Refreshing Australia’s defence innovation enterprise
24 Sep 2020|

On 30 April, the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence declared that ‘the Covid-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified’. This statement was issued on behalf of the 17 organisations that make up the US intelligence community, and the assessment was made by a little-known program called FELIX (Finding Engineering-Linked Indicators), run by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency in the US, the intelligence community’s version of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

What’s notable about FELIX is that funding for the program is distributed through the US university and commercial sectors. In 2018, six external research teams—from universities, commercial biofoundries and national laboratories—were funded to develop the forensic ability to identify indicators of genetic modification, such as tearing, scarring and unusual repetition in an organism’s genome. Eighteen months later, the US had a workable prototype ready for use when Covid-19 came along.

This is an interesting model to consider in the context of Robert Clark and Peter Jennings’s recent article on Five Eyes funding for university research. Australia’s defence innovation enterprise will likely always lack the scale of the US system, but it need not lack the maturity. Unfortunately, where Australia’s defence innovation effort fails is in those areas in which the US undertook major reforms through civil–military integration from the 1980s onwards.

As Linda Weiss notes in her book America Inc? Innovation and enterprise in the national security state, during the late 1970s and early 1980s the US nuclear weapons program was numerically inferior to the Soviet Union’s. At the same time, a competitive Japanese technology sector was disrupting the US semiconductor market. The US needed hardened semiconductors for its nuclear program and was having trouble buying them.

Once the US acknowledged the problem, it responded by undertaking a round of civil–military integration that we take for granted today. There were patent reforms, a revitalised DARPA and massive funding programs for commercialising university research so that the security community could procure next-generation technology.

The US remains one of the rare countries whose governments can buy products that haven’t been invented yet. This is a key policy for enabling start-up companies that are spun out from universities to survive contact with the public and private sectors long enough to become sustainably profitable.

US civil–military fusion played a central role in ending the Cold War and inventing the technology of the internet age. From mobile phones to social media, we carry around the legacy of President Ronald Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ project in our pockets.

Over the past few years, the US has been gearing up to run the same techno-strategic offensive against China that it ran against the Soviets. It worked once before, and the logic is that it should work again. There’s a high level of confidence in the US that the underlying principles of the ‘third offset strategy’ will work.

Meanwhile, Australia’s research enterprise has for decades been supplemented with funding from international student fees. But as that money leaves Australia, so too will the researchers. Universities Australia has warned of up to 20,000 job losses in the sector, with an upper limit of a $4 billion loss in revenue. The true impact won’t be known until the student census is taken in the first semester of 2021.

Obviously a Five Eyes–focused defence innovation enterprise can’t cover this shortfall, nor should it, but the issue for the Australian government is clear. At the same time as our mainstay security partner is preparing to run a multidecade techno-strategic offensive, Australia is allowing its technological backbone to take its biggest hit in the nation’s history. We’re condemning ourselves to being a perpetual technology taker while willingly allowing the deterioration of our research contribution to the US–Australia alliance.

At face value, increased Five Eyes research investment makes a lot sense. However, many US defence research programs—and we’re primarily talking about US defence research investment—already allocate funding to aligned areas of Australian expertise through the Office of Naval Research, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and many other defence research funding groups.

Unfortunately, there’s a limit to how much money Australian researchers can absorb from Five Eyes, because the amount of funding is structurally dependent on how many researchers are active in Australia in disciplines aligned with Five Eyes science and technology objectives.

Five Eyes funding will not maintain this workforce, but merely allocate project funding to it. It is Australia’s role to maintain the human element of its defence innovation enterprise, and the international students that propped up that human element are gone. Where is the money going to come from to sustain an Australian research capability?

The DARPA model has been mimicked by the US intelligence community (IARPA) and the US Department of Energy (ARPA-E). It is a proven technology-transfer mechanism, involving funding for game-changing, challenge-focused research in both public and private research organisations.

Australia’s defence innovation enterprise needs this kind of targeted, challenge-focused investment. The Defence Innovation Hub and the Next Generation Technology Fund need to be scaled up and consolidated into a long-term vehicle supporting Australian research capability and capacity.

Yet it may already be too late. The downsizing of the university sector is already underway and the window of time available for retaining talent at universities or in defence-oriented start-up ventures is narrowing.

Perhaps most importantly, Australia cannot look to its Five Eyes partners to reinforce its own sovereign defence innovation enterprise. It must do so on its own. Every research sector in the world is going through the same Covid-19-related experience. Just as Australia can no longer rely on international students to supplement domestic research capacity, neither can other countries.

This means Australia must invest much more domestically to maintain research sector capacity, let alone strategically grow it. And the sector really does need to grow for Australia to be match-fit for the emerging techno-strategic environment. The amount of public–private investment required is in the range of several billions of dollars a year.

Unless Australia scales up its own DARPA-like investment vehicles and introduces well-endowed talent-retention schemes, or other policy initiatives unique to the Australian context, our defence innovation enterprise is headed for rocky times.

It remains to be seen whether Covid-19 will result in a much-needed refresh of the country’s defence innovation enterprise. Until that refresh occurs, Australia is unlikely to develop its own FELIX program anytime soon.