Royal Australian Air Force Strategy 2020: Applying Airpower for Strategic Effect

By Dr Heather Venable

Western air power ‘strategy’ – if one can even call it that – stresses above all how to employ air power jointly, especially using networks, to act as a force multiplier. These capabilities are essential to modern warfare, but they also are not enough as they largely support the operational level of war.

Meanwhile, air forces tend to ignore the strategic level of war, which entails considering how one can achieve the desired effect upon one’s enemy, in part because it has become so joint minded.

That is not to say that air power practitioners should NOT be used jointly; rather, it is to point out that a focus on jointness lends itself to thinking operationally rather than strategically because the emphasis is on the how rather than the why.

In effect, Western air forces have lost their strategic thinking, generally stressing ‘ways’ than ‘ends.’

Unfortunately, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) is not an exception to this tendency. However, there are signs that it is emerging from the group-think of recent Western air power thinking as can be seen by comparing Air Force Strategy 17-27 (2017) to Air Force Strategy 2020.

The currently abysmal state of air power strategic thinking is ironic.

Shortly after the First World War, for example, the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the future US Air Force (USAF) took decidedly strategic visions in developing theories (albeit imperfect ones) designed to win wars. This approach does not mean that they were inherently strategic because they pursued strategic bombardment or seeking to avoid the battlefield by flying directly to an opponent’s homeland.

Rather, they demonstrated strategic thinking because they pursued a theory of victory regarding how to use air power to have a strategic effect. By 1936, for example, the U.S. Air Corps Tactical School (ACTS) developed a strategy that targeted the ‘vulnerabilities’ of ‘modern industrial nations’ aimed primarily at one point of Clausewitz’s triangle: the people. ACTS advocated the destruction of carefully selected points in societies to cause ‘moral collapse’ – or effects on the population – as the immediate effect of strategic bombardment.

As one airman explained, the nation’s ‘will to resist’ could be found ‘centered in the mass of the people.’ Airmen theorized that attacks on ‘vital elements upon which modern social life is dependent’ allowed for a focus on an opponent’s will rather than the more circuitous and inefficient focus on its means.

It is essential to point out that these theories had significant problems, including making erroneous assumptions. One instructor, for example, struggled to connect the effect on the people to any ‘express[ion] through political government.’ Nevertheless, at least they were thinking strategically, and the Combined Bomber Offensive ultimately made significant contributions to the Allied defeat of Germany, such as achieving air superiority, that enabled other key joint operations.

By contrast, current air power thinking – indeed, Western military theory writ large – lacks a theory of victory beyond joint networks.

As the US military has turned its focus from the Global War on Terror to great power conflict, it has stressed multi-domain operations (currently joint all-domain operations) above all. Multi-domain operations emphasize the ‘ways‘ in which the U.S. military needed to connect its various branches of warfighters. ‘Ends,’ it seems to assume, must wait until an actual conflict unfolds.

Strategy, however, is not only a wartime endeavour but a peacetime one as well.

An air force strategy should not only strengthen the institution but also prepare for future warfare.

However, the USAF, which has led the charge for networked command and control in the US, largely has neglected strategic thought.

This is epitomized by how it largely ceased producing its own strategic documents, at least for public consumption.

This trend partially reflects the US military’s greater comfort with the operational rather than the strategic level of war.

This embrace of the operational level of war began largely in the wake of the Vietnam War when military officers sought to insulate themselves from civilian interference due to what they saw as micromanagement.

This approach continues today.

In some ways, Western air power has become unmoored from its early theoretical foundations, and that is a positive development because it is no longer wedded to theories of strategic bombardment. On the other hand, air power strategy now rests somewhat awkwardly on the untested and untried theory of John Boyd’s OODA loop. Western air forces – and militaries – essentially seek to foist multiple dilemmas on an opponent before it can react.

Critics, however, have suggested that Boyd cherry-picked his historical examples. As Lawrence Freedman further explains, the military thinking that coalesced during this time period, which continues to inform current thinking about maneuver warfare, ‘reflected an essentially romantic and nostalgic view of strategy, unhampered by the normal constraints of politics and economics.’

Regarding Australian air power strategy – or the lack thereof – it is important to note that the RAAF has not sounded terribly different from the USAF or the RAF.

Like recent defence documents in the West, its documents have stressed agility and speed as Boyd did. Western air forces tend to pursue a one-size-fits-all operational plan to create ‘fifth-generation warfare,’ or what the RAAF described in Air Force Strategy 2017-2027 as a ‘fully networked force that exploits the combat-multiplier effects of a readily available, integrated and shared battlespace picture.’

This, it asserted, would enable the RAAF to compete in ‘increasingly complex and lethal threats of warfare in the Information Age.’

One of the problems with this thinking, though, is its emphasis on what it can do rather than the effect it can have. In effect, it is about ‘us’ rather than ‘them,’ or how it enables the RAAF to create effects more than what effect those actions will have on an opponent.

As the Strategy further explained, the information age’s key attribute is supposedly transforming the ‘speed at which large amounts of information can be generated and disseminated,’ thus requiring Western nations to stay ‘ahead of the ever-quickening decision-making cycle of our adversaries.’

The RAAF is not alone in this thinking. It provided a brief quote from a 2016 Australian Defense White Paper calling for the need to apply force ‘more rapidly and more efficiently.’

While it is essential to adopt a joint posture, it is also important to consider how air power can best contribute to future warfare.

In other words, the ‘end’ of Australian air power strategy is not creating a fifth-generation air force. Rather, the appropriate ‘end’ is a strategy that puts ideas at its heart as to how to defeat its most-likely opponents and its most-dangerous ones.

A hint of the most dangerous threat comes through briefly in the strategy, with the RAAF stating its assumption in Strategy 17-27 that it would be ‘outnumbered’ and facing a ‘shrinking technological edge.’

However, it offered no specific strategy to combat this significant threat.

Networked jointness is essential now and into the future, but jointness does not mean that air power cannot be used independently to support jointness.

The pursuit of better jointness, moreover, should not be a substitute for national strategy or air power strategy.

An air force must envision how it can use air power most effectively, because that provides one of the greatest services to the joint force.

In this light, the most promising aspect of the RAAF’s recent Air Force Strategy 2020 is that it seeks to get outside the overarching trends in Western air power thinking by seeking ‘creative and non-prescriptive compositions of platforms, capabilities and priorities to address complex grey-zone threats.’

This emphasis on creativity should be intensified at the strategic level in the Indo-Pacific theatre beyond grey-zone threats to envisioning how to apply airpower for strategic effect during a range of conflicts.

In that way, the RAAF can really get its #AFSTRAT back.

Dr Heather Venable is an associate professor of military and security studies at the U.S. Air Command and Staff College and teaches in the Department of Airpower. She is the author of How the Few Became the Proud: Crafting the Marine Corps Mystique, 1874–1918.

She also edits for  The Strategy Bridge and is a non-resident fellow at Marine Corps University’s Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity.

This article was published by The Central Blue on November 14, 2020.