Talking to the chiefs: Rick Burr (part 1)

New army chief Rick Burr encourages his troops to embrace a new sport with a deadly serious purpose: drone racing. Various types of small ‘copters and fixed-wing aircraft blast around obstacle courses and through rugged terrain as the men and women controlling them build up skills they’ll need on the modern battlefield.

Lieutenant General Burr sees the activity as a key part of preparing personnel for what he calls ‘accelerated warfare’—the rapidly changing nature and lethality of combat and the need to prepare troops and equipment to ensure the army’s sustained readiness for war.

He notes that the army is Australia’s biggest user of drones. Some are helicopters tiny enough to fit in the palm of a soldier’s hand that can be deployed to scout ahead of a patrol or around a base to search for enemies. ‘We’re encouraging our young soldiers to embrace this, and they are.’

Burr says that adapting in time to the high-tech threats likely to emerge over the next 10 to 20 years is the biggest challenge the Australian Defence Force faces.

‘The threats against us are accelerating in terms of the speed of cyber, the lethality of the weaponry, and the way in which information space is being exploited, and therefore we need to accelerate our response to these threats. We can’t just continue along the way we’ve always done business.’

This concept is intended to get the army thinking about what it must start doing now to inform the Defence Department’s strategic review process and to tailor future investment.

The accelerated warfare concept is designed to deal with the rapidly increasing pace of change that’s being driven by both the development of technology and its use in innovative ways for military purposes.

Burr says there’s a very clear need to use the army’s future investments to harness these technological possibilities. ‘These will be reflected in our future requirements to deliver those capabilities. We already have things like our unmanned aerial systems, so our drones are in some ways an early step into this area. But in a more mature sense, it’s absolutely imperative to make robotic and autonomous systems part of our broader capability suite.

‘Army, and the entire joint force, needs to embrace that, and our future concepts will very clearly articulate those requirements and how we can leverage that technology.’

So how feasible is a thoroughly networked system that allows a soldier in a hostile environment to see immediately what a joint strike fighter sees?

‘Essentially, we can do that now’, Burr says. ‘We can connect what an airborne sensor can see to an operator on the ground. And the art in that, obviously, is in the fidelity of the picture and the lag factor of what they’re seeing, to make it as real-time as possible. The key is to make it more connected, more networked to more people at once.’

An issue, he says, it to avoid overloading the soldier on the ground. Information must be tailored and prioritised. ‘It’s the business we need to be in as we think about a more connected battlefield architecture, from air defence and missile defence through to joint fires from the joint force.’

The army must exploit the opportunity it has to explore new ways to use emerging technology, Burr says. It’s important for industry and academia to share ideas and help get equipment into the hands of operators so that they can experiment with it and innovate.

True innovation is new technology plus new ways of doing business, he says. ‘That’s where we want to be. This is a time full of opportunity, so our innovation days, our open days, and our focus on partnerships are a key part of our innovation platform to make sure that we can share each other’s ideas and needs, and explore this.

‘As a modest-sized defence force, harnessing these opportunities is critical for us.’

Burr says he’s very happy with the army’s new Steyr rifle. ‘In fact, all of our individual soldier kit delivered under the LAND 125 equipment project is tremendous. I think our soldiers’ personal, individual equipment is probably the best in the world. Our people give us a competitive advantage and I think the decision some years ago to invest in the soldier as a priority was crucial. We are reaping the dividends of that now and our job is to continue to deliver on that, and modernise off that base.’

A big focus is robotics and autonomous systems, and how soldiers partner with them. ‘With manned and unmanned teaming, we can generate more capacity to do more things at scale, and, where possible, we can reduce risk and be safer in the way we prosecute our operations.’

Unmanned ground vehicles with sensor and communications suites will, for example, be used to search high-risk areas. ‘That will obviously be a critical part of our understanding and seeing the battlefield, and helping to secure other assets.’ Such vehicles could rescue wounded soldiers in very dangerous situations and robotics could help soldiers carry heavier loads with ease.

‘Army is more than just the ground force’, says Burr. ‘We’re into all domains today—cyber, space, maritime and air—and that will become more so as we introduce more capabilities.’ Already in the current investment program are air-defence systems, long-range and precision weapons, and anti-ship missiles. ‘As army brings all that together, we need to be much more robust in the way we can employ those capabilities, as well as our traditional army role. So there’s an exciting future ahead. We need to intellectually and conceptually think about how we can make the most of these capabilities to create advantage.’

So does he have particular goals, as Chief of Army and the officer responsible for providing ready land forces as part of the nation’s joint force?

‘Like every new Chief of Army, I really focus on readiness, modernisation and people. Those three pillars certainly are my focus. They’re the ones I’m accountable for. To always invest intellectually in our modernisation, and to deliver that modernisation to keep the army relevant and capable for an ever-changing context. And delivering that through our people, acknowledging them as our competitive advantage.’

Burr has distilled that into his initial commander’s philosophy, called ‘an army in motion’. It covers four command themes: preparedness, people, profession and potential.

Future acquisitions, he says, will be vital to ensuring the army has ready and capable forces in an ever-changing world and that they’re able to deal with a full range of scenarios.

‘That’s vital for the nation, and our modernisation priorities need to reflect that.’