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Building technology’s edge

Posted By on February 15, 2018 @ 11:00

When I joined the Australian Army in the early 1990s, we used the latest binocular technology—electric binoculars that also provided GPS coordinates. These allowed us to see for kilometres, obtain coordinates and plan approaches.

Today, tactical UAVs see into the distance, and over the hill and around the corner, and use space-based technologies to provide data and coordinates to plan an approach.

Technology is enabling us to change how we operate, not just improving how we operate.

The wonderful thing about technology is that you never really know what’s around the corner. Can we look into the future and determine how technology is going to change, influence and enhance us—as a defence force, as a nation and as individuals? Can we imagine what it might look like for our adversaries? How might technology give them an advantage over us?

We must keep pace with these developments to ensure that the Australian Defence Force remains highly capable. Our job is to understand the ADF’s needs and apply our best thinking here and globally to meet them.

And herein lies the sophistication and complexity of the challenge that the government and industry must face together: How do we support the ADF to maintain its potency while understanding, and preparing for, the more complex high-tech conflicts of the future.

Throughout military history, game-changing technologies have brought advantages to the battlefield, and the development of a technological edge has been among the most effective deterrents. As the jet engine, radar and rockets moved from science fiction into reality, today electronic warfare, precision-guided munitions, miniaturisation, autonomy and machine learning are making rapid advances.

I have a passion for technology. It’s been amazing to see what we are developing and deploying across the business. It’s technology that will influence the ADF of the future, and has the potential to go beyond that to influence other industries and even the way we live and work.

Humans and technology will continue to form integrated systems that enable closer collaboration between our defence forces and our allies and provide a force multiplier for servicemen and women.

Autonomous systems could revolutionise ADF operations by extending reach and access while reducing risk to personnel. They’ll increase capabilities across the battlespace and, in the longer term, reduce the cost of acquisition and operations.

Consider the advantages this will provide, in the air and on the ground, when networked with soldiers in ground vehicles. The systems operate ahead of the crew in potentially hostile environments, allowing the soldiers to remain out of harm’s way and delivering higher operational effectiveness.

Technology can allow us to do things better, not only in operations, but also in how we design, manufacture and sustain the nation’s defence platforms and services.

There are many things that humans will continue to do better than technology. But there are also tasks that we can and should delegate to technology. The key is to play to our respective strengths. An even closer working relationship between humans and technology can deliver huge economic and social benefits.

We see humans and technology working side by side to build the products of the future, faster, more safely and more affordably.

Advances in sensor technology, digital design and machine learning increasingly enable humans to work alongside machines, safely and without stopping the production line.

Using this process of ‘co-botics’, we’re building the fuselage and vertical and horizontal tails—effectively the rear section—of every F-35 at our advanced manufacturing facilities at Lancashire in the UK and in Adelaide. In 2016, we produced 1,500 titanium parts in Adelaide for the F-35. By 2019 we will be producing 3,600 parts.

The changing shape of manufacturing, and the pace of change, highlights concerns: fear of the unknown consequences, fear of the replacement of jobs and roles, fear regarding control. As with the industrial revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, the issue of jobs being replaced by technology is frequently debated. Often the debate takes place at the extremes of possibilities, the potential gains and the potential dangers.

Technology will change jobs, it will create jobs and it will remove jobs. The real challenge is to find the right balance, to make informed decisions on the use and engagement of technology, and to build understanding and awareness.

Public and political acceptance of technologies such as autonomous systems is essential if we’re to grasp the opportunities.

Technology is driving change at a pace not experienced before, and we need to keep up. We have to work to ensure understanding that the use of technology doesn’t mean the removal of the human—the loss of command to technology, or the abdication of responsibility for decisions. Humans remain in control and are the ultimate decision-makers.

The highly complex modern defence environment means that real capability breakthroughs require a collaborative, cross-disciplinary research effort. When we bring people with different experiences together, the diversity of thought and perspective allows us to capitalise and progress our research.

Take the work that we’ve supported in recent years with Intelligent Textiles, a cutting-edge company in the field of e-textiles. Together we developed Broadsword Spine, an intelligent wearable that reduces combat load and gives soldiers greater manoeuvrability and stamina in the field. This collaboration brought together the agility of a small, nimble business and the global reach and access to market of a prime [contractor].

Australian industry has the expertise and capacity to contribute to the advancement of defence technologies, domestically and globally. This isn’t, and cannot be, a domain that other nations have ownership of.

The value generated by defence industry must be better understood by all. We’re a highly productive industry, employing many thousands of highly skilled professionals, and together we’re a growing contributor to our national economy.

Productivity at BAE Systems Australia is 40% higher than the national average. A highly skilled and productive workforce, such as that in the defence industry, can support a more balanced and sustainable economy and, for many of our employees, most importantly, help to drive wages growth.

We’re entering a new era of collaboration with technology—from how we interact with technology, to the development of new technologies, and with academia to develop the engineers and technologists of the future.

This will provide the ADF with the capability to maintain an edge and keep our nation safe.

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