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RAAF Williamtown AFB 2002

Last Updated 30 August, 2003

RAAF fighter and strike forces merge

New thinking for air power of the future

In a break with tradition within the Australian Air Force, but one that heralds a new era for fast-jet operations in Australia, two of the RAAF’s Force Element Groups - Strike Reconnaissance Group (F-111) and Tactical Fighter Group (F/A-18 Hornet, Hawk and PC-9/A) - have merged to form Air Combat Group.
The new Group, formed on 1 January 2002, has been tasked to deliver the core capabilities of ‘Control of the Air’ and ‘Precision Air Strike’. Elements of this combined fighting force, located at four major RAAF bases, have assets of more than 2000 people and 145 aircraft.
Although F/A-18 and F-111 aircraft and crews have operated more closely in exercises and operations in recent years, future air operations under the new Group structure will see full integration of all fighter and strike assets, and that should have a force-multiplier effect according to the newly appointed Commander ACG, Air Commodore John Quaife. “Treating the F-111 and F/A-18 as separate entities meant neither was deployed to the full extent of its capabilities,” he said.
“You can’t really divide the platforms as neatly as we had because that suggests the roles they have are definable, which isn’t the case. The F-111’s capability stretches across the spectrum of air combat as does the Hornet’s, and we were missing the benefits of having both platforms operating together.”
Headquarters Air Combat Group has been established at RAAF Williamtown, with the various elements of the group remaining at their current locations of Amberley (Queensland), Tindal (Northern Territory), Pearce (Western Australia) and Williamtown (New South Wales).
This is the first time that both fighter and strike assets will be organised under a single command. But this is not just a merger of two headquarters; the previous platform-centric system that assigned roles and tasks to a particular aircraft type has been discarded.
Now each Wing has been assigned a specific role and may use the most appropriate aircraft and support resources to carry out that role.
Control of the air, the traditional fighter role remains with 81 Wing, and 82 Wing retains precision air strike and reconnaissance.

The philosophy that underpins the single force element idea is that Australia needs to prepare for contingencies by ensuring that the RAAF can deliver maximum firepower from the air when and where it is required.
Combining the fast-jet combat forces as a single cohesive fighting force is seen as the best way to achieve that core aim.
In the longer term, but of immediate importance from a planning perspective, Quaife believes that the formation of Air Combat Group is an essential pre-requisite to Project Air 6000 - the replacement of the F-111 and F/A-18 platforms.
He said that a unified command structure was essential to the introduction and management of the AIR6000 solution.
“The evidence for this lies in the fact that there are no direct ‘one for one’ capability replacements for the current platforms. Establishing the ACG is an early step in preparing an appropriate project strategy for AIR6000. Air Combat Group sets the Air Force up, not only to accept future capability, but also to develop the Air Force of the future.”
Quaife believes that the lead-time requirement for AIR 6000 is “one of the most compelling reasons for forming Air Combat Group.”
“The AIR 6000 project needs to deliver the new capability within the 2012 timeframe, which is only 10 years from now. We’re just about ‘on the money’ but it [ACG] is an initiative that has not come too soon.”
Quaife says that ACG is the driving imperative in preparation for AIR6000.
“To not establish the executive infrastructure to streamline the fast jet capability and eventually facilitate the transition to a single platform, would be naive,” he said. “There isn’t a natural replacement for the F-111 so we need to get our minds around a new way of doing business: to combine the capabilities we have in the F-111 and Hornet. Air Combat Group forces us to combine those capabilities.”
From a current operations perspective, Air Combat Group allows for more constructive planning of joint and single-Service exercises, more effective communication between participating forces, and better strategies that can be applied to executing the air operations plan.
“Conjoined operations tend to have a novelty about them, whereas we should just be normal in the way we do business and nothing noteworthy,” Quaife said. “Air Combat Group is the vehicle to allow that to become the normal way we do business, a command structure ensuring we cross the platform boundaries.”
On the training front, the role of 78 Wing based at Williamtown will be widened to include F/A-18 and
F-111 conversion-to-type training, lead-in fighter training on Hawk plus F/A-18 and F-111 operational conversion training for aircrew (at Amberley). 82 Wing will train both F-111 and F/A-18 crews in precision air strike.
In a three-phased approach to transition to a single force element group, new ACG Headquarters has been established at Williamtown. A Forward Air Control Development Unit (FACDU) has been established as an independent unit within 82 Wing but based at Williamtown. The headquarters of both Strike Reconnaissance Group and Tactical Fighter Group have been disbanded.
According to Air Commodore Quaife this progressive transition will allow the RAAF to adapt to any problems that may arise while allowing the operational squadrons to concentrate resources on current tasking commitments.
The second stage will investigate how best to transfer
F-111 aircrew and technical training from 82 Wing to 78 Wing, while the final stage will determine how to transfer responsibility for F/A-18 precision strike capability to 82 Wing.
Air Commodore Quaife said that the composite fighter/strike/reconnaissance capability of Air Combat Group defines a new way of warfighting: utilising composite air power assets to deliver maximum firepower. “This is an exciting time and it will call on the skill, dedication and commitment of all involved,” he said.
Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Angus Houston said the formation of Air Combat Group was an important development in Australia’s air combat capabilities for the 21st Century. “This new structure greatly enhances our ability to deploy composite air power in an effective manner because it brings together the strengths of our individual combat platforms. Also, by managing our air combat power through a single command structure, we will be able to ensure the correct balance between our resources, capabilities and tasks is maintained, both now and into the future.”
As a ceremonial prelude to the new Command’s place in the RAAF, units of the new Air Combat Group, including 78, 81 and 82 Wings comprising Nos 1, 3, 6, 75, 76, 77 and 79 Squadrons along with No 2 Operational Conversion Unit and the Forward Air Control Development Unit paraded in full ceremonial livery at RAAF Williamtown on the night of February 7 2002.
The ethos of the new Air Combat Group, ‘Defend and Strike’, is emblazoned under its new crest of a Grey Goshawk, Astral Crown and the Southern Cross. This striking image has been designed to herald in a new era for Australia’s air combat force


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