Defence science and engineering: same inquiry, different roles
7 Oct 2015|


I noted with interest and bemusement that the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs Defence and Trade has announced an inquiry into the capability of Defence’s physical sciences and engineering (PSE) workforce. I’m interested because in my previous working life in Defence I first worked as a scientist and later managed engineers on a major Defence project. The two experiences had so little in common that I’m bemused as to why the two groups have been lumped together in this inquiry.

It’s a bit like a state government deciding to inquire into the capability of its teaching and firefighting (TFF) workforce. Both professions are critical parts of the workforce, but there’s not a lot of synergy between them, and there doesn’t seem to be much point to trying to manage them collectively. In fact, trying to do so would likely conflate the roles to the detriment of both. I think that might’ve already happened in Defence’s PSE workforce. In that sense the parallel focus of the enquiry might work, if only to disentangle the issue.

Just as states need teachers and firefighters, Defence needs engineers and scientists. It needs engineers to help identify and manage risk in projects and to manage its fleets of complex platforms and its complicated data and communications architectures. It needs scientists to collect data and conduct operations research that help inform operations and force structuring decisions, and to investigate novel and promising technologies. To draw on another term that conflates two different things, scientists are best at the ‘R’ part of ‘R&D’ and engineers at the ‘D’ part.

Sometimes the two groups work together in ‘upper R/lower D’ activities, such as identifying and solving problems that arise in managing platforms when existing techniques and materials aren’t adequate. Examples include the composite patching developed for aircraft skins (PDF) and solutions for the hydrodynamic problems during the development of the Collins-class submarines. But working together isn’t the same as being parts of the same profession, and we shouldn’t conclude that scientists and engineers can seamlessly transition to each other’s jobs.

Take for example the role played by the Defence Science and Technology Group (nee DSTO) in technical risk assessments (TRAs) (PDF) for major projects, a role they took on as part of the Kinnaird recommendations for the management of Defence projects. TRAs are important, given the difficulties that systems integration can pose for projects, especially when immature technologies are involved. It’s important to have a realistic and robust sense of the potential difficulties ahead so some serious thinking can be done about the benefits and risks associated with various options. Underestimating risk at the early stages of a project has consequences for schedules, costs and sometimes capability later on.

But TRAs aren’t really a scientist’s forte, and it’s not what they’re trained to do. As NASA has found, there’s no substitute for a systems engineering approach to project risk and technological maturity, and it’s now a specialised field of engineering in its own right. (I wrote about how this applies to Defence projects here.) In fact, DSTO had to grow a systems engineering capability to perform this task. It would probably have been preferable for the systems engineering work in support of TRAs to remain in DMO, where it would also support the post project approval project management and through-life engineering support, as well as helping to keep a critical mass of skills in an organisation that has suffered badly from a shortage of engineers. Conversely, there’s a risk that tasking Defence science with becoming a technical advisor will detract from its core defence research effort.

And even if the Defence science body can establish a viable systems engineering cell, there’s still a problem that traces back to the overlapping but fundamentally distinct roles of the two professions. Engineers in Defence are mostly about managing and reducing risk and uncertainty, while scientists require uncertainty to have sufficiently worthwhile problems to examine. There’s a subtle but real conflict of interest here. The incentive is for a TRA to find that the technical problems are manageable enough to not put the kibosh on a project option, but substantial enough to require continuing input from Defence scientists. Scientists are as responsive to incentives as anyone else. Hugh White identified this problem years ago, when he was the chair of the old Force Structure Policy and Programming committee. After one particularly unfortunate project experience, he concluded that ‘what I saw as risk, DSTO saw as opportunity’.

With the implementation of the First Principles Review still a work in progress, and as the roles and staffing of the new Capability, Acquisition and Support Group Defence are fleshed out, Defence has an opportunity to revisit the organisational structures and arrangements in place to provide engineering support for projects and through life support. Separating out the roles of scientists and engineers would be a good start.