Royal Australian Air Force Strategy 2020: The Challenge of Delivering Capability

By David Hood

Some pundits claim that the release of the RAAF Strategy 2020 (AFSTRAT) is ‘a key milestone […] in articulating the role air and space power play in generating strategic effects as part of a joint and integrated force’. But for this milestone to be of value, AFSTRAT must be based on solid foundations which enable the strategy it articulates to be practicably implementable.

In Understanding Airpower – Bonfire of the Fallacies, renowned strategist Colin Gray sought to ‘prevent or reduce error in debates over all aspects of airpower’ by identifying major air power fallacies held by both air power’s advocates, and its critics.[1] While Gray wrote in the American context, these fallacies are applicable to air power more broadly and so represent a valuable lens through which we can review AFSTRAT and identify any flawed assumptions or claims within it.

Critiquing air power strategy is important for two reasons.

First, air power strategy has a chequered history of over-promising and under-delivering.[2]

Second, Australia’s current strategic outlook means that we cannot afford to get air and space power strategy wrong. So how does AFSTRAT stack up against each of Gray’s fallacies?

The era of conventional warfare between great states and coalitions has passed.

The [RAAF] needs to abandon the paradigm of large-scale regular warfare.’

AFSTRAT recognises this as a flawed assertion by acknowledging that while ‘high-end, state-on-state warfare – is a rare state in our geopolitical system,’ it ‘remains critical that Air Force is able to credibly respond […] with high-end warfighting capabilities’.

However, AFSTRAT places greater emphasis on ‘shape’, ‘deter’ and ‘respond’ effects outside the conflict zone, although what these effects are, or should be, is ambiguous. The RAAF is a relatively small force. AFSTRAT does not mention the need to judiciously identify and prioritise which effects can and should be accomplished at any one time – a reality that must be understood by all practitioners of air and space power, at all levels.

Consequently, the risk for AFSTRAT is not that it abandons the possibility of large-scale regular warfare, but that in seeking to provide a diverse range of strategic effects over a very broad ‘competition continuum’, it becomes less able to provide strategic effects coherent and most appropriate for the circumstances.

To avoid this, AFSTRAT should more clearly articulate the need for prudence in relation to what, when and how strategic effect is applied. AFSTRAT’s Lines of Effort (LOE), which constitute the ways strategic effect will be delivered, should explicitly reflect the need for disciplined application of scarce resources for strategic effect. Despite the investment in the 2020 Force Structure Plan, the RAAF cannot be all air and space power strategic things, all the time.

‘Airpower is an inherently strategic instrument.’

Gray argued that air power is no more uniquely strategic than other military instruments and cannot be independently decisive in peace or war. Rather, it is the consequences of military actions that are strategic, not the tools themselves. AFSTRAT makes no reference to, or assertions regarding ‘strategic airpower’, identifying a need for Air Force to ‘minimize the focus on platforms and enhance the focus on the strategic outcome’.

This promising sign is backed by its LOE’s consistent emphasis on the consequences of activities, not the attributes of platforms or materiel. For example, LOE1 recognises that Raise, Train and Sustain activities can generate strategic effects in the joint environment, while LOE3 promotes domestic and international relationships and engagement to shape the strategic environment and provide positive effects through awareness and reputation. More fundamentally, LOE4 seeks to evolve culture to optimise the intellectual diversity through which Air Force can generate strategic effects.

‘The development of airpower is driven by technology not ideas.’

Gray asserted that ‘ideas […] have led technical achievements […] Airpower in all its shapes and forms has always been the product of a specific vision, or visions, of utility’. AFSTRAT agrees. It applies the concept of ‘horizontal integration’ to ‘look past an individual’s narrow technical expertise to identify those with the potential to contribute to delivering of strategic effect’. LOE2 seeks to develop an intelligent and skilled workforce, recognising that the deep specialist knowledge required to use technologically advanced systems creates only the potential to generate strategic effect.

The need to foster innovation and ideas is so important that AFSTRAT states a requirement to review the RAAFs organisational structure, to optimise horizontal integration. LOE5’s governance framework facilitates this intellectual edge to ensure ‘Air Force [is] prepared to respond to problems, threats, and opportunities, and encourage ideas that benefit Air Force or the achievement of strategic effects’.

While this sounds very positive, there remain two great, but polar opposite, dangers. First, AFSTRAT could still be confounded by the desire of air power practitioners to focus on the technology itself. Such ‘tacticisation of strategy[3] risks the attainment of strategic effects. Second, if pursuit of ideas and an intellectual edge is taken too far, the imagined strategic effects may not be achievable within available resources. Both these extremes represent a failure to align ends, ways and means, and the right balance between ideas and technology is critical for air and space power’ optimum utility.

‘Airpower is about targeting.’

AFSTRAT seeks to apply strategic effects across a vast competition continuum, clearly viewing air and space power as far more than targeting for kinetic effect. Indeed, its strategic end state, better integration with the joint force in support of Whole-of-Australian-Government efforts to shape, deter and respond to opportunities and threats, suggests that the majority of air and space power efforts should be devoted towards non-kinetic ‘targeting’ for strategic effect. This is not to imply that ‘shape’, ‘deter’ and ‘respond’ efforts should be applied in a linear fashion, only that kinetic response is likely a last resort option for Australia.

This shift to a more mature understanding of targeting is supported by the LOE construct; only LOE1 speaks directly to targeting, and even then, far from exclusively.

‘Airpower must always be subordinate to land power.’

AFSTRAT does not address this age-old fallacy, remaining silent on subordination to other forms of military power. Instead, recognising the Australian Defence Force’s continued evolution to an integrated Joint Force, LOE1 details air and space power’s provision of strategic effects in that context. ‘Joint’ appears 83 times in AFSTRAT; ‘land’ or ‘ground’ not at all.

This reflects the Chief of Air Force’s Intent which states ‘Air Force does not generate air and space power for itself […] We provide air and space power options as a component of [joint] military power […] in support of Government objectives’. While the days of petty and invalid arguments about subordination of one military component below another may be gone, AFSTRAT must also be wary to ensure that its air and space power zealots cease their long-held belief of the opposite, that air and space power can be the panacea for all evils.

To achieve this goal, 100 years of RAAF cultural elitism, parochialism and tribalism must be overcome – a difficult task. LOE’s 2, 4 and 5 will be crucial enablers for LOE1’s objective of effectively integrating air and space power into the joint force.

‘The theory of strategic airpower is fundamentally flawed.’

This fallacy overcorrects in response to zealots’ claims that air power is capable of delivering ‘victory’ independently, asserting it can never achieve this. Gray argues this view is incorrect, as the theory of strategic air power is sound if one ‘lowers the bar’ in terms of interpretation. Air power can in some cases deliver strategic effect independently, particularly to shape the environment in order to decide which belligerent will win. AFSTRAT’s heavy focus on generating strategic effects as part of the joint force appears to prudently avoid addressing this fallacy, seemingly adopting the more nuanced interpretation.

Gray himself acknowledged that air power has proven independently decisive only in rare circumstances. Examined closely, examples such as Kosovo involved a significant overmatch between belligerents, a condition a small force such as the RAAF is unlikely to experience. Consequently, AFSTRAT is right to focus on providing effects as part of the joint force in the majority of circumstances.

‘The institutional independence of the [RAAF] is a major hindrance to the development of a truly joint, coherently integrated, [Australian] theory of, and doctrine for, warfare.’

Gray described the institutional independence of an Air Force as a ‘regrettable necessity’ because the air domain’s distinctive geography requires an ‘airmindedness’ which can only be obtained by specialists, immersed exclusively in that geography. This argument presents a challenge to the balance of expertise sought by AFSTRAT. Large components of LOE’s 2, 3 and 4 involve generating individuals with joint experience, and refining RAAF culture to support this.

The underpinning intent is not clear and could be interpreted as a drive to trade the current levels of ‘airmindedness’ held by air and space power practitioners, for greater ‘jointmindedness’. This might render them less able to employ the right air and space power into the joint environment, at the right time, for best strategic effect.

Implementation of AFSTRAT will require great care to ensure an appropriate balance between jointmindedness and specialisation in air and space power is retained. One option to maintain the right balance is to create a specialist mustering for air and space power practitioners. These individuals would specialise in the application of air and space power and could then advise those with joint experience, how to best apply air and space power into the joint environment.

‘Airpower can never be other than a minor player in the conduct of counterinsurgency [COIN] warfare.’

Gray acknowledged that COIN is inherently ground-centric in nature. However, he also asserted that air power ‘will always be quite literally essential’ in support. AFSTRAT does not explicitly mention COIN warfare, but it clearly forms part of the ‘competition continuum’ that AFSTRAT seeks to address. Air and space power are ideally suited to strategic efforts to shape, deter, and respond in a COIN environment, from Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, Reconnaissance and Electronic Warfare, through to Command, Control and Communications and kinetic effects.

The reach, strategic visibility and flexibility of air and space power make it an attractive strategic option for a style of warfare that will extract large costs on ground forces in its absence. Perhaps the greatest contribution air and space power can make would be to shape and deter COIN warfare from occurring at all, a strategic effect well supported by AFSTRAT.

‘The twenty-first century is the missile, space, and cyberspace age(s); airpower is one of yesterday’s revolutions.’

Gray’s framing of this fallacy centred on the growing obsolescence of ‘manned airpower’, which would be replaced with effects from and through other domains. Even so, this argument remains largely irrelevant in terms of AFSTRAT for two interrelated reasons.

Firstly, AFSTRAT’s approach to both air and space domains is premised on effects ‘in, from and through’ these – whether manned or unmanned, including missiles.

Secondly, this effects-based approach emphasises the need to move beyond platform-centric thinking. Together, these mean that it does not particularly matter whether manned aircraft, or any other platforms or capability become obsolete or not – the vehicle providing the strategic effect is unimportant compared to the effect itself.


On paper, AFSTRAT 2020 fairs well when evaluated against Gray’s nine air power fallacies.

The real challenge for it will be its implementation.

Only through the disciplined application of AFSTRAT’s LOE will the RAAF avoid air power’s historic failing of overpromising and under-delivering.

To this end, an AFSTRAT V2.0 could begin by providing greater clarity in the areas discussed above to ensure its intent is understood by the practitioners, at all levels, who are charged with turning strategy into reality, not fallacy.

Wing Commander David Hood is an Aeronautical Engineer working for the Royal Australian Air Force. He holds a Master of Gas Turbine Technology (Cranfield, UK) and a Master of Military and Defence Studies (Australian National University). Wing Commander Hood is currently Commanding Officer of Air Training and Aviation Commons Systems Program Office (ATACSPO).

[1] Colin S. Gray, Understanding Airpower: Bonfire of the Fallacies, Research Paper 2009-3 (Maxwell Air Force Base, Air Force Research Institute, 2009), p. 2, 3.

[2] See for example: Tami Davis Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004); Carl H. Builder, The Icarus Syndrome: The Role of Air Power Theory in the Evolution and Fate of the U.S. Air Force (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1996); Mark Clodfelter, The Limits of Airpower; The American Bombing of North Vietnam (New York: Free Press, 1989); Colin S. Gray, Airpower for Strategic Effect (Maxwell Air Force Base: Air Force Research Institute, 2012); Robin Higham and Stephen J. Harris (eds.), Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2016); David MacIsaac, ‘Voices from the Central Blue: The Air Power Theorists,’ in Makers of Modern Strategy: from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, ed. Peter Paret (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1986).

[3] Michael I. Handel, Masters of War – Classical Strategic Thought (London: Routledge, 2001), Appendix E.

This article was published by the Central Blue on December 6, 2020.