Leveraging innovation from diverse sources for Defence

In the 2023 defence strategic review (DSR), the Australian government recognised that Australia’s innovation ecosystem needed a leg up. Greater support for innovation, reinforced by faster acquisition timelines and deeper ties between government and industry is essential to meeting Australia’s national security needs. While the government is directing large scale review and reform to address this need, the potential to leverage established and highly effective innovation opportunities in allied countries, such as the US, should not be overlooked.

The Joint Interagency Field Experiment (JIFX) run by the Naval Post Graduate School (NPS) in Monterrey, California, is an example of where Australian companies and government could plug into an existing innovation network with partners. ASPI analysts saw how JIFX provides an opportunity for the NPS faculty, students, private companies and academia to freely test, demonstrate and evaluate new technologies related to the needs of the US Department of Navy and Department of Defense in an operational field environment.

Weeklong field experiments are held quarterly and attended widely by the US defence community with the understanding that the ‘event aims to identify, influence, and mature early prototype technologies into next-generation capabilities that will support the United States’ national security objectives’.

Where participating in similar field experiments can often cost upwards of US$25,000, JIFX is unique in that it is free for companies, open to both US and foreign nationals, and creates a people to people link between innovators and government. The low risk JIFX model helps informally socialise government decision makers with early-stage dual use tech companies to collaborate both in the ideation and iteration of the technologies for defence needs. Building these relationships helps to break down the wariness between government and industry around collaboration.

Throughout 2023 the Australian government undertook a myriad of activities to address the need for a more effective innovation ecosystem to underpin the technological and defence capabilities required to achieve the DSR’s national security objectives.

It established the Advanced Strategic Capabilities Accelerator (ASCA) with $3.4billion over the next decade to help streamline defence innovation and drive capability development and acquisition pathways. A landmark review of higher education from an innovation perspective took place through the University Accords. The final report, published in late February 2024, reaffirmed that Australia’s innovation strength lies in its university sector at the R&D level and is under utilised by industry. This has increased pressure on the federal government to lift investment in R&D from 1.69% of GDP to 3%. Australia has also pursued greater innovation engagement internationally under the AUKUS Pillar 2 in partnership with the United Kingdom and United States. Greater industry engagement through the AUKUS Industry Forum is also expected.

The scale, breadth, and future-looking focus of these activities is testament to the government’s recognition that greater coordination and signaling is required to boost innovation. However, regardless of funding increases, there’ll be an inevitable time lag before we see these changes break down risk appetites between government and private sector to improve collaboration and accelerate startups growth and keep them in Australia.

As Assistant Minister for Defence Matt Thistlethwaite stated in a recent interview, ‘demand for innovation in Defence is both urgent and persistent.’ Given the pressing challenge of maintaining a technical advantage against known malign actors, namely China, Australia needs to identify and engage with existing innovation ecosystems and opportunities that can easily, rapidly and effectively be leveraged by government and industry to support DSR and allied goals under AUKUS.

JIFX is one of a range of innovation ecosystems connected to defence services among the US defence innovation organisations which have proliferated in recent years, and include the Air Force’s AFWERX, Army Applications Laboratory and the Joint Rapid Acquisition Cell. These independently operated DIOs are designed to address specific needs and rapidly harness and utilise commercial technologies to solve defence problems. They illustrate that no single pathway for innovation exists and, while there are challenges regarding coordination, they have proven effective in the early phases of identifying and demonstrating commercial technologies.

As is the case with JIFX, these DIOs are leveraged by US entities such as NavalX, which have offices worldwide, and the Office of Strategic capital, to build relationships, provide briefs to participating companies and identify funding opportunities and grants they should be looking too. The seniority of representation from US defence entities at JIFX speaks to the value of the model in contributing to America’s technological advantage.

For Australia, these forums offer a strategic opportunity earlier on in the innovation process to highlight more formal, long-term acquisition opportunities for dual use companies in Australia, such as ASCA. This pipeline has significant potential to be effective when coupled with clear problem articulation, incentive structures for commercial partners and guidance for procurement. The early engagement also has the added benefit of helping to breakdown the risk aversion to public-private sector collaboration between dual use start up and defence. By socialising at a personal and technical level it ensures that relationships are built and the right challenges are being solved at the beginning of the design process.

The UK Ministry of Defence already engages with JIFX and provides funding for it. That helps JIFX an ideal starting point to experiment with bringing established activities under the AUKUS banner. Australia should encourage and enable Australian SMEs and start-ups to participate in JIFX and other field experiments, and increase engagement from Australia’s Defence and Austrade agencies in the US.

Beyond increasing its presence at existing JIFX events, Australia should emulate the model domestically, ideally in partnership with NPS and an Australian university.

As the 2024 higher education review found, industry’s engagement with Australia’s R&D ecosystem at the university level is underutilised. The JIFX model, which is run by NPS, offers further opportunities to deepen the relationship between industry and Australia’s university sector, and with allied partners. The natural collaboration that occurs in field experiments like JIFX also increases the likelihood of partnership between Australian and US companies attempting to meet defence needs outlined under AUKUS.

There are many pieces to the innovation puzzle that Australia wants to enhance and improve. While large scale efforts are important, the utility and effectiveness of small, dynamic activities such as JIFX should not be overlooked. Innovation is ultimately about people and how they solve problems. History shows that chance conversations among people working on a problem from different angles can generate brilliant ideas.

Bringing together startups with ideas and the skills to experiment, and governments with  problems that need solving provides a fertile environment for innovation.