Australia’s navy needs operations research to navigate the future

Australia is at a watershed moment in naval capability with the fleet’s regeneration over the next decade as a consequence of the 2016 defence white paper and the investment decisions flowing from it.

As the 2015 First Principles Review of Defence noted, capability must reflect strategic policy: the Royal Australian Navy needs a fleet that’s integrated into the doctrine and structure of the joint force and is interoperable with the forces of our key allies. In light of the rapid strategic changes in the region and the nation’s likely financial position after the Covid-19 pandemic, this fleet must be sharply focused on identifying, achieving and sustaining critical capabilities as economically as possible.

The new vessels are being designed in the digital age, from concept through build to sustainment, and many components are being procured in parallel. This provides an unprecedented opportunity to integrate capabilities in fleet design; standards for data collection and exchange in fleet operations and support; and a data-driven, analytic approach in decision-making.

Key attributes of the fleet’s capability—its pedigree, status, condition, preparedness and weapon system performance—can then be determined through analysis and management of data. Sound capability decisions can be made that will give the navy greater confidence that the fleet is truly fit for purpose. Seaworthiness can be better assured. Operational commanders can better prepare plans and execute activities. Key doctrine and tactics can be developed in a deliberate and disciplined manner. Future requirements can be better articulated.

Data-driven, analysis-based decision-making is the standard today in most successful businesses. Chief data officers and analytic staff with data scientists or operations analysts are increasingly a part of their structure.

Clearly, what a navy does is different, and its objectives are less easily measured than the profit and shareholder value of a corporation, but there’s both a need and an opportunity here for the navy. Operations research (OR) is the essential tool. It’s not a new idea, but it is better enabled in the digital age.

The US Navy has had a large-scale and disciplined (if still imperfect) approach to OR for decades and has a robust curriculum for educating officers in it at the US Naval Postgraduate School. That’s not necessarily so for the Australian Defence Force and the navy in particular. OR has been patchy, siloed and its significance not well understood.

Does the ADF fully appreciate the need for OR to complement the investment in new capability and properly achieve an integrated force?

A ‘thinking navy’ must have a quantitative dimension to its decision-making, and OR can provide that.

Effective employment of OR in the military context requires more than simply adding a cadre of OR practitioners to an organisation. It begins with a framework setting out the critical missions the force is expected to perform—against what threat or for what operational task, and under what circumstances, must the force be able to achieve what outcome, how rapidly and for how long?

Analysis can, and should, be used to inform what’s possible and how to phrase it specifically. The judgement on what objectives are most strategically important to Australia is critical to this analysis. Analysis in force design must be characterised in measurable terms by leaders who understand analysis. OR techniques can then be used to establish the cost-effectiveness of various options for mixes of forces, and the capabilities of the units and systems making up those forces. These techniques can also enable operational planners to decide how these capabilities could best be employed as part of a joint force, to achieve specific outcomes.

While military judgement based on experience is a fundamental part of all of these decisions, many threats and challenges Australia may face in its future, and the systems needed to respond to them, may be beyond the experience of today’s leaders.

Future systems are often so expensive that compelling evidence of their effectiveness will be needed to persuade the government to invest in them. OR techniques, applied in an operationally sound manner by skilled practitioners, can help navy leadership examine a wide range of possibilities to explain decisions rigorously.

Application of data and OR doesn’t end with the decision to procure a new system. All modern military systems and processes are heavily digitised and produce and consume vast amounts of data in their operations. OR techniques can exploit this data to provide new insights on maintenance requirements, energy efficiency and operational status and offer opportunities to minimise fleet operating costs and maximise availability.

But the data needed to do this, and its format and availability to the RAN, must be identified as a requirement in the acquisition of the system. It must be collected, analysed and applied purposefully once the system is fielded. Again, skilled OR practitioners operating in a culture that values and applies their work are key to creating this future for the fleet.

The US Navy used that process to increase the mission-capable rate of its F/A-18 Super Hornets from 250 aircraft on average up to 340 in just 12 months. The project was driven by senior leadership’s belief in the science of OR.

Vice Admiral DeWolfe Miller, the head of US Naval Air Forces, said simply, ‘I love data’, and demanded that it be applied rigorously to an overhaul of maintenance practices at all levels to produce these results, and to give him day-by-day visibility of progress towards them.

OR is a behaviour as much as a science. The collection and management of verifiable data, and the analytical models to exploit it as a fundamental part of decision-making, must be driven with purpose from the top of the organisation.

This requires education and discipline at the tactical through to the strategic levels. It requires a dedicated workforce that understands the science, and that has the operational experience to understand the context within which the science should be applied. The benefits are numerous, but key is the trust brought to decisions based on analysis that is both operationally sound and analytically rigorous.

The RAN needs a contemporary OR roadmap so that it doesn’t lose the opportunity offered by recapitalisation. Data-collection capabilities should be required and fully exploited in all new ship and system designs.

Data needs should be defined, coordinated and managed with sufficient commonality to allow data to be shared, securely, across the fleet enterprise. A strong body of analytical evidence should be demanded to support acquisition decisions. OR should be re-established and managed as a command function, requiring through-life coordination, potentially within the RAN’s new Maritime Warfare Centre.

Training and education in OR should be strengthened in the navy’s workforce to ensure that those who do it are both mathematically skilled and clearly understand the needs and operations of the service. This will all take time to achieve. In the interim, the RAN may need to continue to rely on contracted analytic support and on advanced OR education provided from overseas. But over the long term, military OR must become a core sovereign competency within our navy and part of its culture.