The Air Force’s exploitation of its suite of advanced capabilities will hinge on a highly-skilled and agile workforce. In this post, Wing Commander Paul Hay argues that non-commissioned personnel will provide the majority of the needed breadth and depth, and that optimising this workforce to meet future demands requires a different approach to training and management.

The recent arrival of the EA-18G Growler and P-8A Poseidon aircraft heralded the introduction into service of the Air Force’s new generation of intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, electronic warfare (ISREW) and fast jet platforms. Over the next six to seven years additional ISREW capabilities such as the G550-based ISREW aircraft, MQ-4 Triton, an armed medium altitude long endurance (MALE) UAS and a land based Integrated Air and Missile Defence (IAMD) system will all enter service. We will need to ensure as an Air Force that our training and personnel structures adapt sufficiently to generate this new workforce. This work has already commenced with the development of an Aviation Academy; however, the Academy is aimed at remediating the commissioned workforce. Air Force may wish to consider undertaking a similar body of work and structured training system for the airman workforce.

The bulk of Air Force’s ISREW data is currently generated by a Heron Unmanned Aerial System and AP-3C aircraft as well as from coalition partner assets, but the volume and types of data is limited. Fast forward to 2023 and the environment will have completely changed. A standard 24-hour Air Tasking Order day may include a permanent Triton orbit, a MALE UAS orbit, a G550 ISREW mission and a P-8 Increment 3 conducting a regional Operation Gateway patrol. These capabilities will all contain multiple ISREW sensors and will produce vast amounts of Full Motion Video (FMV), still images, signals intelligence product, radar imagery, radar and video moving target indicator (MTI) data and other products. These sensors will in the most part be operated by the airman workforce.

The large array of the multi-sensor ISREW product will be analysed and fused at Distributed Ground Station – Australia (DGS-AUS), other networked Australian Defence Force (ADF) deployed Processing, Exploitation and Dissemination (PED) nodes, coalition partner PED nodes and by national agencies. The processing, exploitation and fusing of multiple data feeds, and ultimately the dissemination of this data to the customer will be largely conducted by the airmen workforce. In broad role based terms this highly skilled and multi-disciplined workforce will be a mix of sensor operators and analysts, relying on a common fundamental understanding of collection management and ISREW fundamentals and experts in their particular streams.

Air Force's future ISREW systems will feature an array of sensors primarily operated by airmen. [Image credit: Royal Australian Air Force]

Air Force’s future ISREW systems will feature an array of sensors, many of which will be operated primarily by airmen. [Image credit: Royal Australian Air Force]

With commissioned ranks only flying on ISREW platforms for one or two postings before promotion, the majority of the Air Force ISREW subject matter expertise will arguably reside within this airmen workforce. If carefully managed, over the course of their ten, twenty or thirty year careers they will have the opportunity to master these highly capable platforms and their related ground segments, and analyse and fuse the generated data to support a myriad of ADF and allied joint commanders. In terms of ISREW, this workforce needs to be the focus of a long term management strategy requiring a structured training system to generate and maintain the workforce over time. It may also assist in avoiding the high loss rates experienced by the USAF with its UAS airman workforce as a result of limited pathways for development and respite.

The current model for generating this workforce is largely stove-piped within individual force element groups (FEGs) through their platforms or weapon systems, with initial employment ISREW fundamentals training occurring at multiple locations within multiple FEGs. In many cases the same or similar material is being taught in multiple locations, with some operational conversion (OPCON) units conducting fundamentals training as these skills are not able to be taught elsewhere. Subsequent postings are generally also limited to within stove-piped organisational constructs, with limited opportunities for career broadening or development within the member’s core mustering. This model reduces both the Air Force’s organisational flexibility, increases overhead, dilutes focus and does not baseline quality assurance. As well, it narrows an individual’s options for role and geographic postings experience, and so their and broader personal development and the normalisation of skills across Air Force.

Air Force is well down the path of designing an Aviation Academy which is due to become operational in 2019, however efforts are currently focused on the officer workforce. The impending aircraft acquisitions and associated airman workforce requirements may necessitate a similar body of work to be conducted to develop an Airman Academy to ensure the new generation of ISREW capabilities can be effectively employed from the moment they enter service.

The Airman or combined Academy would generate a standardised baseline workforce with modular teaching components. The standardisation of fundamental and post-graduate knowledge and skills would enable a more flexible workforce with structured growth paths for re-streaming of workforce over time. The Airman Academy would have significant commonality with the Aviation Academy, thus being able to leverage much the same training material and equipment to teach aviation fundamentals.

The Airman Academy would conduct modular training courses in ISREW fundamentals, an example being how generic electro-optics systems function and the employment of those systems. Both sensor operators and analysts would conduct this common training, with operators then streamed to learn how to operate the sensors, and analysts streamed to focus on the exploitation and reporting of the information generated by the sensors. Service needs and individual aptitude would determine streaming within the Airman Academy; however, the common baseline of skills and modular training system would greatly reduce the training delta required to re-categorise in the future and provide significant efficiencies in terms of training resources, while also providing standardised training across FEGs. Under this proposed system, an analyst who has spent two to three years analysing and reporting on electronic intelligence (ELINT) collection would arguably make an ideal candidate for aircrew and may well graduate OPCON as a Cat C operator and progress more quickly than a direct aircrew entrant. The management of individual qualifications across trades, as well as the maintenance of compliance training and ICT system access, would be an interesting area for discussion.

Loadmasters and Crew Attendants would conduct the aviation fundamentals and airman aircrew basic courses with the remainder of the workforce, and then conduct OPCON on their aircraft type. Any of the musterings would be able to return in an instructional role at the Academy throughout their careers and would have the opportunity to re-muster through the same training system.

This larger, commonly trained workforce could be more effectively managed across Air Force as a large system rather than a number of stove-piped workforces that exist today. An individual would have opportunities to move relatively freely between roles and capabilities over the course of a career, and Air Force would be able to more rapidly generate workforce across individual weapon systems when operational requirements dictate. It would also generate a highly professional workforce over time, with many personnel gaining a broad experience base across multiple joint domains and concepts.

A nominal and very simplistic view of how an Airman Academy would generate the ISREW workforce, including the potential through life career options within a ‘life cycle’ for airmen is depicted below.

Concept for an Airman Academy and an Air Force ISREW Airman Workforce “Life Cycle”

Concept for an Airman Academy and an Air Force ISREW Airman Workforce “Life Cycle”

Additionally, an Airman Academy would remove the need for OPCON units to be teaching fundamentals at their unit, rather they could reduce OPCON times by simply conducting weapon systems role training, platform conversion and the delta training from the academy onto the aircraft systems. In terms of finding workforce to staff the academy, some of the personnel associated with the fundamentals training in the OPCON units would be moved to the academy, with those instructional positions becoming developmental positions over time for the airmen they are training. Air Force may even wish to consider a more structured approach to education, including changing the conversion squadron construct to a common Operation Conversion Unit (OCU) construct across Air Force, such as an Air Mobility OCU (1OCU) and an ISREW OCU (3OCU) where common role training is undertaken followed by a relatively quick weapon system specific conversion, all within the OCU.

Air Force could ensure the workforce is maintaining warfighting currency across the entire organisation by having personnel attend either the Air Warfare Centre or Academies every couple of years for re-training in contemporary threat systems and warfighting techniques. A broad concept for this is below; I will leave this concept hanging for future discussion.

Concept for future Air Force education structure

Concept for future Air Force education structure

Air Force may wish to consider a broad review of airman training once the dust settles on the Aviation Academy work currently underway. The long term success of the Air Force ISREW platform may well hinge on a well managed airman workforce sustained through a structured training system.

Wing Commander Paul Hay is a current serving RAAF 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.