From the Source: Air Marshal Geoff Shepherd AO, Chief of Air Force | ADM Mar 07

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By Daniel Cotterill

Air Marshal Geoff Shepherd is a fighter pilot and former F-111 squadron commander with some 4,500 flying hours in his log book, of 2,500 were in the 'Pig'.

He was appointed Chief of Air Force in July 2005 and an Officer of the Order of Australia in the 2006 Queen's Birthday Honours List.

He spoke ADM's then-Canberra editor, Daniel Cotterill, in late January.

PROFILE - AM Geoff Shepherd, AO
1982-84 1 FTS, Pt Cook
1984-87 6Sqn, Amberley - F-111
1988-90 Assistant DA, Singapore
1990-93 CO 6Sqn, Amberley
1993 Joint Services Staff College
1993-95 HQ ADF - D Dir Capability Analysis (Air)
1995-98 OC 82 Wing, Strike Reconnaissance Group
1998-2000 Chief of Staff, HQ Air Command
2003 DG Joint Ops & Plans
2003-2005 Air Commander Australia

ADM: Why do you think the ADF has taken so long to adopt UAV technology?

Well, "so long" is an emotive phrase.

We certainly have not brought them into service as quick as other nations but we have spent time looking at these things.

You would be aware that the Army uses the light tactical ones now.

As early as late 2000, early 2001 we did trials in Australia with the Global Hawk.

So we were involved in Global Hawk right from very early and that is where Air Force's interest has been, at that high end, wide area surveillance.

So I think Air Force has been in it since the get go for the big stuff that we want.

Clearly, we need a roadmap here and our capability development area is working on a roadmap.

Air 7000 Phase 1 is looking for a Global Hawk-like or Mariner/Predator-like outcome.

You know all about the DSTO trials on the North West Shelf and the virtual ones that they did as well with the Global Hawk.

So, you know, "long" is a funny word.

UAVs have been around for a long time but they have been involved very much at the low level tactical end of the game.

That's not where Air Force wants to be.

We want to be in persistent, long range, wide area ISR.

ADM: What level of capability would you say the new air-to-air refuelling tankers will bring to Air Force?

A quantum leap, 150 per cent more fuel, probe plus drogue, so they will be able refuel both types of platforms we have in service; up to about 270 passengers.

It takes the full normal commercial range of L4 cargo containers.

There are no fuel bladders going into this thing, it uses the normal fuel in an A330.

So the A330 normal civil capacity is fully there as well.

We already get great benefit out of the 707s, old and tired as they are.

You can normally embark a squadron of troops, some of their gear and take their aeroplanes and go somewhere.

We will just be able to do that a lot more reliably, a lot more safely and with a lot more capacity than we currently do with the current 70s.

ADM: Are you aware of any delays to that program?

Not that are affecting the broad outcomes.

There are a few niggling issues.

They have had to rework some of the HMI (Human Machine Interface) issues.

The fourth station, the sort of trainer/boomer station is crammed up against the wall.

They were reworking some of that when I was in Spain looking at that last year.

I know that the boom is slightly lagging in its certification process.

We are looking at options on how to get around that.

But given that the boom will mainly be for things like Wedgetail and JSF into the future, F-111s right now, the real requirement we have for the platform, the immediate, urgent requirement is to refuel the FA/18 at the probe and drogue.

So there might be room to manoeuvre there.

ADM: With Wedgetail how much of a concern to you is the 18 month or 2 years delay to that programme?

Well it's a concern.

I mean it irks me that anything comes late.

In a global sense, Air Force is accommodating 11 new capabilities over the next decade.

Now normally, historically, we accommodate about three in a decade.

We are accommodating 11 over the next decade.

That's the biggest capability upgrade in Air Force since World War II.

Anything I can do to de-stress that I need to do, and in fact Wedgetail delay in a macro sense slides all these transitions closer together so it gives us a bigger transition hump to get through.

If it was coming when it should have come, about now, we would be spreading those transitions out and giving us a bit more breathing space.

In a capability sense the big thing that concerns me and clearly concerns government is the air combat capability transition.

The long pole in the tent is not Wedgetail and even with this delay it still won't make it the long pole in the tent, albeit it's a short pole that's getting longer.

But it is not the determining factor yet in the decisions that need to be taken around the air combat transition from the current force of F-111 and non-upgraded Hornets, shall we say, through to the upgraded Hornet/possible bridging fighter, and into ultimately the all-JSF force.

It is not the determining factor - and even with the slide it won't be.

It is, however, galling that it's happening.

ADM: What has it meant for the RAAF now in terms of personnel training and utilisation?

Our job is to maximise the positives, you try to get silver linings out of clouds.

In an immediate sense it gives us a bit more breathing space so we can actually make sure that all the work we have been doing for a couple of years with the facilities built up there at Williamtown.

It means we can really understand those.

Now you just cannot keep training for the sake of training.

We are looking at whether we can use some of the maintenance workforce we had earmarked for the Wedgetail and re-role that into the C-17 rather than take them all from the C-130H workforce.

It will allow us to get all our support mechanisms absolutely mature so that when it does come we are going to hit the ground running.

I am not trying to be glib about this.

Clearly it is frustrating.

I have been up to 2 Squadron, and they are all cocked and pretty much ready to go and they have nothing to go with.

ADM: Are you satisfied that the Australian taxpayer has had sufficient value for the money that has been spent on the F-111 fleet over the past 10 years?

As the senior F-111 pilot in the RAAF I can absolutely assure you they have received great value for money.

The F-111 is a wonderful platform.

It has always been a wonderful platform.

If you think about the amount of money we have put into it not just for the last 10 years, but for the whole life of the platform which is 30-plus years now, it has given us wonderful service for frankly, in today's dollars, a fairly reasonable investment.

This has been the deterrent factor if you like, it has been our strategic strike capability.

It is an upgraded aeroplane.

Its operating costs are expensive.

But then again it has been an aeroplane that has given us a capability that is unmatched in the region.

Back in the 90s we were considering 2020.

We went out and bought all the American spare parts for roughly - a broad figure, 10 per cent of cost when the Americans got out of the F-111 business.

We had great support from the Americans in keeping the capability going.

The decision to make the 2010 withdrawal date was made in late 2004 by the previous Chief.

We all supported that decision and that was really to ease the air combat transition - put available Defence resources into the upgraded Hornet and use that as the bridging between the old Hornet/F-111 fleet through to the upgraded Hornet into the full JSF fleet.

We have been providing government with options over the last couple of years to look at maybe extending the F-111, and of course that leads into the bridging fighter decision as well.

All those things will be decided on by government come early-March.

ADM: Are you confident that the upgraded Hornet can give you the strike capability that the country needs?


It has been doing strike for years now.

It performed strike missions predominantly in its combat role in Iraq recently.

It is a true multi role aircraft, and the aeroplane we are getting with the upgrades is far more capable than the aeroplane we put into Iraq a couple of years ago.

When you start looking at the new APG-73 radar, all the new EWSP - you look at JDAM and JASSM, you look at the new LITENING FLIR pod, you look at the other capabilities like the helmet mounted sights, the night vision goggles, it is a very, very capable platform.

Now, okay, it hasn't the range of an F-111.

It hasn't got the payload.

But then it does not need the payload.

The F-111 does not need the payload it has either because we are now into the era of precision weapons.

How many dumb bombs are getting dropped around the place? Zero.

You need to have precision, low collateral damage and absolutely surgical effect.

So the F/A-18 will carry enough, and the new tankers will give it the range.

Now in fact the F-111 was always going to be tied with the F/A-18 anyway, because from an operational sense no one was going to send F-111s in by themselves.

Those days are long gone.

ADM: What other options are there if for any reason the plan with the upgraded Hornets goes astray or is delayed?

Well let me jump ahead to the big question, which is the government's requirement for us to provide them options for a bridging fighter.

Clearly in the transition from the current combat force through to the upgraded Hornet as the only platform, through to the JSF, there are a number of risks.

There are a number of risks in extending the F-111 and I have stated these publicly.

There is increasing technical, operational and financial risk.

Nothing drops off the face of the earth just like that but the risk increases as time goes on.

There is some element of risk about JSF being on time.

There is some element of risk, though we do not see this being realised, either with the JSF or with the upgrade to the Hornet sliding out.

The government has asked for a range of options about what can we do to de-risk that whole process and that then gets into the bridging fighter solution, and we are providing government in March with a range of options there and a range of costs on how they could achieve that effect were they to make that decision.

But the whole focus there is on de-risking the transition.

ADM: Were you surprised by the newspaper reports late last year that the Minister had supposedly signed up to buy 24 Super Hornets?

Well he did not say that. He says that government was looking at options and will make a decision in the March NSC and ERC (National Security Committee of Cabinet and Expenditure Review Committee) rounds, and they have asked us to provide us with some options there and to provide costings.

Government is adamant there will be no air combat capability gap.

We welcome that.

We welcome the commitment of this government to achieve that.

Without an air combat capability, without the ability to achieve air dominance, air superiority at a time and space and place of our choosing, then frankly the rest of the ADF will not be able to operate with the freedom it needs to operate.

We need to work as a combined arms team to do all that.

ADM: Assuming we go ahead and order the JSF, what is the earliest date that those aircraft could achieve full operational capability with the RAAF in Australia?

Let me just at the start of that reconfirm that JSF is the aeroplane for us and government has committed to the JSF.

Now, it's committed in as far as they have gone to First Pass and they have signed the Memorandum for Production Sustainment and Follow-on Development.

We have not signed for the JSF.

That comes with Second Pass at the end of 2008.

So people have got to be careful that we do not jump a bit too far ahead here.

We are going through the Kinnaird process pretty much as it's scheduled.

"Full operational capability"?

Now you know, we have a C-17.

In fact today it's flying back to America taking equipment for the F-111s that are deploying to Red Flag.

And yet you would not say that the C-17 is anywhere near its full operational capability.

It is not even at initial operating capability.

We are using it on this trip to sort of do a trial run as part of its development.

Full operational capability brings in the whole range of capabilities, fundamental inputs to capabilities: people, training, doctrine, logistics and war stocks.

That is full operational capability, which [for the JSF] will be introduced throughout the next decade when we get the aeroplane and I wouldn't expect that we'd have full operational capability until around 2018.

We will have initial operating capability before that, and we define that as a single squadron fully capable for operations.

ADM: What does the future hold for the RAAF in terms of platforms for maritime surveillance?

Persistence is something that has always bedevilled air forces.

Persistence in ISR is vital for any combat force land, maritime or air in doing business in the networked future, and you get persistent ISR by many means: overheads like satellites.

Clearly the Americans have persistence there.

You can't keep an aeroplane orbiting 24 hours a day.

It is very costly in aeroplane, crews, refuelling, the whole deal.

So we look excitedly towards this high altitude, long endurance, long range, wide area surveillance UAV outcome.

Something like the Global Hawk or the Mariner/Predator type of thing.

That gives us what we've been lacking as an air force, the ability to be persistent.

To stay there for extended periods and keep a constant eye on what's going on, provide that information back through the network centric force we're developing into the joint operations centre and to go onto the business that we need to do.

Now that's fine and Air 7000 Phase 1 will deliver that part of that capability.

Air 7000 Phase 2 will deliver about mid next-decade the manned replacement for the AP-3C Orion.

You can't all do it with UAVs.

There is going to be a need to do prosecution.

There is going to be a need to have a man in the loop.

There is going to be a need to prosecute in a combat sense with a manned platform, so the delivery of that mid next decade is vitally important as well.

Importantly, and this did not happen until the last couple of years, our AP-3Cs are doing 25 to 30 per cent of their role in the Middle East in ISR over land.

That has been a development for its combat operations over there, and it is clearly the way of the future.

ADM: What is the best way to rationalise the ADF's medium and light airlift platforms?

Well yes, that has been a wiggly snake for a long time.

I'd like to think the C-17 has allowed us to pin the head of the snake down.

That has solved one bit of the equation.

Clearly I am very keen, as I know General Hurley and the rest of the Defence Capability Investment Committee is, to crack this nut now.

Air 8000 is the project that looks to rationalise the Hercules fleet and to look at a replacement for the Caribou - a replacement or refurbish for the Caribou.

Now I'm on the record saying that the C-130H is old and tired.

We need to start retiring it.

I would like to see it gone by around 2010.

Clearly there is a great desire by Air Force to increase the number of C-130Js and to solve the Caribou replacement/refurbishment issue with a new platform, and that's what Air Force will be looking to do.

However we have to do that within the joint context.

We have to do that within the context of the whole of the airlift continuum.

Into that also comes heavy rotary wing - something like a Chinook.

I believe we should be going forward to government with at least large elements of that decision clear by the middle of the year.

ADM: You mentioned refurbishment of the Caribou, is that a realistic option?

Well you can refurbish the Caribou.

At the end of the day you're left with a Caribou.

You could put a new engine on the Caribou: that would solve some of the Avgas issues, though Avgas does not appear to be a problem now.

You could put PT6 [engines] on and you get a worldwide engine.

But it does not give it any more performance, it just gives a bit more reliability.

At the end of the day you are still carrying 20 troops with nothing much more than a toothbrush.

You cannot carry the vehicles the Army has, you cannot carry heavy loads.

You can land a Caribou nearly anywhere, and of course we do not need to be so high-tech that we are irrelevant to the low-tech Pacific.

A lot of our issues are in the Pacific.

ADM: Are you satisfied with Defence's progress towards an integrated air defence network?

Yes. We are never going to have total air defence coverage around this country.

It's too big.

We are too small as a people, with too small a GDP to have radar sites covering the whole of the country.

We do have a great capability now.

There are delays in Vigilare and there are complications and once again that's galling to us.

But the current interim fusion system we have works fine within the context of what it was designed to do.

It does allow us to provide a full recognised air picture, and indeed in some cases a maritime and ground picture as well, into the Joint Operations Centre. So if you take now as a baseline we do it a lot better than any country in the region I can think of.

ADM: When are you expecting an outcome from Vigilare?

Vigilare is currently about to undergo a due diligence check.

It's still a project very much in the realm of DMO though we have a steering group consisting of myself, General Hurley, Dr Steve Gumley and Dr Roger Lough as a four person steering group to oversight a number of air projects, not ones that are going bad necessarily but it has turned out to be a good mechanism to keep oversight of these things.

It is still in DMO in the main and I have not got a timeline on that, but the due diligence check I think will be complete within the next month, and that will inform the way ahead.

It would be silly for me to say there have not been big wrinkles on that project and its reached somewhat of an impasse for commercial issues as well as technical issues and the due diligence check I think will inform both us and Boeing on the way ahead.

ADM: What is the biggest challenge facing the RAAF in the future?

Well it is challenging but exciting because amongst the challenges there are just massive nuggets of opportunity.

So, yes, there are going to be challenges but I'd rather talk about the opportunities in the challenges, not the challenges themselves.

It really is about opportunities.

The big thing, as ever, is people.

We are a great air force now, not because we operate some good hunks of tin (and we do that).

A hunk of tin is just a hunk of tin, be it an aeroplane or a radar or whatever.

We operate great bits of kit, but we produce a great combat effect because we have great people.

I tell most of our young people it's their Air Force, not mine.

I am going to be gone in a couple of years growing my hair long and getting an earring up near Noosa.

They are the people that are going to need to come up with these new innovative ways.

With the raw talent we have in our people we need to empower them, make sure they are allowed to use their freedom to use their thoughts, to use their innovative skills and they are going to come up with the way we are going to do better business in the future.

And if they cannot do that well, frankly, we are going to be in trouble because we are always going to be a modest force by world standards but we are going to remain a first class force.

The only way we will stay there is through the great value of our people.

Copyright - Australian Defence Magazine, March 2007

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