The Australian and UK Defense Transformation Approaches

By Robbin Laird, Research Fellow, The Williams Foundation, Canberra, Australia

The UK and Australia are both in the throes of significant force transformation.

But unlike earlier periods of history, the Australians are not simply the students of UK military development.

They are crafting their own path, one which has a significant impact on the UK as well.

The two differ in key ways, as the UK relies more on a legacy air force and the role of its national defense industry is much more significant in shaping the options open to the RAF and to the Royal Navy

The Australian Approach

The Australians have taken a much more comprehensive approach to transformation, one built around what they refer to as building a fifth-generation force, than the Brits who are relying more significantly on a modernized legacy force, the Typhoon.

But both the Australians and the UK have identified significantly enhanced integration of their air forces with their navies as a key way ahead, and the role of the F-35 is a key part of shaping such integration.

At the most recent Fighter Conference held in Berlin in November 2018, Air Marshal (Retired) Brown laid out the path of airpower transformation which has been the keystone of the process of change for the Australian Defence Force.

In the case of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and the Australian Defence Force (ADF), the acquisition of the F-35 has been seen as not providing a replacement aircraft but providing a trigger to broader force transformation, with a future is now mentality.

Brown provided an overview of how the ADF is looking at the crafting of a fifth gen force or a fifth generation enabled force and some of the highlights from his presentation underscore how the Aussies are looking at this dynamic of change.

For the last 5 – 10 years in Australia we have been determining the characteristics of combat operations in the post 2025 era.  

The RAAF we have been very fortunate to have been well supported and funded by government.

In the RAAF it’s been nice to say that most pieces of the future combat fleet are in place or that the funding has been secured. It will be a F-35’s supplemented by Super Hornets and they will well be supported by systems like Wedgetail, Growler, KC-30s, and air defence systems like Vigilaire and over-the-horizon radar, and I even think the Maritime Patrol Fleets, P-8s and Tritons, will all contribute to the air combat system…..

We have concluded in Australia, that air operations will be characterized by the capability to connect air, ground and maritime forces. 

In the ADF we have actually called that 5th Generation enabled CONOPs.  The ultimate goal is that the combat and strike power of a single aircraft is not defined by what it carries itself but by its ability to direct and rely upon its network partners.

Even to the point of using other platforms weapons.

We have been in the process of developing 5th Gen CONOPS across the ADF informed by the forcing function of 5thGen aircraft and the associated air, maritime and land systems. 

In a 5thGen force, C2 systems will be enabled by flying ISR and C2 system, the combination of sensors and Stealth will enable aircraft like the JSF to operate in an Adversaries airspace and allow aircraft to serve as nodes in a dispersed and distributed air battle management system….

One of the things that the critics of the F-35 don’t get is, in all the studies of air combat, the amazing statistic is that 5% of the pilots have taken 95% of the kills.

Now, when you do the analysis of those 95% of the kills and what makes the difference with those 5% of pilots, it was their superior situational awareness in all the situations that they faced that made the difference.

And the F-35 gives you a massive leap in situational awareness, and that’s the key factor in 5th generation capability. It’s the integrated fused picture.

It’s worth briefly working through the value chain of the F-35. I’ll start in operations and I’ll work my way towards fundamental inputs to capability, and we’ll just have a bit of a look at some areas that we have been working on. 

Over the last 10 years I almost get a hoarse voice trying to explain to people why 5th generation capabilities are important in the F-35 and why speed and maneuverability don’t necessarily have the same impact that they previously had. 

What is 5th generation? 

It’s low observability, it’s a low infrared signature, it’s low electronic emissions, it’s an AESA radar, it’s the data links associated with that, but the most important thing in my mind that the JSF brings is the fused picture – that situational awareness that it actually brings to the operator.

And your level of situational awareness is a combination of all those things. If you look at the difference between an F-35 and a legacy platform, you don’t have to manipulate the sensors.

You’ve got a fused picture on the display, you don’t have to have as much communications between the flights; the pilots fundamentally got a lot more brain space to actually look at the tactical situation and go forward.

Now what are the implications for Air Battle Management?

We’re already implemented some of this with the rest of the ADF.

We’re successfully fusing the picture between Wedgetail and the Navy Destroyers and Frigates. One of the great decisions we made with Wedgetail was that on each one of the crews there’s a Navy Air Intercept Controller.

We’ve had Mission Commander who’s are Navy Lieutenant Commanders – and our recent experience on exercises and in Iraq and Syria with the Super Hornet and Wedgetail have really shown the power of that integration.

When you look at the F-35 be able to find, fix, track, target, engage and assess. That’s the cycle. The JSF can do that all by itself, but it is far more powerful if you look at the find and fix and you use a lot of the systems we’ve got from Vigilare to JORN to Space Based Systems, to maybe even the Triton and P-8. 

They’re all part of that find and fix. And if I was to look at track  – Wedgetail, AWD, Growler are all parts of that. The engage – well, that’s the job of Super Hornet, JSF and Growler, and what we aspire to is to have, some integrated fire control with the Royal Australian Navy.

That’s all well within the realms of possibilities. 

The more nodes you’ve got, the better off it is for the entire system. And what we see is the advantage of the F-35, it does increase the capability of the entire system….

After his presentation, I had a chance to sit down and discuss his presentation and the way ahead for the ADF leveraging the F-35 as a trigger point for change.

In the discussion after his presentation, Air Marshal (Retired) Brown highlighted a number of key points which he believes are central to thinking about the future of airpower.

First, he argued that buying an advanced plane and getting on with it was crucial

“70% of your cost is about maintaining, supporting and modernizing your airplane.  Why would you want to do that with a legacy jet when you can buy a fifth gen jet?”

Second, by getting the F-35 into service, the ADF could then look to add what is missing to that jet or to the air system and then look to shed legacy assets.

A case in point is support to the Australian Navy.

“When we have an effective maritime strike weapon onboard the F-35, we will look to retire our Super Hornets, with the exception of the Growler. Flying the Super Hornet has prepared us for F-35 in some key ways, notably in terms of the security requirements necessary to manage data generated by the aircraft.”

Third, the 5thgen approach as characterized by Brown is a shift to working the interconnected force in a different way.

He provided an example with regard to CEC and the Air Warfare destroyer.

“Our Navy has just started deploying our air warfare destroyers but we have already demonstrated CEC interoperability with the US Navy.

“We will put CEC on our Wedgetails to be able to provide weapons quality tracks to our ships, hence enhancing significantly the range for the strike capability of our fleet.

“And as we go forward we will find ways to directly link our F-35s with the fleet as well.

“Our Navy and Army are now focused on fifth generation communciaitons with their platforms as well, which is why having the F-35 in the force can drive change in the strategic direction in which you want to go.

“You fly a legacy asset you cannot drive the kind of change the ADF needs in the near to mid-term.

“It is not an abstract, long-range aspiration or goal.

“As the head of the RAF Lightning force, noted, the future is now.”

Fourth, the change in the overall structure of the ADF and the architecture to guide its development is being driven by a fifth-generation mentality and approach as well.

“Our architecture is not up to speed with what the F-35 can provide.

“We have a great airplane with enormous capability which will continue to evolve but a lot of the supporting infrastructure we’ve got is not designed to get the best out of that airplane.

“And I think that our focus needs to be on getting the rest of the system up to speed.”

Finally, fifth generation warfare training requires a paradigm shift.

“If you want an integrated system, you’ve got to train with an integrated system.

“You can exploit a lot of the capabilities that the F-35 brings to the fight in the live environment but the only place you can do it as a force is in the simulated environment.

“We need to develop fifth gen warfare networked simulation capabilities.

“And you just can’t afford for the simulated environment to be behind the airplane.

“It’s got to be updated at the same rate that the aero plane is being updated.

A key part of how the RAAF has generated a broader perspective on transformation has been supporting the reshaping of defense perspectives, and that has been done in part through what they have named Plan Jericho.

In my 2015 report for the Williams Foundation, the Plan Jericho approach was highlighted. This report looked at the RAAF approach to the transformation of jointness as they prepare to introduce the F-35 into the force.

The Aussies have a modern air fleet, with Super Hornets, KC-30A tankers, the Wedgetail E-7 battle management system Heron UAVs, and C-17s, recently in service and are seeing Growlers, the Triton UAV, the P-8 and the F-35 coming into the fleet shortly.

But no platform fights alone, and the Aussies are looking at how to rework their forces to shape a more interactive and enabled force. The F-35 is seen as not a replacement aircraft, but one which takes the integrated enablement of the force to the next level, but that will not happen without the transformation of the RAAF and with it of the ADF.

The Williams Foundation of Canberra, Australia held a one-day seminar/workshop on Plan Jericho on 6 August 2015, which featured presentations from the RAAF and industry as well as from the USAF looking at the way ahead.

Former Air Vice Marshal John Blackburn, one of the key stalwarts of the Plan Jericho effort, introduced the session. Blackburn hammered home really the most significant and challenging point – it is about design driven innovation, not simply R and D, technology or mini-experiments driven.

Rather than piecemeal, bits and pieces of applications of technologies to platform modernization or patchwork modernization, Plan Jericho aimed at a different goal – design driven innovation.

Blackburn contrasted the network-centric efforts of the 1990s with what Plan Jericho had in mind.  In the network centric effort, stove pipes were linked; it was about filling gaps, linking disparate systems, and getting as much connectivity as possible – with the basic operational mantra of the diverse platform drivers largely unchanged, namely to drive ahead with the diverse cultures, but better connected.

In contrast, Plan Jericho looked to design innovation and a way ahead, where connectivity could be built-in from the design to the delivery of capability, and whereby the operators would look at the effect which the force could deliver, not just their own platform set.

The UK Approach

The RAF does not yet have a Plan Jericho but with the coming IOC of the carrier, perhaps that is in the works as a way to look more comprehensively at the transformation path facing the UK forces.

But the RAF is undergoing a fundamental change, one which might be characterized as a triple transition.

The first transition is from the Tornado to Typhoon.

The second is the transition is to a fifth generation enabled air combat force.

The third transition is the deployment of F-35s aboard the new Queen Elizabeth class carriers and shaping their operational integration with land-based Typhoons into an air-sea-land combat package.

For the Brits, their weapons complex strategy which highlights a central role for the weapons company MBDA, as a means of ensuring weapons sovereignty is a key part of the triple transition.

The weapons revolution is being set into play enabling the capability to shape an integrated offensive-defensive strike force.  And at the heart of this transition are MBDA weapons being acquired through the UK’s Team Complex Weapons approach.

This is an approach which expands the partnership between industry and government whereby the customer can work more closely with industry to shape and drive the needs customized to its force development.

In this case, the customer needs to enable its high-end legacy aircraft with an integrated approach to fifth generation enablement.

The first transition is about the Tornado going out of service with the Typhoon subsuming many of its core missions. And this is being done by modifications to the Typhoon in its cockpit and software and the incorporation of key Tornado weapons, such as Storm Shadow and Brimstone.

This overall transition is referred to by the UK as the Centurion program which is designed to transition Tornado capabilities to the Typhoon which have been recently completed.

The incorporation of Tornado weapons is part of the Phases 2 and 3 Enhancement packages for Typhoon and also includes the introduction of a new missile the Meteor that can be considered to be a new capability being added to the force.

The Meteor adds range and lethality to the Typhoon in terms of its ability to carry out its air superiority missions.

While the incorporation of the Tornado weapons provides for an expanded Typhoon role, the addition of Meteor represents the next step in the weapons revolution enabled by fifth generation aircraft.

The Meteor’s longer range means that forward targeting by F-35s with data sent to Typhoons enables the air combat force to significantly enhance its overall capability to deliver longer range strikes against adversary air forces.

It shifts the consideration from the role Meteor can play on Eurofighter organically, to one whereby Eurofighter is providing strike for the penetrating air combat force enabled by the F-35.

This has already been seen at Red Flags.

Discussions with the Aussies, Brits and Americans involved in this year’s high-end exercises emphasized that Typhoon’s strike weapons were enabled by targeting data from F-35s operating deeper in the battlespace.

When Meteor is added to Typhoon this means that Typhoons can fire its weapons load against targets identified by the F-35 force at a greater distance because of Meteor with network enabled kill capabilities.

This is the template for weapons to come.

It is about weapons in the force being empowered by forward targeting and decision making by the F-35 which in turn then highlights the importance of high weapons load outs which the Typhoon is designed for.

The Meteor then provides a strike means of much greater range than current US shorter range strike weapons.

In other words, the RAF is preparing itself with its longer-range strike weapons, Storm Shadow and Meteor, to be a core weapons carrier for an F-35 enabled combat force.

And the force is being designed along these lines.

There are other key advantages of the approach as well.

With various European legacy air forces buying Meteor and Storm Shadow, stockpiling of weapons can be enabled to reduce costs and to enhance capabilities at the same time.

With Meteor to fly on multiple European air frames, development costs can be reduced, modernization enhanced and logistical reach enhanced.

This also is a template upon which forces can build.

Both templates – off-boarding of strike and weapons stockpiling across air frames – are key to the next phase of the weapons revolution.

The first will be about building out capabilities from a force which no longer is focused on what the single combat aircraft or its close proximity wing men can deliver but upon what the combat force can deliver enabled by F-35 forward based decision making and target identification.

A glimpse of this future was seen in Red Flag 17-1 one where one RAF pilot asked “Where are our SEAD weapons for Typhoon?

The F-35 identified clearly the targets; but why is it dropping weapons in the SEAD mission?

Why not pass that on to us and we can then fire the long range SEAD weapons against targets identified, selected and ordered up by the F-35s?”

Good question and will be answered by the next phase of the weapons revolution.

Another part of this evolving template was seen in tests earlier this year whereby MADL data (the video data stream which the F-35s use to transfer machine to machine data) was passed to Typhoons.

This development opens up the possibilities of transferring selective targeting video packages to other elements of the combat force.

And this could well see the transfer of another of the Tornado experiences, namely, the role of the weapons officer.

The Tornado has continued to fly for so long with effectiveness largely because of the combination of a weapons officer on board and the arrival of dual seeker Brimstone.

This strike package is a bus containing weapons which are independently directed to their target and managed by the weapons officer onboard Tornado.

Spear 3, a new MBDA weapon, will allow the single cockpit aircraft to use automation to replicate some of this capability.

But the role of the weapons officer could well be transitioned from a platform like Tornado to the combat force itself.

There is no reason that the weapons officer could not be flying on the Wedgetail, or A400M or another aircraft whereby the distributed strike force has embedded in it lower cost weapons which are guided to their targets by a weapons manager supporting the fifth generation enabled strike force.

And this will clearly be the case as the capabilities of the naval surface fleet flow into the air combat force as well.

Clearly, there is no reason weapons from a surface ship could not become part of the strike arsenal of an F-35 enabled air combat force. The UK is in a good position to do this as their F-35 force will be flown by an integrated team of Air Force and Navy pilots and enabling a carrier strike force.

In other words, the way the RAF is approaching Typhoon-F-35 integration prioritizes the weapons revolution and network enablement.

But it is really the introduction of the new carrier flying F-35Bs which really opens the transformation aperture for RAF and Royal Navy integration.

As Group Captain Ian Townsend, a key officer involved in working the F-35 introduction into service for the RAF and now the RAF Marham Base Commander and currently the F-35 force commander, put it with regard to the Queen Elizabeth and F-35 transition:

As an airman, I like anything that enhances my ability to deliver air power, and the ship certainly does that.

The ship has been tailor-made from first principles to deliver F-35 operational output.

The ship is part of the F35 air system.

I think this is the key change to where we were in Joint Force Harrier where the ship was really just a delivery vehicle.

The ship was just a runway.

The Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers are much more than that.

They are right at the heart of the air system’s capability fundamentally enabling and supporting what the air vehicle is doing three, or four, or five hundred miles away from the ship.

And that wasn’t quite the same in Joint Force Harrier with the Invincible Class CVS carriers.

So it’s very different for us.

Everyone involved in embarked F-35 operations needs to understand what the air vehicle is going off to do because everybody on the ship is much closer to that end delivery of effect.

This is a very different concept of operations from 15 years ago.

The new Queen Elizabeth class carrier is the largest warship ever built in the United Kingdom. While most of the focus of the press coverage has been on the process of building the carrier and now its sea trials, the carrier is coming at a very interesting point in British history.

There is a clear need to shape a post-Brexit defense policy, and having a significant epicenter of national sovereignty able to operate throughout the region and beyond

But it is also at the heart of integrating UK forces to deliver UK capabilities within the integrated battlespace, both in terms of an integrated carrier strike force as well as in terms of shaping the various war fighting systems which will come together onboard the ship.

It is however at the heart of shaping 21st century interoperability.

There is the interoperability being worked with the US Navy, as evidenced in the Saxon Warrior exercise off of Scotland.

There is the interoperability being worked as the USMC will operate its F-35Bs off of the ship. This will require an ability for the ship to operate US weapons onboard as well as to accommodate USMC maintainers as well with their specific national maintenance approaches.

The ship is an F-35 carrier and will work its interoperability with other F-35s as well in the region, notably with the Dutch, the Norwegians, the Danes, the Italians, the Israelis, the US and perhaps others Europeans as well.

In other words, the carrier is at the vortex of a turn in British history, and a key element of shaping 21st century force integration and interoperability.

This triple transition requires significant RAF and Royal Navy collaboration to ensure effective use of the integrated force in full spectrum crisis management.

And this is clearly a work in progress one informed in part by the relationship the UK is evolving with Australia, particularly in anticipation of the post-Brexit environment.

The featured photo shows the Commander of the Strike and Reconnaissance Group, Air Commodore Craig Heap, CSC, with the British Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) Harriett Baldwin MP, in front of a No. 11 Squadron P-8A Poseidon during a 2017 visit to RAAF Base Edinburgh.

For the special report entitled “Fifth-Generation Enabled Military Transformation: Australia, the UK and Shaping a Way Ahead,” please see the following:

Australia, the UK and Shaping a Way Ahead for Military Transformation