RAAF goes to Iraq Transformation and Engagement

Jan 15, 2015

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) is in the throes of transformation – adding new platforms, shaping new approaches and introducing new capabilities. The Chief of the RAAF, Air Marshal “Geoff” Brown, has put together a broad transformation process, which he fittingly calls Plan Jericho, because it is aimed at breaking down barriers. He is expected to roll it out at the Avalon Air Show to be held in Australia at the end of February 2015.

French Air Force Dassault Rafale F1 fighter jet receives fuel from RAAF KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport in Iraq.
(Photo: SGT Mick Davis, 1st Joint PA Unit, RAAF)

“I intend to release Plan Jericho, the RAAF transformation plan, in early 2015. It will guide our force transformation, enabled by our new 5th Gen capabilities, over the next decade. I will be engaging closely with industry in the development of the plan,” said Air Marshal Brown in a May 2014 presentation. “It is the technology that is being developed by industry that affords us the opportunity to transform our force. It is essential that we partner with industry to explore how we can maximize the opportunity offered by 5th Gen systems.”

In other words: industry, working with the Australian MOD, is expected to shift its approach from selling the next platform to shaping capability enhancers for the platforms being bought (F-35s, KC-30As, C-17s), and those that form the legacy force. The notion of a Plan Jericho is an approach to pull down barriers and maximize the synergies of the RAAF in being able to work with the joint force and coalition partners.

The current deployment of the RAAF to Iraq is a measure of its progress towards transformation. With its own tankers and airlift, the RAAF strike force was able to move rapidly from Australia to Iraq, to ­support the allied efforts against so-called Islamic State jihadists.

Retired RAAF Air Vice-Marshal John Blackburn, now the Deputy Chairman of the influential Australian think-tank (Institute for Regional Security), and Deputy Chair of the Williams Foundation, recently talked of the nature of that change. The dynamics what he described fit well with my earlier argument in FrontLine Defence of the trend line towards enhanced insertion force capabilities.

“Prior to the current modernization program, the RAAF would need several months warning time before they could assemble a strike force. And they did not have the logistic capability to support that force at long distance from Australia.

“Contrast that to today where in the current Middle East deployment, in a matter of weeks, the forces were able to respond rapidly and to deploy against the threat. And they have an ability to provide the complete logistical support as well to the force. The C-17 and the KC-30As have been crucial to this effort, and is why the government is seeking to acquire additional C-17s and KC-30As as well,” says Blackburn.

“It is a mindset as well as capability change as well. In today’s world, you are not going to have six months warning with that amount of time to respond. You need forces that can be gathered together rapidly and deployed as a package,” he asserted.

“Our government wants to insert forces rapidly to deal with crises; not to have to wait for a long period to deploy. We don’t want to respond to the PM’s request to deploy with: ‘Call us in six months, and we will let you know when we are on our way.’ Governments want real options; not a recorded message.”

A Royal Australian Air Force KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport leads the way as RAAF jets – two F/A-18F Super Hornets and an E-7A Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft – fly towards the Middle East.
(Royal Australian Air Force Photo: 2014)

To date, the following allied aircraft have been refueled by Australian KC-30As:
USN F/A-18E/F/G and EA-6B
USMC F/A-18C/D and AV-8B
FAF Rafale
RAF EF 2000 Typhoon and Tornado GR4
RAAF F-18 Hornet and 737 Wedgetail

The self-deployment to Iraq by the RAAF has been facilitated by the ability to leverage their new A330MRTT tankers.

In a January 2015 interview, the commander of the Air Mobility Group (AMG), Air Commodore Warren McDonald provided his assessment of the group’s key role in the transformation of the RAAF. “AMG now has considerable capacity, sustaina­bility, speed and reach. The sheer capacity of our Air-to-Air Refueling (AAR) assets and heavy lift platforms has fundamentally changed the landscape of Air Mobility within Air Force. The movement of the RAAF from Australia to Iraq was a defining moment for the RAAF and really the first time we self deployed an air combat package, equipment and personnel over such a long distance and in such a short period of time. The maturing of the KC-30A was the game changer, in conjunction with our heavy lift fleet,” McDonald confirms.

The RAAF had already certified their KC-30As for tanking their own F-18 Hornets, however, this operational deployment to Iraq highlighted an important opportunity for the RAAF to refuel allied aircraft. Indeed, it led to an accelerated process for certifying the KC-30A to refuel allied aircraft that utilize hose and drogue systems.

Two KC-30A deployed with six F/A-18F on 21 Sep 2014 and arrived in theater two days later. One tanker remained in theatre while the second returned to Australia to continue a further Air Mobility Support deployment in support of Operation Okra, Australia’s contribution to the international effort to combat the Daesh terrorist threat in Iraq. Daesh is a distasteful name that most Arab nations now use to refer to ISIS/ISIL, particularly since imams insist the IS is neither Islamic, nor is it a state.

Australia’s contribution to Op Okra is being closely coordinated with the Iraqi government, Gulf nations and the international coalition partners. Approximately 600 Australian Defence Force personnel have deployed to the Middle East – 400 in the Air Task Group and another 200 in the Special Operations Task Group.

The KC-30A typically flies two missions per day and is being well reported by coalition countries. Approximately 50 Australians are deployed in support of the Air Mobility Task Unit, which represents a lean support element in theater.

As of 8 Jan 15, the RAAF KC-30As have operated and contributed as follows:
•    108/110 flown/tasked (98% completion)
•    835.6 hours flown
•    Fuel offloads averaged 2.5 million pounds each in Oct. and Nov., and increased to 3.3 million pounds in Dec.
•    Total fuel offload of 8,529,139 lbs.

It should be noted that the RAAF is not the only Air Force operating the Airbus 330MRTTs in these operations. The Royal Air Force has deployed their version during the operation and, as of mid-December; the RAF Voyager fleet had flown over 100 sorties, logged more than 700 flying hours, and provided over 4 million liters of fuel to RAF, US Navy, French Air Force and RCAF receivers. The UAE and Saudi Arabia also have A330 MRTT tankers.

Air Commodore McDonald noted that the deployment of both the KC-30A and the new air battle management aircraft, the Wedgetail, are part of the overall process of change. “The Chief of Air Force has set the foundations for Plan Jericho, which looks at the interactivity and connectivity of key platforms in the RAAF and how best to transform the Air Force to meet future operational needs. Obviously, Air Mobility Group is a key part of this effort.

“We are looking not at just adding lift and tanking capabilities but are focused on how these traditional assets can connect to our forces in the battlespace, and provide enhanced C2 and situational awareness for Australian and coalition war fighters.”

French Air Force Dassault Rafale F1 fighter jet receives fuel from RAAF KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport in Iraq.
(Photo: SGT Mick Davis, 1st Joint PA Unit, RAAF)

Although transformation is facilitated by the acquisition of new platforms, the leadership of the RAAF is looking to make better or different use of their legacy fleet as well. “We currently have disparate levels of communication capabilities across each platform within AMG,” noted the Air Commodore before explaining the approach. “To address this shortfall we are installing satellite links in twelve C-130Js by the end of 2016. We are also working the ground station piece, and are focused on having an AMG control center able to know where our aircraft are at all times in order to better support the force. Similarly, we are focused on shaping a more effective rapid air tasking capability across the fleet and, to do so, we are adding significant situational awareness capabilities across our aircraft. In doing so, we will provide a very wide range of options for decision makers.”

When asked about recrafting legacy assets as the new air mobility aircraft enter service, McDonald says the C-130J is a good example. “With broader lift needs now being met by the C-17s and KC-30As, we have the capacity with the C-130J to better tailor our training and capabilities to the needs of the Special Forces. We will also extend this reshaping to the C-17A and the C-27J. And as we move forward with the KC-30A, modifications for that aircraft as well a modernization program for the rest of the fleet will provide a wider range of roles that can be applied to the networked battlespace. For us, the KC-30A is a brilliant platform for enhancing our overall capabilities.”

True transformation cannot be complete without culture change, that’s what it is really about. In other words, Plan Jericho is about force integration and a culture change within the RAAF to shape a 21st century approach to operations.

“The Air Force transformation under Plan Jericho is not just about networking,” says McDonald, “it is about changing the way we think about operations and integrating as a fighting force. In that sense, cultural change is inevitable. In that context, it is clear that the introduction of new capabilities into AMG is a key driver on that journey. The Chief is leading a broad process of cultural change that includes training, experimentation and the development of tactics. All of these initiatives will allow the RAAF to operate more flexibility and adapt readily to the future.”
Robbin Laird is an international defence analyst based in Virginia, USA.
© 2015 Frontline Defence