What would an Australian DARPA actually do?
10 Dec 2021| and

A Royal Australian Navy ship is transiting international waters in the South China Sea. A large fleet of fishing vessels, some with reinforced bows, deliberately manoeuvres close to the Australian warship. In the melee, one such vessel collides with the warship, inflicting significant hull damage. The ship might sink, or it may be able to retire to a nearby base for repairs. The navy’s multibillion-dollar warship has been put out of action by a fishing boat. The government now has to decide whether to risk deploying another warship or abandon any presence in the South China Sea. Not a shot has been fired.

This is asymmetry in action, and it’s not an unlikely scenario. Technology could avoid it. It’s not hard to conceptualise a drone that could be dispatched with a special technology to disable the fishing boats’ engines, or at least significantly slow them. And it could be done without firing a shot, and therefore avoid escalation.

We can conceptualise this, but we can’t actualise it. In Australia, we have a stymied approach to innovation, a slow and risk-averse innovation culture, an overwhelming bureaucratic process, and a reluctance on the part of the Defence Department to advance and adopt sovereign innovation.

On 17 November, Prime Minister Scott Morrison launched a list of critical technologies which set out a vision for the types of technologies we need in order to preserve our national interests. This welcome initiative should serve as flagbearer for the sort of capabilities and economy we want to have (and also a reminder of the gaps we have allowed to develop over the past two decades).

But, as the long-form publication of the list (ambitiously titled the ‘Action Plan’) acknowledges on page 11: ‘We recognise there is more to do. The List does not cover instances of technological convergence.’

The two immediate problems that arise are that most of the technologies on the list are cross-industry and that they all face significant headwinds in traversing the well-recognised ‘valley of death’ from concept to prototype (technology readiness levels 4 to 7) and then on to commercialisation. The prognosis for success is therefore, at best, clouded.

Earlier this year, we argued for the introduction of an Australian version of the US Defense Advanced Projects Development Agency (DARPA) and explored how it might be established. What we were positing wasn’t simply a rehash of the US model or a pure defence munitions focus. The name wasn’t important; we just borrowed that.

What was, and still is, important is the creation of a cross-industry technology development agency, however named. We need something structural to encourage local technology convergence, to break down silos, to proactively and continuously search for cross-industry linkages, and to strive for results such as Defence ordering locally developed technology.

That will require a shift in both policy and culture. The spirit and culture that prevail in our current industry-facing government departments won’t get us where we need to go. Pervading these departments is risk avoidance and a focus on immediate task completion. There is no next-horizons thinking or risk-taking in the execution of things.

We therefore need to keep this technology development office (we call it Australian DARPA) outside of Defence. An Australian DARPA will become a centrepiece of the Australian innovation landscape, drawing in funding from public and private sources and providing a vehicle to bridge the gap between concept and prototype.

Commercial systems and products such as GPS, the internet, weather radar, superglue and virtual reality came into everyday use as dual-use outcomes from initial military requirements. Despite the potential (Australia has enough smarts and enough risks), Defence will never be the backbone for innovation like this. The missing link? The culture and business processes and the structures that ingrain them.

For the initial technology focus areas that the government has announced, we need to ask, how do Australian companies originate rather than simply attach to foreign prime contractors and their capabilities? And we need to bear in mind that it’s not about just incrementally improving what we already have. We need to disrupt. We need to create vulnerabilities in a potential adversary and overcome our own vulnerabilities. Fight and win must be the mantra, not just fight and survive. Better still, we need to develop capabilities that raise the stakes and deter the fight from commencing.

The hypothetical scenario we started with highlights the power of asymmetry in military operations. An additional multibillion-dollar ship isn’t going to make any difference. A billion dollars invested into Australian DARPA—well, that’s another thing entirely.

In the consideration of defence and innovation we also need to keep in mind Peter Drucker’s comment that culture eats strategy for breakfast. Stepping outside of cultural impediments is essential.

And we are reminded of Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.