Developing Air Force's Combat Aircrew
In the current audit, the objectives were to provide assurance to the Parliament on the adequacy of the measures and plans instituted by Defence to ensure that the combat aircrew workforce meets military preparedness requirements in the future, and to identify possible areas for improvement.
The Air Combat Group (ACG) provides Australia's air combat capability, which is based on 28 F-111 strike/ reconnaissance aircraft and 71 F/A-18 (Hornet) multi-role fighter and strike/interdiction aircraft.
Air combat aircraft are dependent on properly trained pilots to be flown safely in all operating environments, and their advanced weapon systems require highly skilled aircrew to ensure effective employment to achieve military objectives. The cost of training combat pilots is estimated by Defence at $15.2 million for a Hornet pilot and $10.8 million for an F-111 pilot.
To acquire the skills to operate Australia's combat aircraft effectively in the full range of military roles expected, aircrew require more than three years flying training in the Air Force before they are operationally deployable. For the full range of skills, experience and leadership abilities required for a squadron to operate safely and effectively as a combat unit, in a credible combat situation, aircrew need to include some very experienced personnel.
Air Force is looking to introduce a new aircraft, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, to replace the F-111s and Hornets from 2012 onwards. The F-111 fleet is to be withdrawn from service by 2010 and the Hornet fleet is expected to reach the end of its operational life by 2015. Defence has undertaken to provide advice to Government in 2005 on the best way to transition to a new air combat platform to meet Australia's air combat capability requirements in the future.
Air Force has experienced shortages in the number of fast-jet pilots and navigators for a number of years. A 1999–2000 ANAO audit of Tactical Fighter Operations1 included an examination of Defence's management of the Hornet pilot workforce. The Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit (JCPAA) reviewed the ANAO report and recommended that the ANAO conduct a follow-up audit focusing on Air Force's management of the air combat pilot workforce.
Of the six relevant recommendations contained in the 1999–2000 audit, Defence has implemented five. On the sixth recommendation, concerning the formulation and implementation of a tactical fighter pilot workforce plan, substantial progress has been made as part of work undertaken in the wake of an Air Force pilot sustainability study, and combat aircrew workforce management initiatives in ACG.
In the current audit, the objectives were to provide assurance to the Parliament on the adequacy of the measures and plans instituted by Defence to ensure that the combat aircrew workforce meets military preparedness requirements2 in the future, and to identify possible areas for improvement.
Key audit findings
Recruiting and Training Practices (Chapter 2)
Until 2002, Air Force had a target of graduating 57 pilots a year. The target was based on a workforce planning approach in which the junior Air Force pilots were the feeder stream for a set number of senior rank positions. Their number was to be sufficient to support a pyramidal structure encompassing the Air Force officer ranks up to its Chief.
In the 10 years to 2002, the average number of Air Force pilot graduates was around 42 per year. Attempts to raise the number of graduating pilots were made repeatedly. However, constraints, such as limits on the number of flying hours that could be flown by training aircraft, prevented Air Force from achieving substantial long term increases in the number of pilots being trained.
Increases in pilot trainee intakes did occur in some years, but indications in the audit were that flying training courses in which the intakes were raised substantially from long term averages tended to have higher failures rates. This significantly reduced, if not annulled, the effect of raising the intakes. Air Force's annual pilot graduation target is now 42, which accords with the long term average.
Air Force has acknowledged the need to replace the previous pilot workforce planning approach with a capability based model. Development work on such a model had been undertaken by Air Force and the model was still being refined in 2003-04. The ANAO considers that work on that model should be completed and incorporated in a comprehensive combat aircrew workforce strategy to be developed and implemented by Defence. This would help ensure that Defence resources are allocated cost-effectively to meet the nation's requirements for combat aircrew in the future.
There also is scope to enhance training outcomes by incorporating into pilot selection testing the results of many years of research and development undertaken and/or funded by Defence psychologists. Given the high training costs for pilots, an improvement in selection would be likely to provide significant resource savings.
Air Force has developed effective systems for training and developing aircrew skills. Air Force pilots, navigators and instructors have categorisation schemes to reflect the proficiency levels of their professional skills. The ANAO found that the categorisation schemes for F-111 and Hornet aircrew are methodically managed, with a view to ensuring that the allocated flying hours, the fatigue burden on aircraft and usage of munition and other expendables, are set in sufficient quantity to meet safety and military preparedness requirements. The processes provide reasonable assurance that resources are used cost-effectively, as they seek to achieve and maintain agreed levels of military preparedness.
Combat Aircrew Preparedness (Chapter 3)
The extent to which the F-111 fleet was able to meet military preparedness requirements was compromised in the past by low aircraft availability. In 1995–96, the F-111 fleet experienced the first of a series of significant drops in flying hours. In 1998–99 and 1999–2000, the fleet did not meet Defence preparedness requirements in full. Following another substantial fall in flying hours in 2000–01, the fleet failed to meet both its short and longer term preparedness requirements. Remedial action by Defence, including increased logistic resources and effective fault rectification, had improved aircraft availability by late 2003. For 2002–03, the F-111 capability was able to meet short term preparedness requirements and substantially met the longer term preparedness requirements related to combat aircrew.
The ANAO found that the Hornet fleet has met the short term military preparedness requirements since 2001–02. In that year, longer term preparedness requirements were only partially achieved because Hornet pilot training throughput was affected by problems related to the introduction of the Hawk training aircraft. In 2002–03, the situation improved and the Hornet capability substantially met its longer term preparedness requirements.
Case Study: Hornets' Middle East Deployment (Chapter 4)
In January 2003, No.75 Squadron, which was chosen to fly and support Australia's detachment to the Middle East of 14 Hornet aircraft, was augmented by aircraft, aircrew and ground personnel from other Air Force units to meet the expected requirements of the deployment. The Squadron undertook four weeks of general force preparation training for an overseas deployment and intensive flying training in Australia. This was followed by four weeks training in the Middle East, to prepare the Squadron for its assigned role in the Coalition's air combat force. The Squadron was assessed as combat ready at the commencement of military operations against Iraq.
The Squadron carried out its military tasks from March to early May 2003. The Defence documentation examined by the ANAO indicates that, with few exceptions, the Hornets carried out the required flying missions. Mission cancellations were generally not due to factors under the control of the Squadron or Australian Defence elements supporting it. In the employment of its weaponry, the results achieved by the Australian Hornets were, at the least, matching those of Coalition partners employing similar technology.
Post operational reporting by the Squadron and Defence's September 2003 Report on the 2003 military deployments to the Middle East indicate that, although ADF operations were successfully conducted, problems encountered in previous ADF operations have persisted. These problems relate to a lack of responsiveness to end users in theatre joint logistics; lack of coordination in logistic information management; inadequate logistic and administrative training and experience of Defence personnel; and the lack of an accurate and efficient personnel tracking system.
The ANAO found that the persistence of these problems over a number of years points to the need for Defence to more closely monitor action to remedy them.
Future Aircrew Requirements (Chapter 5)
Air Force's recent involvement in a number of overseas operations has emphasised the importance of available operational capabilities. By the end of 2003, falling Air Force pilot separation rates, lateral recruitment and posting priority for operational squadrons have enabled Air Force to be close to full staffing of its operational fast-jet positions. The shortage of navigators persisted. Air Force is seeking to raise navigator numbers through increased recruitment and training.
Training the right number of pilots is important because of the distortions that occur if the numbers are wrong. Training too many pilots results in resources (both pilots and their training and support) not being used effectively. In the last two years, Air Force has been reviewing the target number of pilot graduates required and has reduced numbers. Recent reviews by ACG of the number of trainees required in the fast-jet training pipeline indicated that trainees numbers could be reduced by at least 15 per cent without reducing military capability. ACG has reduced their training targets by that order. The ANAO considers that Air Force should examine the implications of that reduction on the overall number of Air Force pilot trainees.
Overall audit conclusion
The ANAO found that a combination of factors, including a significant reduction in pilot separations; recruitment of foreign pilots; re-engagements of ex-Air Force personnel; and posting priority to operational units, has allowed Air Force to substantially meet the operational requirements for air combat pilots by late 2003. However, at that time, shortages still existed in the F-111 navigator workforce. Air Force has taken remedial action to overcome those shortages by increasing the intake of trainee navigators and training personnel in Canada.
Processes to recruit, select and train combat aircrew are generally effective. A recent reduction in ACG's fast-jet trainee pilot intake targets, and a number of Air Force combat aircrew management initiatives, are assisting in remedying structural distortions in that workforce. The measures taken by ACG should enhance its ability to maintain the required number of instructors and grow the number and the experience base of operational combat pilots.
The ability of the F-111 and the Hornet aircrews to meet military preparedness levels has, in the past, been compromised by low aircraft availability. This has meant that, at various times, Defence preparedness requirements have not been met. Recent improvements to logistics and maintenance management and resourcing have increased aircraft availability, enhancing Air Force's ability to meet preparedness and training requirements.
In examining the performance of combat aircrew in the 2003 deployment of Hornet aircraft to the Middle East, the ANAO found that the combat aircrew were able to meet the operations' military requirements and carried out their tasks satisfactorily. In reviewing the Squadron's and other Defence post-deployment reporting, the ANAO noted some significant logistic and administrative problems which, while not the focus of the audit, have been addressed because of their importance. The ANAO considers that, to help ensure that adequate improvements are achieved, Defence, in its senior governance committees, should periodically review the progress made in overcoming logistic and administrative deficiencies identified in significant military operations.
Following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, a significant drop in global airline activities reduced demand for airline pilots. The current external environment, which is conducive to Air Force pilot retention and recruitment, may not persist indefinitely. Consequently, Air Force combat aircrew workforce planning has taken this into account. Since the 1999–2000 ANAO audit of Tactical Fighter Operations, Air Force has continued to implement various measures to improve the management of the combat pilot workforce to meet military preparedness requirements. The replacement of both the F-111 in 2010 and the Hornets in the period 2012-15 poses additional challenges to ensure a smooth transition for Air Force's combat aircrew. The ANAO considers that there would be merit in Defence reporting annually progress made in the development and implementation of a long term workforce strategy for combat aircrew.
Response to the report
The ANAO made two recommendations aimed at Defence improving its recruiting and selection practices and processes, and putting in place a comprehensive workforce strategy to help meet the air combat preparedness requirements of the future. A third recommendation was directed at Defence resolving some significant logistic and administrative problems which came to the ANAO's attention in the course of reviewing the 2003 military deployment to the Middle East. Defence agreed with all three recommendations.
Defence provided the following response:
Defence agrees with the three proposed recommendations.
In respect of Recommendation 2, the Hingston Report, an evaluation of ADF logistics support to operations in the
Middle East, shows that Defence is already addressing the issue of improved rapid acquisition and other deficiencies in
deployments. The Report identified 81 key issues, proposed 43 lessons learned and offered 90 recommendations. These recommendations are currently being implemented.
1 ANAO Audit Report No.40 1999–2000, Tactical Fighter Operations. Recommendations in that report relating to combat aircrew are listed in Appendix 1.
2 Military preparedness requirements are derived from the Chief of the Defence Force (CDF) Preparedness Directive (CPD). See Chapter 3.