Cutting-edge simulation facility planned for Townsville

The impact of Covid-19 and Australia’s rapidly evolving strategic environment have highlighted the requirement to invest in a sovereign defence industry. The Australian government clearly articulated its ambition for a strong and sustainable capability in the 2020 defence strategic update and, to its credit, also expressed the desire to maximise opportunities in regional Australia.

That’s a sensible approach. The political and military realignment underway in the Indo-Pacific region is thrusting northern Australia into a position of strategic importance it hasn’t had since World War II. The north is increasingly valued as a location for forward mounting bases and training areas for the Australian Defence Force and allied militaries but, as I highlighted in a previous Strategist post, there’s no point positioning ADF units forward if supporting industry and logistics are far removed in distance and time.

Most of Australia’s people, industry and manufacturing are in the southern half of the country. Altering that distribution is no easy task. ASPI’s John Coyne suggests that establishing a defence industry in regional Australia will require coordination across governments and agencies. Achieving cooperation between government, defence and industry is never easy, but the greatest challenge is to first understand which industries to encourage, where they’re located and how to maximise outcomes for all involved.

Although the 2020 force structure plan details significant investment opportunities for defence industry, it isn’t the Defence Department’s responsibility to stimulate local economies or invest in infrastructure without some meaningful return. Accordingly, Townsville in north Queensland has developed a strategy for promoting defence industry based on delivering mutually beneficial outcomes for Defence and the region through carefully targeted opportunities.

One example is the proposed North Queensland Simulation Park, or NQ SPARK. The defence organisation clearly understands the importance of live and simulation-enabled training, and Townsville is ideally placed as a regional location for the development of innovative training capabilities. Lavarack Barracks is home to the army’s 3rd Brigade and the combat training centre. A new 4G/5G-enabled training range commissioned for the training centre near Townsville has been designed and delivered by Townsville-based Cubic Defence Australia. Cubic is a world-leading enterprise in blended live and synthetic collective training solutions and command and control systems.

NQ SPARK will consolidate and exploit a unique confluence of defence and health knowledge and simulation expertise to construct a multi-user simulation training facility. It will become foundation infrastructure for an advanced training and research and development precinct. The facility will be positioned on James Cook University land with a common boundary between Lavarack Barracks and the Townsville University Hospital, close by two world-class, instrumented military training areas (Townsville and Greenvale)—a location unrivalled in Australia.

The facility will be equipped with cutting-edge technology, including immersive visual systems, precision motion capture and, most importantly, a private 4G/5G-compliant LTE network for advanced simulation training and experimentation. The network capability is a key enabler for advanced operational test and evaluation activities in highly realistic operational scenarios exploiting advanced simulation technology. NQ SPARK will uniquely feature both public and private LTE networks—something that’s much more difficult to achieve in major southern population centres.

Defence forces around the world are investing in autonomous technology. A key requirement for the operation and control of uncrewed systems is a secure and robust communications architecture. NQ SPARK will be centrally located between air, land and sea ranges and corridors for unmanned vehicles stretching from western Queensland to the Coral Sea. Sections of these ranges will be instrumented and networked to support integrated research and development across multiple domains in tropical conditions. This will enable the ADF to test and train in conditions replicating environments they may be called to fight in.

Townsville City Council led the initial coordination of the project, with cooperation from the Queensland government, health authorities, academia, emergency services and defence industry. The state government is preparing a business case, and federal funding for construction is under consideration through the Townsville City Deal agreement.

Defence won’t contribute to the cost of the infrastructure but will indirectly support the operational viability of the proposal. Cubic and affiliated companies have significant contracts with Defence and will be major users of the facility when delivering training, simulation and other high-tech capabilities.

The Defence Science and Technology Group funds research in collaboration with James Cook University, presenting opportunities through NQ SPARK for industry and academia to access funding from the Next Generation Technologies Fund and the Defence Innovation Hub. Of interest is a potential requirement for industry-led cooperative research to improve the integration of soldier systems. NQ SPARK could be an ideal location to base a new defence cooperative research centre, linked through James Cook University to other national universities to focus on operational capabilities such as integrated soldier systems.

Not only will NQ SPARK link Townsville’s defence, research and health capabilities with national and international defence industry and research organisations, but it will also facilitate significant industry investment within the precinct and provide employment for a highly skilled workforce including veterans and STEM graduates.

The NQ SPARK proposal is a model for collaboration among governments, agencies and defence industries to simultaneously deliver transformational projects for the economies of northern Australia and contribute to the security needs of the nation.