How will the ADF get the technology edge it needs to win?
23 Jul 2021|

Fast-moving technology clearly gives the advantage to militaries that can obtain new systems quickly. And it’s a major source of damage and danger to those whose organisations aren’t delivering these powerful capabilities into the hands of the soldiers, sailors and aviators.

This was brutally demonstrated when the Azerbaijani military used cheap, deadly, unmanned systems to destroy scores of Armenian tanks and to attack camouflaged vehicles, headquarters and command locations. The Armenians, fielding traditional manned platforms and operating in conventional ways, lost.

These unmanned systems needed targeting and intelligence information and so didn’t operate alone. But the lesson is that militaries that don’t have fast acquisition processes, and that are without leaders who understand the required pace of change, can expose their people—and the governments and populations that rely on them—to enormous risk.

It’s an obvious lesson that many in defence organisations across the world already know. But sometimes it takes brutal public demonstrations of things that have only been appreciated intellectually to make people act on what they know.

The process of getting fast-moving technology to the Australian Defence Force is at best mixed, slowed by the understandable conservatism about the promise of new technologies balanced against the power of well-understood solutions and approaches.

To any military chief in 2021, now seems not the time to give up on highly capable, complex, crewed surface ships, submarines, fighter jets and surveillance aircraft and leap into the unknown world of autonomy. And no chief of the army, navy or air force wants to live the rest of their life and service reunions as the person who gave up armoured fighting vehicles, frigates, crewed submarines or crewed fighters.

That’s absolutely rational, and the huge psychological and emotional barrier any service chief would face is obvious.

The problem isn’t that this sensible conservatism sees the bulk of the defence investment budget spent on small numbers of very expensive, complex traditional platforms—although there are arguments that the outcomes don’t justify the costs.

The real problem is there are few champions of the ADF’s urgent need for faster moving, new technologies at scale who matter enough to affect government thinking and decisions.

Given continuing uncertainty about the viability of both traditional and emerging military capabilities, it’s absolutely defensible that the big, slow-moving traditional programs delivering small numbers of highly capable, complex, expensive platforms proceed. They may deliver capability to the ADF that’s powerful in the threat environment we have now, and the even more deadly threat environment over the next five or 10 years.

But even if crewed surface ships and submarines remain powerful, they’ll need to be complemented, augmented and wrapped up with things like smart missiles, semi-autonomous intelligence and surveillance systems, loitering munitions and uncrewed undersea systems—armed and unarmed—if they’re to be effective.

Defence’s mega-projects must be complemented by an entirely separate, fast-moving technology acquisition cycle not constrained by all the process layers and mitigators the giant projects require. Instead, they must be driven by the imperative to quickly equip our personnel with what they need to deter conflict and prevail if it occurs. We need to be more like the Azerbaijanis, not the Armenians.

So, who might champion rapid acquisition of fast-moving new technologies?

I’d have hoped the army and its leadership would. The Australian Army has traditionally not been a heavily armoured, heavily mechanised force, but a capable light infantry outfit that can operate in a highly dispersed small team environment, with a leavening of armour.

That was overlooking one big dynamic, though. The army force structure that’s been the vision since at least the late 1990s has embraced armour as its centre, and the army is now on the cusp of doing what the other two services already have done, doubling down on its own ‘next generation’, hugely expensive, complex, crewed weapon platforms. That’s happening just as these are becoming more vulnerable to everything we saw happen to the Armenians.

And no army leader is likely to do much about this because the combination of conservatism and psychology mean it’s way too big an ask—particularly when the army is about to get its hands on $27 billion for 450 infantry fighting vehicles.

That’s a shame, because armies could be the early adopters and are ideally placed to make the shift to highly dispersed, autonomous operations by small groups operating damaging new weapons but in a highly mobile, hard-to-target way. That’s what the new US Marine Corps concept is working towards.

Even buying just (!) 200 more armoured vehicles through its already agreed combat reconnaissance vehicle project and cancelling the IFV program would keep headroom for change.

And the army is also well placed to keep the focus on lower cost, high volumes of things like loitering munitions, advanced ground-to-air, ground-to-ship and ground attack missiles, and low-cost, widely available sensors and communications systems to lace all this together—because armies understand volume.

I know there are markers in Defence’s big integrated investment program for some of this—but the real money comes after the army eats the multibillion-dollar elephant that is its Land 400 armoured vehicle program. Until then, expect high-profile experimentation and press release, but low-volume actual acquisition of anything that doesn’t have armour and a turret.

That leaves us with two other services and ministers.

Strangely, for a force that has always centred itself on the person in the cockpit, selecting its chiefs out of only these folk, the Royal Australian Air Force is doing the most to embrace powerful complementary new uncrewed technologies and platforms.

It’s certainly not getting rid of the hugely expensive and sophisticated crewed weapons—the F-35s, P-8 surveillance aircraft, Super Hornets and Growler electronic attack aircraft. But the RAAF is leading the way with its ‘loyal wingman’ uncrewed system that will magnify the combat power of its fifth-generation of traditional platforms at prices meaning far more can be acquired than the mystical 102 number of crewed fighters the RAAF plans.

This is happening quickly, with the loyal wingman already achieving its first flight last year. A major reason the RAAF is willing to champion this technology is that it’s already got its ‘next generation’ of crewed aircraft, so, unlike the army, none of its traditional capability investments are threatened.

You’d think the navy would be in a similar position because the government has already committed to multibillion-dollar continuous build programs for ships and submarines, and the surface, air and undersea environments are replete with options for powerful but cheap systems to work with ships and submarines.

The truth is disappointing. The navy talks a good game, and it has a remote and autonomous systems roadmap out to 2040 that says so.

As ASPI’s Cost of defence 2021–22 budget analysis shows, however, there’s little cash or momentum outside the ‘non-core’ area of mine countermeasures that will deliver much novel technology before the first Hunter-class frigate or Attack-class submarine enters service years from now.

That may well be because, while a lot of public money is going out the door on the frigates and submarines, there’s not much tangible to show for this. So, there’s a concern that advocating for the military value of things that can threaten frigates and submarines will add to the pressures acquisition folk face.

That’s a fundamental miscalculation. Right now, navies know they face their own Azerbaijan–Armenia scenario from adversaries that are already lacing smart mines and lethal surface and subsurface uncrewed weapons into their command, control and targeting systems.

Wargaming around a Taiwan conflict demonstrates this routinely in ways that should matter to Australia.

There’s still time for our navy to quickly get into the loyal wingman game, whether undersea or on the surface. Uncrewed undersea systems seem most obvious, because Australia and our partners retain an undersea warfare advantage and retaining it must involve uncrewed systems that can complement and multiply the combat power of even the best crewed submarine.

That leaves ministers. Out of all the possible champions, I think they are our best bet for rapid change.

What minister wouldn’t want to do more than just defend the slow-moving, troubled, big defence programs their predecessors at least got the joy of beginning? And any defence minister in the 2020s looking at our deteriorating strategic environment must want to get additional undersea combat power into the hands of our navy well before the first Attack-class submarine turns up in the mid-2030s.

They’d probably be willing to get Defence chiefs to shift some cash in the large and growing defence budget to get this done. And they could make the obvious point that Defence’s acquisition budget underspent by about $1 billion last year and is on track to do this in a bigger way as the budget grows, so why not put the money to acquiring fast-moving technology at a scale well beyond the current innovation funding.

A minister looking at the speed of technological disruption and change in every field of human endeavour will understand that decades-long acquisition programs may have their place, but they must at least be accompanied by a separate, much faster way of getting technologies from concept or demonstrator to weapon system operated by our sailors, soldiers and aviators.

I hope I’m wrong and that in the next few months I hear about new army projects and a navy equivalent to the RAAF’s loyal wingman. In the absence of this, I look forward to Defence Minister Peter Dutton getting serious about the capability needs of our ADF personnel in an environment whose dangers are obvious to us all.