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Output Four: Air Force Capabilities

An F/A-18 waits its turn to refuel over Iraq during Operation Falconer. Aircraft from three coalition nations are also present.The Air Force contributed forces to the ADF's capacity to defeat attacks against Australia, defend regional and global interests, shape the strategic environment and protect national interests. The Air Force provided capabilities for precision strike operations, offensive and defensive counter-air operations, wide-area surveillance, air defence and airspace control, maritime patrol, anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare activities, tactical and strategic airlift, and combat support for air operations. These combat capabilities encompass air strike and reconnaissance, tactical fighter operations, strategic surveillance, maritime patrol aircraft operations, airlift, and combat support of air operations.

The Air Force also contributed to the maritime surveillance of Australian and regional economic exclusion zones, search and survivor assistance, aeromedical evacuations and VIP transport.

Performance Summary

The year was operationally demanding, with the majority of Air Force elements supporting the conduct of expeditionary operations into the nearer region and niche operations further afield in the context of coalition activity.

P-3 Orion long range maritime patrol aircraft continued involvement in a major surveillance operation (Operation Relex II) in the northern sea/air gap throughout the year. In addition, major force elements deployed to the Middle East included B707 air-to-air refuellers, F/A-18 Hornet fighter aircraft, P-3 aircraft and C-130 Hercules transport aircraft. These were supported by the expeditionary combat support squadrons and other support elements such as imagery analysts. Air Force air traffic controllers played a critical role in reactivating Baghdad International Airport under very difficult circumstances. Air Force medical and C-130 staff provided a rapid response to a major emergency, following the Bali bombings in October 2002, and evacuated a significant number of injured people to Australia.

While the year was very busy, the level of achievement was exceptional in a number of key areas, including surveillance activity and recovery of the F-111 fleet. The operational tempo of the past year, while reducing the capacity to support some aircraft upgrades and higher level training, demonstrated the Air Force's capacity to achieve its goals and meet the expectations of the Government and the Australian people.

Our retention was at the best level for many years, with separations for officers at 6.2 per cent and other ranks at 8.5 per cent. Overall recruiting performance was also excellent.

Planned Mitigation of Key Risks

Personnel. During the past year, Air Force personnel numbers continued to improve. Aircrew numbers were healthy, although experience levels remained low in some areas. There remains a shortage of some key personnel groupings including air traffic controllers, logistic officers and some technical trades, such as communications electronics technicians and signal operators. A number of personnel initiatives, including recruitment and retention benefits and other strategies, have been implemented to address these deficiencies.

Recruiting and Retention. While overall separations remained low, some categories continued to have high separations and low recruitment rates. The separation rate for officers was 6.2 per cent, although some smaller categories, such as airfield engineers at 17 per cent, predominantly at the flight lieutenant and squadron leader ranks, had higher rates. The overall separation rates for airmen and airwomen was 8.5 per cent, although the rate of the signals operators category was around 10 per cent (21 per cent at corporal rank), and that for the communications electronics technicians category was 11 per cent (20 per cent at flight sergeant rank). Recruiting results were good overall but, as with separation rates, some smaller employment groups experienced ongoing problems; for example, the air traffic controller category achieved only 33 per cent of its recruiting target and the ground support engineering category 66 per cent of target.

Ageing equipment. Ageing aircraft issues continued to impact on the Air Force through continuing higher repair and maintenance costs, and fatigue and corrosion management. However, the F-111 capability made a significant recovery from the major ageing aircraft related incidents that occurred during the previous year. These problems resulted in increased inspections, repair, and fatigue and corrosion management. The wing recovery program is ahead of schedule and aircraft availability has returned to required levels. Deployment of two B707 air-to-air refuellers to Kyrgyzstan to support Afghanistan operations resulted in an extended remediation program and, as expected after an intense operation, it will take some time to regenerate the capability to previous levels.

Logistics. Logistic pressures affecting F/A-18 and C-130J aircraft have been remediated for four years in the context of the 2003-04 Budget.

Training. Training was reduced in some key areas, so that the operational tempo could be maintained. This will take some time to recover.

Air combat edge. The air combat capabilities of a number of defence forces in the region have grown steadily in recent years. The Air Force is maintaining the edge through a series of enhancements to combat aircraft and their weapons, either in progress or identified in the Defence Capability Plan. Teams have been established to continue negotiations for the acquisition of a new air combat aircraft and new air-to-air refuelling aircraft. Continued enhancement of the Jindalee Operational Radar Network will improve surveillance capabilities and maintain our combat edge.

Forward deployment capability. The Air Force's ability to provide combat support and sustainment to air operations, concurrently with a recognised air picture for deployed operations, was limited by ageing systems' issues associated with the mobile control and reporting capability. Remediation to replace ageing mobile air surveillance, control and reporting capability commenced in 2002-03 and will continue over the next three years.

Safety enhancement

The Air Force undertook comprehensive safety audits of all units to measure performance against Australian standards and ensure continuous improvement. A program of annual audits was also introduced. Following a review of safety training, the Air Force plans to progressively integrate safety training into the professional military education and training scheme. As an interim step, specialist training will be provided, where necessary, to cover specific areas at risk as highlighted in the audits.

The Board of Inquiry into the F-111 deseal/reseal program highlighted issues with Air Force performance and methodologies. A program to address these issues was ongoing throughout the year.