Chief of Army address to the Defence Science and Technology Group Future Land Force Conference 2016 official opening
Good morning ladies and gentlemen,
I would like to acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we are meeting today, the Kaurna people, and pay my respects to their elders, both past and present.
In the late 1980s the commander of our 3rd Brigade, then our nation’s ready operational deployment force, pushed hard for the modernisation of that formation. He premised the requirement, quite accurately, on the statement that when he assumed command of the brigade, ‘the only digital technology available was the clock in the dashboard of my staff car’.
A few years later the story is told of that same senior officer, now a general, bursting into an office in Victoria Barracks in Sydney, brandishing a newspaper with a full page advertisement for computers. He enthusiastically slammed the newspaper down on the desk in front of a startled staff officer, declaring that while he wasn’t quite sure what those computers did, he wanted ‘lots of them!’
The Australian Army has long had a fascination with science and technology. Like all armed forces, we are on a perennial quest for the promise of that new, cutting-edge capability, which will deliver, no matter how fleetingly, an asymmetric advantage over a potential adversary.
The Army is a force that both soldiers the equipment and equips the soldier. This is why we always need to be thinking deeply about how we enable our people with the ‘right’ science and technology, used in the right ways.
We have come a long way in the few short decades since the digital clock in the commander’s staff car. Most of this development has been deliberate and designed. But I think we should never miss the opportunity to be dragged forward by enthusiastic modernisers, who may not always fully comprehend or appreciate the innovations on offer, but have the vision and risk tolerance to pursue them.
We have plenty of opportunity to advance our levels of technological capability and sophistication. In the first of the new Australian land warfare concept series, titled: Coming to terms with the modern way of war: precision missiles and the land component of Australia’s joint force, authors Colonel Chris Smith and Doctor Al Palazzo write:
Thanks to a significant and sustained investment over many years, Australia will soon boast a ‘fifth-generation’ air force. While there is no similar ‘generational’ construct for land forces, if there was, Australia’s army by comparison is probably ‘fourth-generation’ at best in relative terms.
The Army’s story of capability development has been one of slow and steady evolution rather than innovative revolution. That’s okay, but I believe that we have the ability, and need, to get better at design and development. Having our Army within the same technological generation as the rest of the joint force is a reasonable aspiration in this era of digital connectivity. And it is a necessity if we are to realise the true combat value of joint operations. My sense is that perhaps the Army, of the three services in Australia’s joint force, may have a slight advantage with respect to innovation and risk. Let me explain.
Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper, the Defence Integrated Investment Program and the Defence Industry Policy Statement set out a long-term capability acquisition program. Just under 20 per cent of the dollar value of planned acquisitions could be classified broadly as joint land capabilities.
Now please don’t get me wrong – I am appreciative for what we have and what we are getting. And any money spent on our sister services that enhances the wider joint force effect is a great thing – ultimately it helps keep our soldiers, and our nation, safe.
The point which I seek to make is that both the net cost of the capabilities and platforms Army needs, and the net amount in the Integrated Investment Program, are nowhere near the scale of non-Army acquisitions. And while I am hesitant to refer to them as ‘cheap’, the relative amount spent on iconic land projects compared to projects such as the joint strike fighter or future submarines means there is also relatively less national risk and potentially the ability for more innovative approaches. Arguably, ‘Army’ money is more disaggregated, malleable and some of it can bear a larger number of smaller tranches of risk opportunity. Spiral risk development if you will.
Of course, Major General McLachlan, as the Head of Modernisation and Strategic Plans–Army keeps reminding me, the downside of our smaller dollar value projects are smaller science and technology budgets within those projects. So we need to think clearly and creatively about how we maximise the return on both our, and other’s, science and technology investment.
One way to maximise this investment is to seek to learn and benefit from crossover or bleed from other larger ADF high-technology projects. Sharing insights across the joint force and looking for knowledge transfer where possible and appropriate is something my colleagues heading Defence Science Technology Group (DSTG) and Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group (CASG) and I are very keen to see occur – more capability for each research dollar.
In the case of the air domain for example, it is immediately obvious that platform integration with the advent of the joint strike fighter, Wedgetail and Growler will have benefit for the integration of Army platforms in projects such as Land 200.
In the maritime domain, research into submarine and surface vessel stealth may generate technological innovation with utility for land vehicle systems. In short, we remain open to new, collaborative and collegiate ways of thinking about our respective science and technology programs.
Being open to new ways of thinking, leads to questioning how we might better benefit from our creativity and innovation. I think that I can see at least three likely industry innovation strategies available. The first is obvious – and may be described as ‘lead globally and win’. This is appropriate where you have both the idea and the ability to develop and competitively market it yourself.
An indicative example of this is the great Australian success story of the Nulka active missile decoy system for naval ships, now being built and sold through an Australian – American collaboration.
Which leads me to the second strategy, which can be characterised as beginning the collaboration process earlier to lock in our equity. Australia and Australian scientists are periodically at the leading edge of scientific breakthroughs that are the best in the world, or equal to them.
Our value proposition may be to leverage the quality of our people and ideas to form collaborative partnerships early.
As the Vice Chancellor of the ANU and Nobel Laureate Professor Brian Schmidt would say, we need to recognise and seize the fleeting moments of technological leadership we have, and lock in our equity early, when the applied technology is still only a possibility.
If we don’t, within two or three years, our larger global partners, who often have 50 people working on a problem for every one of ours, will probably have caught up or overtaken us. In these cases the quantity of research dollars and researchers does have a quality all of its own.
Appreciating the challenges of both of these first two strategies, can lead to ‘small to medium’ enterprise scale nations, such as Australia, choosing in some instances to adopting a strategy of focusing on component manufacture, assembly and sustainment.
This is most applicable where a clear lead in an area has been established overseas, such as the United States in the manufacture of 5th generation aircraft. A suitable example of this is the work being done by various Australian aerospace manufacturers in producing components as part of the global manufacturing supply chain for the joint strike fighter.
All three strategies are viable for Australian Defence interests, the art is in managing the risks, something we Australians have often been poor at doing. Perhaps the second one – innovate, then collaborate early to lock in equity - hits the sweet spot. It potentially de-risks the development to market phase through sharing and engagement, retains the benefits of some IP ownership, and allows the chance to continue to learn and shape outcomes throughout the process. Or, taking a silicon valley approach, perhaps the second strategy is just a training ground for global domination with the next innovation. An approach which has worked for the Scandinavians.
The often overwhelming scope and scale brought by our partners is amply demonstrated by the United States and their ‘3rd offset strategy’. First announced in November 2014, the strategy has been allocated a US$18 billion budget. Australia, with a small defence budget by comparison, cannot compete across the depth and breadth of such an endeavour.
But it is clearly important, from a sovereignty, national science and technology, and alliance perspective that Australia contributes where we can. After all, our scientists are up with, if not, the world leaders in autonomous systems, cyber, quantum computing and hypersonic research, to name a few. I think there is an opportunity for Australian ideas and collaboration in these areas to potentially unlock access to other technological developments where we are not, or cannot be, significant players because of scale or cost.
There are, of course, alternate views on the 3rd offset strategy. Andrew Davies, from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, recently wrote:
Waiting for a ‘once in a generation’ capability breakthrough isn’t likely to be a winning strategy. Agility, the rapid exploitation of new technologies and the clever application of low cost systems that can be built in large numbers (R2-D2s rather than Death Stars) looks like a better bet.
As a service chief with a relatively modest science and technology budget, and an inversely sized appetite for the right, clever but affordable technology, I am intuitively attracted to an approach like the one Andrew is advocating. And after all, we all know that throughout the Star Wars’ Universe, R2-D2s have proven to be far more resilient and long lasting than any death star built by the empire…
I think that the points Andrew makes about seeking agile, quick and clever but low-cost approaches aligns with the direction Army is taking. These are certainly hallmarks of the inaugural Defence Land Science and Technology Agreement, which was jointly signed by Major General Gus McLachlan and Doctor Peter Shoubridge last week. Titled, Shaping Defence Science and Technology in the Land Domain 2016-2036, it is a companion document to the Army Modernisation Plan and articulates the science and technology capabilities required to deliver our modernisation lines of effort.
A theme throughout is that Army seeks to obtain the most robust, rigorous and independent responses to its research and development requirements. An examination of Army’s research into human performance provides a practical example of this in application.
The Army has identified the performance of its people as a critical factor in building and sustaining a capability edge able to adapt and prevail in future operational scenarios.
The associated priorities for research and development are set out in our human performance Army modernisation line of effort. DSTG’s land human systems capability is Army’s lead partner for addressing these priorities.
But given the breadth and scope of our human performance requirements no single organistaion has the capacity, skills or resources to address each of the requirements by themselves. So Army and DSTG must partner with a range of agencies, internal and external to Defence, to collect and develop the necessary information underpinning decisions in human performance modernisation.
In conjunction with DTSG we have developed a new approach to meet this need – the human performance research network (HPRnet, pronounced “hip·er·net”). The HPRnet has the potential to change the way in which research partnership is planned and delivered for Army, land division and possibly even DSTG as a whole. This scalable model, built on open partnership and mutual investment, will provide a robust mechanism for bringing together, and investing in, the leading research teams from across Australia to address Army’s human performance priorities.
A total of $4M (exc. GST) in cash funding over four years has been allocated to establish and operate the HPRnet. There is the potential for further investment to expand and extend HPRnet in the future. We are seeking to establish an enduring partnership with, and between, the members of the HPRnet. And we will be looking for mutual investment in the selected initiatives and a commitment to open engagement.
On 8 June 2016, DSTG announced the HPRnet and sought expressions of interest (EOI) for innovative research proposals. The EOI period closed on 6 July 2016.
A total of 65 submissions were received addressing the full range of questions posed and emanating from universities from each state and territory in Australia. Cross-university discussion, and alignment of study proposals that make a systemic case, were encouraged.
The approach to the staffing of each study is not pre-defined. Based on a potential investment of up to $450k per study, proposers were asked to detail how these funds would be allocated to deliver their study’s Army focused outcomes over a four year timeframe. They are also expected to demonstrate mutual investment through the allocation of university resources to maximise the delivery of outcomes for Defence. On average, for every dollar invested by the Commonwealth, the universities were prepared to co-invest $1.28, through in kind and cash. An average mutual investment of this scale for the HPRnet will result in a total program value of around $8M.
I think this is a great example of the second collaboration strategy I mentioned earlier. It is also a strong demonstration of the possibilities of leveraging better outcomes from a constrained science and technology budget through cooperation and risk sharing with willing partners.
A good example of a project using this approach is a current Army and DSTG working prototype of an unpowered exoskeleton, that may have potential to mitigate the equipment burden of individual soldiers. It is a sobering fact to realise that some of our soldiers carry individual loads in excess of 60 kilograms. This results in reduced physical and cognitive performance through increased fatigue, decreased agility and increased risk of musculoskeletal injury. I know the performance and sensory collapse associated with being a pack mule all too well.
Armies globally have sought a solution to load sharing technologies such as exoskeletons. However, to date, complexity, power requirements and energy demands on the user have inhibited military utility and acceptance. DSTG have designed a unique concept technology demonstrator (CTD) of a simple, unpowered, wearable, flexible exoskeleton that reduces the burden of a soldier’s load by over 60 per cent in some circumstances.
The ‘Ox’ project, as it is known, is currently at technology readiness level 4 (where level 1 is risky and level 9 has minimal to no technological risk associated with it). The early signs are promising. In a recent test the wearer commented that the difference between a baseline test (wearing a 20 kilogram load without the exoskeleton) and with it on was ‘stark’. The wearer then elaborated:
Wearing the Ox system it’s hard to say how much it’s actually taking, because at the end of the day you’re still ‘balancing’ the load on top of the cables. This requires the body’s core muscles to be constantly active making the adjustments necessary to stay upright. Taking off the Ox system and walking with the full 20kg on my back I immediately realised how much I had been taking the system for granted.
It’s still early days. And no one is claiming ‘mission accomplished’ just yet. But I think we can agree that innovation and developmental approaches like this are to be encouraged.
I have another example of an innovative approach to share, this one from outside the human performance line of effort. Project Land 129 Phase 4 seeks to acquire an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) for the Australian Army to use at the battle group level.
The requirement for the first tranche of these UAS is regarded as operationally urgent, so we seek to buy these small aircraft as ‘military off the shelf’ (or ‘MOTS’).
The second tranche of aircraft is not as urgently required. While Australian firms currently don’t manufacture military spec UAS of this size, many Australian companies make the components of such a UAS to world class standards. With the idea that we would like to see an Australian solution for the next tranche of these aircraft, Rapid Prototyping, Development and Evaluation (RPDE) seed funding was sought to investigate and test options.
Once again, it is early days, but the idea is showing promise. Recently, Defence met with ten Australian companies who expressed interest in the RPDE activity. I am sure I don’t need to elaborate about the wider benefits should this activity proceed to full development. At this point, I would also like to note the great support and enthusiasm this initiative has received from the head of CASG, Mr Kim Gillis.
It reinforces the point that the Army, and the other services, are reliant on the ongoing collaboration, partnership and excellent support we receive from the other enabling Defence groups, in order to realise our innovation aspirations.
The final point I wish to make in these remarks is that Army is also working to reinvigorate the quality of our thinking. Our science, technology and innovation needs are best served when our people are producing insightful thinking that explains and responds to the serious problems confronting us.
To that end, Army has begun a renewal of its doctrine, training and education under the Ryan Review. And I am establishing an Army research centre; which will be networked and connected with other thought centres. A science, technology, engineering and mathematics enabled Army needs to be STEM literate and able to guide research informed by concepts of future war. By building rigour of thinking and a culture of learning into our system, we will help inform the future iterations of science and technology innovation we will require on our continuous modernisation path.
I encourage you to be part of that journey.