5th Generation Energy for 5th Generation Air Power

By Nicholas Packer

By 2025 the Royal Australian Air Force will operate a fleet of technologically advanced 5th generation aircraft.

However, in modernising the RAAF capability, an inadequate amount of attention has been afforded to the fuel and energy infrastructure that supports these assets.

In order to ensure these 5th generation capabilities are employed to their fullest, Air Force must capitalise on new and emerging energy technologies that enhance the support provided by air bases.

Australia currently enjoys what it thinks to be a high degree of liquid fuel security. Reports released by the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism assert that Australia’s market-based approach, ready access to the global and regional markets for crude oil and petroleum products, and efficient supply management by industry, has delivered secure, reliable and adequate liquid fuel supplies. Australia’s guiding principle is that energy markets should be left to operate freely, without unnecessary government intervention.

To date, this approach has met the current operational requirements of the Air Force and those of the broader domestic economy.

While there are economic benefits to this approach, it discounts current trends in competition for energy sources and market dominance, threats to supply infrastructure, the impact of natural disasters and geopolitical uncertainty (especially in the Indo-Pacific region).

An inadequate appreciation of these trends has created complacency resulting in a ‘stove-piped’ Australian energy policy; a policy that does not appreciate the complexity inherent in future energy infrastructure systems.

Consequently, energy security and supply is viewed through a ‘singular lens’; whereby the focus has been on discrete energy types with discrete global supply chains that are disparate, separately managed, and (most significantly) vulnerable.

Consider the following statistic: Currently 90% of Australia’s fuel supplies are imported; 40% as crude oil and the remaining 60% as refined fuels. In contrast to other developed nations, Australia is alone in its total reliance on ‘market forces’ to ensure secure access to the global fuel supply chain. Furthermore, Australia has no Government-owned strategic oil or fuel reserves and does not mandate minimum stockholding requirements for the fuel refining/importing industry. These oversights induce significant logistics and operational risks to the delivery of Air Force capability.

Should a significant supply disruption occur within key sea lines of communication (SLOC) within the Indo-Pacific (e.g., natural disaster, accident, a commercial failure, an act of terror or war), Australia’s capacity to provide fuel for its 5th generation Air Force is immediately jeopardised.

The National Strategy for Energy Security, developed by the United States Energy Security Leadership Council, offers a range of recommendations to counter the challenges created as a result of the current global security environment. The National Strategy is the preeminent document on the topic of energy security and calls on the US government to fundamentally strengthen a combination of energy security measures (Energy Security Leadership Council, 2016), including:

  1. Support, rather than hinder, innovation in energy technology;
  2. Major reductions in crude oil consumption by increasing domestic energy production;
  3. Reforms to energy-related regulations; and
  4. Transform the domestic distribution section so that oil is no longer its primary fuel.

Australian energy policymakers must undertake policy reform that is reflective of the US approach, appreciating that the challenges and opportunities in energy security are global in nature, and remain cognisant of the significant implications an approximate policy approach has for Australia’s national security.

To date, energy policy pundits have been relatively silent to the 2016 Defence White Paper’s acknowledgement of the strategic influence of energy supply chains and energy security on national defence. While energy requirements and subsequent security have never been a key driver behind Australian defence policy, the Defence White Paper does raise the requirement to ‘improve Defence’s fuel resilience.’

Further, when reviewing a critical infrastructure bill in March 2018, the Australian Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security made the following recommendation: “The Department of Home Affairs in consultation with Defence and the Department of the Environment and Energy need to review and develop measures to ensure Australia has a continuous supply of fuel to meet national security priorities.”

Adequate, reliable and economically competitive energy to sustain Air Force 5th generation capabilities and infrastructure must be seen as a shared responsibility between the Government and the Australian energy industry.

The importance of a strong Government-industry partnership in addressing energy security challenges in the long-term cannot be understated. In the interim, however, there are a number of practical measures that the Air Force and the wider Australian Defence Force can undertake to fortify the energy requirements of a 5th generation Air Force. These include:

  1. Advancing the development of energy technologies by integrating contractual efficiencies for their use in warehousing and distribution contracts. In particular, create incentives for the purchase and use of medium and heavy-rigid distribution vehicles that use advanced fuel sources.
  2. Use an Air Force and energy industry partnership to create performance-based advanced fuel standards in order to reduce traditional fuels consumption.
  3. Accelerating the adoption of advanced fuel systemsinto 5th generation aircraft and military vehicles will reduce the logistics and operational risks to Air Force capability associated with the use of traditional fuels;
  4. Empower Estate and Infrastructure Group to pursue efficiencies in airbase energy infrastructure with a view to creating completely self-reliant airbases through, for example, the use of solar and wind systems;
  5. To support the recommendation above, establish an Air Force ‘Energy Security Research Grant’ to fund research and development in advanced fuel technologies for use in 5th generation aircraft, military vehicles and airbases;
  6. Build an international consensus amongst Australia’s coalition and regional partners on the importance of shared responsibility and coordinated action to deal with future energy security challenges.

Air Force cannot remain ignorant to the interdependency of energy and national security as long as it remains heavily dependent on traditional fuels to power its 5th generation aircraft, military vehicles, and airbases. Despite a current abundance of supply, such dependence introduces operational risks and critical vulnerabilities to 5th generation air power.

While innovation in advanced fuel technologies will require years to mature, through the combination of measures proposed in this article, Australia will move toward being more energy secure, and more self-reliant.

Flight Lieutenant Nicholas Packer is a Logistics Officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. Nicholas is currently posted to RAAF Base East Sale as an instructor at the RAAF Officer Training School mentoring newly commissioned officers through their 17-week ab initio course. The views expressed are his alone and do not reflect the opinion of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Department of Defence, or the Australian Government.

Notes: Advanced fuel sources are distinct from renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power systems. Examples of advanced fuel sources include biodiesel, hydrogen cell, electric-hybrid, ethanol, natural gas and propane.

Development of advanced fuel systems for use in motorsport has demonstrated high technical performance can be achieved from advanced fuel sources.

There are a range of academic studies that have highlighted the value of hydrogen and pumped hydro-systems to store energy generated by solar and wind systems (Blackburn, Energy Security: Is there a problem?, 2018).

This article was first published by Central Blue on April 7, 2019.