the political and diplomatic toolbox, and within the region. Integration with other services, agencies and foreign partners is not a preference; it is an imperative. ‘Air Force Strategy 2017-2027’ has set out vectors, goals and pathways to become a fifth-generation Air Force – as always, the challenge will be in implementation.