Yesterday the Australian government announced the RAAF is temporarily ceasing operations over Syria. Although a Defence spokesman told the ABC that ‘force protection was regularly reviewed’, it is hard not to conclude the move was a response to the US downing of a Syrian jet and the subsequent threat by Russia to track any aircraft west of the Euphrates River with surface-to-air missile systems.
At first glance, this seems to be a sensible approach by Australia. Why risk an aircraft being shot down over Syria in an operation that is not fighting a direct threat to Australia? The material and human costs, in the form of the loss of a multimillion-dollar aircraft and, more importantly, in terms of the aircrew’s lives, do not seem to be worth the payoff of dropping a couple of bombs on ISIS positions.
However, beneath this pragmatism lies a deeper, more important set of questions for Australia. These questions are interwoven, yet can be considered as three parts – material, moral and philosophical – of a larger question: how does Australia seek to utilise lethal force to further its national objectives?
The first part of the question relates to the material cost of achieving national objectives. The RAAF air-to-ground capability in the Middle East is provided by the six F/A 18-F Super Hornets of the Air Task Group (ATG). The RAAF purchased 24 F/A-18F Super Hornets as an interim capability due to delays in the F35 Joint Strike Fighter program, at an assessed cost of more than $6 billion, or about $250 million per aircraft (not including operating costs since). The last report by the Australian National Audit Office into the cost of training aircrew was conducted in 2004, prior to the purchase of the Super Hornets, and estimated it cost $15.2 million to train a combat pilot. That cost will no doubt have gone up since then, and there is also the cost of training the Air Combat Officer who sits in the rear of the Super Hornet. Conservatively speaking, it is reasonable to assess the cost of a Super Hornet and crew over Syria is therefore in excess of $270 million.
So, from a purely financial point of view it is a risk putting that aircraft and crew into a contested airspace. Yet, this in itself is a paradox, for while it would be a fiscal loss if an RAAF aircraft was shot down over Syria, it begs the question as to whether Australia has spent $270 million per platform on a fighter aircraft unable to operate in a modern threat environment.
Ten years ago, when then-Defence Minister Brendan Nelson announced the purchase of the Super Hornets, Peter Criss, former Air Commander Australia, said: 'This thing will not survive in a fight now in our region - now, right now. Not another five years down the track, 10 years down the track. It is a dog'. It would seem at face value that Criss may have been right. If he was wrong, and the Super Hornet is fit for role, then the Russian statement should not be a cause for ceasing operations.
The second part of the question is the moral question: that of putting our aircrew into harm’s way for a threat which is not existential. This is a particularly difficult dilemma. For over a decade Australian Army soldiers were asked to patrol areas in Afghanistan that were high threat: 40 were killed in action and another 262 wounded. Australia currently has Special Forces soldiers advising Iraqi forces battling to recapture Mosul. Over the same period Royal Australian Navy personnel have risked their lives in treacherous conditions to rescue boat people in distress. However, acceptance of mortal danger is part of the contract for all service personnel. While the bravery of RAAF aircrew who fly operations over Iraq and Syria (fully aware of their likely fate should they be forced to eject over ISIS territory) should not be underestimated, the risks they face should also not, in and of itself, be a cause for ceasing operations.
Which leads us to the final of the three questions: the philosophical question. Why has Australia put its air force personnel in harm’s way in Syria? What are the endstates it hopes to achieve in this campaign? Three objectives are commonly stated. First is the defeat of ISIS. It is true that air power assists with this. However, airpower is only part of the solution: a combat enabler. This has been clearly shown in Mosul where air power has been critical but not decisive. The defeat of ISIS will be only be achieved through ground forces, which is why the Iraqi Security Forces have begun a dismounted assault on Old Mosul this week.
This brings us to the second objective of the ATG – supporting ground forces. In the past, the ATG has, as part of the coalition, conducted close air support of allied fighters on the ground. News reports indicate those fighters are still battling ISIS on the ground. Therefore, they presumably still require close air support. A withdrawal from supporting partnered troops on the ground probably means the US Air Force will have to pick up the extra tasks. Which leads us neatly into the third, geo-strategic, objective: supporting the US alliance.
Many have argued the only reason we are really in Syria is because our national security strategy is based on the US underwriting our sovereignty through the ANZUS alliance. Supporting the US in the Middle East is, in effect, an insurance premium. I have more than a little sympathy for this argument. But, US media is already reporting Australia has suspended operations over Syria. If our support for the US in Syria is part of our national security strategy, why back out now?
Military force has no intrinsic value unless accompanied by the political will to apply it. The announcement yesterday implies that Australia has decided it no longer has the political will to apply air power in the fight against ISIS in Syria. This is puzzling, particularly as, in a final twist, it turns out that the RAAF has not conducted any sorties over Syria since February in any case. This makes it all the more baffling as to why the announcement was made in the first place.