Air Marshall Leon Phillips
For the 102 years that the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) has existed, every member to achieve a three-star rank has been a pilot.
That changed this year on 8 May, when electronics engineer Air Marshal Leon Phillips was appointed as the Chief of Guided Weapons and Explosive Ordnance. The first non–war fighter to hold the rank, Phillips brings 36 years’ experience to the newly created role.
“I think that says we’ve got an organisation that is realising that it takes a broad set of skills at the top of its organisation to be effective,” Phillips told create.
“As an engineer, right from the get-go, my career has largely been partnering with industry to deliver new products or sustain those products to provide them to the war fighter.”
Phillips’s role arose from the Australian Government’s Defence Strategic Review. His job is to act as the single accountable officer overseeing the Australian Defence Force’s strategy, capability, acquisition and development of guided weapons.
His particular focus, he said, will be on uplifting domestic manufacture, long-range strike capability and war stock holdings.
While Phillips is notable for not coming to this role from a combat position, he is by no means lacking in relevant experience.
Interested in computers as a child — when the technology was a curio rather than ubiquitous — he looked to the RAAF to sponsor his electronics engineering studies.
Imagining that he might serve for 10 years, he found instead a career’s worth of opportunities unfurling before him.
“It feels like I’ve had 10 or 12 different jobs within that single career,” he said.
“One thing the Air Force has offered me is a challenge and opportunity every three years as I’ve moved around, and then promotions that challenge and expand [my] horizons.”
It was a series of posts to the United States, representing the Australian Defence Force in technological collaborations with industry, that really pushed him forward.
“I ended up moving overseas to St Louis to be the lead engineer of a development program to put modern electronics into our classic F/A-18 Hornet,” Phillips explained.
“We put a tactical secure data link in the aircraft, brand new developed colour situational displays, a joint helmet mounted and queuing system that, depending on where the pilot looked, that’s where it would queue missiles, and then software upgrades to go with that.”
The collaborative work he did there — working with aerospace company McDonnell Douglas; the US government as a supplier; and the Canadian government as a partner and financial contributor — is how he found his “calling”, Phillips said.
“I realised I really like doing this; I’m quite good at doing this,” he said.
“That probably revitalised me and kick-started me into what’s been a permanent career, largely focused on complex delivery programs or organisations that deliver complex systems to our war fighters.”
Phillips’s next big step came with a move to Seattle, where he took the helm as Engineering Manager of the Airborne Early Warning and Control Program. This involved delivering the E-7 Wedgetail, the first of its type for the RAAF.
“It was quite an ambitious project,” he recalled.
“We had not put an electronically scanned array radar on an aircraft of that type, and we persevered through a lot of difficult technical challenges.
“But we accepted that aircraft in 2010, and here we are 13 years later and it’s still a premier world-leading capability, the envy of the world.
“In fact, the US Air Force has only recently made a decision to buy two of those aircraft themselves in recognition of how [capable] that product was, so having an opportunity to be the lead engineer on a highly developmental project and work closely with technology leaders in that field was fabulous.”
“The main limitation is that studies can be very expensive. Often you need investor support to champion a technology in order to bridge the gap between what’s found in the lab and what actually gets to the clinic.
“Translating these concepts into clinical application would save a lot of lives, extend lifespans and reduce the burden of disease. That’s the ultimate goal – but there are a lot of steps that need to happen between now and then.”
Working with such a diverse array of stakeholders expanded Phillips’s worldview and helped him better understand how to bring disparate groups together.
“As an engineer, when you start out, you really just deal with other engineers,” he said.
“You’re really trying to understand your own category, your own skillset, your own profession. But then, very quickly, you end up having to work with adjacent skill sets, whether they’re logistics officers, whether they’re pilots, navigators, finance folks.
“So then, often, you’re sitting there trying to make sure when you communicate with them, you are simplifying the language so it’s not overly technical and trying to use a language that they can see themselves in or that resonates with them.”
In his new position, Phillips is looking to identify industry partners to grow the Air Force’s capabilities, create a purposeful team with understanding of the significance of its role, and to identify where resources should be focused.
“What’s always excited me is … the challenge and what is the mission, and do I feel I can add value and add something into that to make it better,” he said.
“As long as I feel I can contribute in that space, then that’s something that gives me a lot of energy.”
Jonathan Bradley is a staff writer whose work has appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, ABC News, SBS and Billboard. As well as engineering, he likes to write about politics, pop music, culture and cartoons.
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