AIRCDRE Tim Owen, Commander, RAAF Surveillance and Response Group
Air Commodore Tim Owen is Commander of the RAAF's Surveillance and Response Group (SRG), formed in March 2004 by the amalgamation of Surveillance and Control Group and Maritime Patrol Group and headquartered at RAAF Williamtown north of Newcastle. Air Commodore Owens spoke to ADM's Senior Correspondent, Julian Kerr.
PROFILE - Air Commodore Tim Owen
1984 Flight Commander, No 114 Mobile Control and Reporting Unit
1985 Three year exchange with USAF - responsible for Counter Air Tactics and Joint Battle Management courses at Tyndall AFB, completed abbreviated AWACS conversion
1990 Completed RAAF Command and Staff College
1992 Commander No 2 Control and Reporting Unit in Darwin
1995 Chief of Staff - Air Defence 41 Wing HQ
1998 Joint Air Plans, Strategic Command Division
1999 Director of Joint Plans
2000 Commander Surveillance and Control Group at RAAF Williamtown
2005 Commander Surveillance and Response Group
ADM: What does SRG consist of?
Owen: In an organisational sense, there currently are four Wings. There's 92 Wing handling maritime response with its AP-3Cs; 41 Wing which has responsibility for the fixed and mobile radar ground environment and command and control systems such as JORN, EASTROC and NORTHROC; 44 Wing delivers the air traffic control capability (both in a domestic and operational deployment sense for all the ADF); and 42 Wing which was stood up in January this year for Wedgetail. What we're trying to do with the delivery of Wedgetail is to let 2 SQN get up and running, learn to fly the aircraft, learn to deliver its full capabilities and 42WG (as a transitional command organisation) to effectively manage the introduction into service of this new capability for Defence. Post delivery, we will position 2 SQN into one of the other Wings within SRG.
ADM: How are preparations proceeding for the arrival of the first Wedgetail aircraft?
Owen: The recent news of a schedule slip is very disappointing for the ADF. Within Air Force we're very well placed to introduce the capability and we've worked broadly across Defence to develop our capability establishment plan. Importantly, we've had in place for 18 months a transition team to provide governance oversight and transition management to this very complex capability. All the facilities at RAAF Williamtown have been completed including the 2 Squadron headquarters and hangar facilities, and the AEW&C Support Centre which will primarily house the DMO Systems Program Office, contractors and training devices.
ADM: How will the delay in aircraft deliveries impact on capability and staff?
Owen: The delay can be managed by the ADF without materially impacting our air combat capability plans. Some members of the Wedgetail team will need to be kept in Seattle for longer than originally planned, while members of 2 Squadron may need to be redeployed on a temporary basis before commencing training.
ADM: What processes will be involved before the Wedgetails become fully operational?
Owen: We have identified precursor activities. Our crews and maintenance personnel will have undergone training and familiarisation with all the segments. We have developed detailed operational test and evaluation plans that step us through our assessments of functions including our logistics to sustain deployments. The Officer Commanding 42 Wing will provide SRG with an operational readiness assessment that will underpin any declaration of readiness.
ADM: Are you confident you'll have sufficient crews for the full Wedgetail fleet?
Owen: Yes. SRG has been working for some years to generate sufficient personnel to fulfil its Air Force workforce obligations for Wedgetail. The Navy are also providing one Fighter Controller per Mission crew, which will add to the operational experience and understanding of maritime operations for everyone in the Squadron. The Army has also established 14 Ground Liaison Section within 42 Wing to provide special land expertise. Finally, we will be making provision for specialist operators from other agencies such as Coastwatch and the AFP to participate in Wedgetail missions as required. This combined work force will contribute to the successful conduct of the five broad roles of Wedgetail, namely: surveillance, air defence, maritime support, force coordination, and support to civil agencies.
ADM: AEW&C represents a new capability for the RAAF. How are the relevant skills being acquired?
Owen: We may not have had the capability, but the RAAF already has nearly 20,000 hours in AEW&C experience through liaison roles and exchanges. From the early 1990s we've been sending Air Defence Officers, and more recently pilots, to operate with the RAF and USAF in their E3 AWACS as well as the US Navy E2C Hawkeye. This has helped us gain insight into large-scale AEW&C operations as well as their training framework and employment procedures.
We have also embedded more than a dozen operators (Mission crew and pilots) with the Resident Project team in Seattle and within the Boeing Company itself, where they are flying the Wedgetail aircraft on a daily basis, using the systems they will be expected to operate with when the aircraft are delivered to the RAAF. We have also developed the Armchair Warrior simulation capability in Australia to allow aircraft from 2 Squadron at Williamtown to conduct scenario-based exercises over the past four years.
These simulated exercises have supported development of tactical procedures, interface procedures with other agencies as well as an understanding of some of the Wedgetail's capabilities in a broad battle scenario. We have also embedded RAAF technicians into Boeing and the Resident Project team in Seattle, as well as the AEW&C Systems Project Office in Williamtown. We're also sending technicians to view the modification line in Amberley.
2 Squadron and 34 Squadron, who operates Boeing 737 BBJ aircraft, have developed a strong relationship over the past few years. 34 Squadron has been very generous in sharing operational and technical lessons and expertise. The Commanding Officer 2 Squadron has also spent several months with 34 Squadron to learn more about B737 flying. Finally, 2 Squadron has also attached several pilots to Virgin Airlines in Brisbane to fly on their B737 aircraft. This has been invaluable for the pilots to get an intense consolidated exposure to B737 operations, maintenance practices and training.
We'll have an operational mission simulator as well as a flight trainer in place at Williamtown in the next six to 12 months.
ADM: The formation of SRG represented a major consolidation of units and capabilities, with more to come. What have been/are the major operational, administrative and cultural challenges?
Owen: While ISR is the "glue" that binds the FEG (Force Element Group), each of the Wings still retains significant individual capabilities and roles that set them apart from each other. A significant challenge for us is to recognise what we should aim to improve or standardise through shared expertise and experience while identifying what responsibilities are best left to the relevant Wing. We have to be careful not to force change on areas where there is no worthwhile advantage in doing so.
At a more practical level, we face a significant challenge in introducing into service a large number of new capabilities at a time of heavy operational tasking. Some of our big ticket items include Wedgetail AEW&C, multi-mission unmanned aerial system (MUAS), AP-3C replacement/refurbishment, Vigilare and the integration of military/civilian ATS (Genesis). Juggling a finite personnel resource to manage all this work is a constant challenge.
Operationally, we're finding that our increasing capability is a two-edged sword. The rest of the ADF is becoming aware of what we can provide in terms of ISR and we are finding ourselves increasingly in demand. Our recent participation in the East Timor operation is a case in point. While managing the many requests for SRG support provides yet another significant challenge, the recognition of our contribution is very pleasing.
ADM: Are SRG's current and future capabilities creating the need for new analytical skills within the Group? If so, how are these being developed?
Owen: Most of the changes are evolutionary and so are changed over time to meet the requirements of new roles and capabilities. For example, we have already changed the focus of basic Air Defence officer training from fighter control to air battle management to better meet the requirements of network enabled warfare. Similarly, the relatively new ISR role for the AP-3C has caused us to review and adjust crew training requirements. In turn, both these sets of changes will help prepare the FEG for the introduction of the Wedgetail and MUAS capabilities. The requirement for new skills, including analytical skills, is also considered during the capability development process.
ADM: What difference do you expect Project Vigilare to make to the ADF's surveillance and response capabilities once NORTHROC and then EASTROC are commissioned?
Owen: Vigilare is unlikely to be fully delivered until the end of the decade. It will integrate a number of systems that the Ground air battle management environment has been using for some time under an interim system known as Warden. Under this interim capability, many of these systems are stand-alone and at times geographically or functionally limited. Vigilare will enable operators from either EROC, which is our major tactical level data hub, or NROC to engage all available sensors and communications to support their Air Battle Management function, throughout our area of interest.
ADM: Has the RAAF developed a concept of operations for the use of HALE UAVs in the maritime surveillance role?
Owen: There are higher level concept documents that assist with project needs and requirements and there is a broad understanding of how we will cooperate on MUAS, but we're in the early stages of developing a CONOPS for maritime surveillance. The Global Hawk trial in 2001 certainly provided a good basis from which to start and the upcoming Northwest Shelf UAV trial will further define how we will utilise UAVs in the maritime surveillance role.
ADM: Have you started examining how you'll use the capabilities of platforms such as Global Hawk and the AP-3C in future land surveillance? How much have you learned from operations in Iraq?
Owen: 92 Wing has gained considerable experience from recent activities, including the current operations in the Middle East, in which AP-3C support has been provided to land forces. We have been examining not only how current platforms could provide land surveillance, but how possible future manned and unmanned platforms might support land forces. This support could cover a range of capabilities that include intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, command and control, and land strike.
ADM: As 2015 approaches it seems near certain that the RAAF's manned maritime patrol fleet will dwindle in size, possibly to as low as 8-10 aircraft. What difference will that make to the spectrum and duration of tasks the AP-3C fleet can undertake on a consistent basis?
Owen: The aim would be for minimal change to the spectrum of tasks. However, I would anticipate that certain aspects of our surveillance operations will be complemented or completed entirely by the MUAS. This would leave the manned platform free to perform other more complex tasks. The size of the manned aircraft fleet may be smaller but improved serviceability should equal better reliability, and improved sensor efficiency should generally equal shorter mission times. The upgrade to AP-3C standard did not involve the airframe and engines and that's a significant issue for us to manage. The AP-3C is basically an Electra with a hard wing, and at low altitude it gets a rough time (airframe fatigue). Having said that, one of the main drivers for the AP-3C development was to save weight and when combined with some of the mission profiles we are now flying (higher altitude overland ISR), we believe we will be able to manage the airframe issues out to the planned withdrawal date for the aircraft, but it will be a challenge.
ADM: Looking at AP-3C replacement/refurbishment post 2015, what sort of sensor and processing capabilities will you need at that time? Is there anything currently or potentially available which meets those needs?
Owen: The sensor package that goes into any future aircraft must be consistent with the approved roles (the current platform has six) of that platform. As our surveillance activity broadens and expands into the overland environment then the sensor requirements that come with this must be factored in. Our radars must have a GMTI capability to detect and track targets overland and provide high-resolution radar imagery to support ISR missions. EO/IR sensors will become core mission systems and the ability to provide realtime full motion video or imagery to the cockpit or the soldier is a key requirement for ISR operations.
The focus of our ESM systems must change direction to not only focus on traditional military platforms but also the more complex theatre of asymmetric warfare.
More importantly, the data gathered by our surveillance platform must be disseminated in a timely fashion to maintain its tactical/operational relevance. To ensure this happens our future platform must be fully network-enabled through datalinks and satellite communications.
On the maritime front the key challenge will be adapting to evolving submarine technology. The ability to detect and track quiet diesel/AIP submarines in the littoral environment is an ever-increasing problem and the maritime community worldwide has made a concerted effort to reduce the gaps in technology. Multi-static sonobuoy technology may not be the panacea, but it must form the backbone of future ASW sensors. All this technology is currently available but it will continue to evolve.
ADM: How vulnerable to enemy action will a Wedgetail aircraft be?
Owen: We always consider the risk profile for any of these airframes. If you're going into a hostile environment the standoff ranges are significant and the aircraft does have significant early warning capability on the ESM side as well. On the strategic side, we keep a very close eye on missile developments around the world, and we will operate the aircraft accordingly.
ADM: You've now been operating JORN for two years. Has it lived up to its promise?
Owen: Very much so. JORN has been a success story operationally from the day it was commissioned. Since then we have refined operating procedures, tasking procedures and end-product distribution methods to enable JORN to become a key feature in national surveillance activities
ADM: Has JORN resulted in any unexpected changes in the way SRG carries out its tasks?
Owen: Not really. The RAAF has operated Jindalee since 1993 and many of the organisational and doctrinal changes that have been the catalyst for the creation of SRG have involved, and at times have been driven by, the capability provided by over-the-horizon radar (OTHR). When JORN was commissioned, the OTHR capability grew significantly, but most of the doctrinal and cultural changes were reasonably mature.
ADM: What steps are being taken to provide JORN with a ballistic missile defence capability?
Owen: While I'm not prepared to discuss operational details, the JORN system enables us to provide a range of surveillance products to a range of end-users. We have an active R&D programme in place with DSTO and we're keen to maintain the system at the leading edge of HF radar technology.
ADM: The Coastwatch CMS04 contract has been awarded to National Air Support. Will this enhanced capability have any impact on your future tasking in support of agencies like Coastwatch?
Owen: The CMS04 contract will see an increase in the number and capability of the aircraft operated by Coastwatch, with additional flying hours allocated. While no formal discussions have taken place yet on how this will affect Air Force support to Coastwatch, there may be potential to reduce Air Force involvement in tasks such as Operation RELEX. As the full capability under CMS04 becomes evident, Defence will no doubt review its support contract with Coastwatch to make the most of the new capabilities and to ensure both organisations maintain our current high level of cooperation.