Chief of Army address to the Williams Foundation Seminar
Good morning ladies and gentlemen,
Thank you for the opportunity to address you this morning. I am delighted to be here. I would also like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we are meeting today and pay my respects to their elders, both past and present.
Now, to contextualise my remarks on ‘new thinking on air-land’, I want to share something from a note I received after my address to the Airpower Conference on Tuesday. Regarding the integration of the domains, one of the best and brightest in Air Force noted; air is a domain invented by human engineering, land is basic to human existence. Air looks ever forward to the possibilities of technology; land looks Janus-like toward both the power of technology and the true and brute reality of its absence. Somewhere in the middle lies air-land integration.
He went on to suggest that cyber – another domain generated only through human ingenuity – is the next big ‘fusion’ in air-land that will stretch our language at the same time as it stretches our conceptual resources. I think this Air Force officer’s characterisations are right and I would welcome his service in our Army.
Air-land integration is about managing (and benefitting from) the fusion of the seams between the physical world we live and fight in and the domains we have and are creating to influence that world. It is a realm that owes its existence to creativity and innovation.
Australia and Australians have characteristically demonstrated new thinking and novel action on air and land integration matters over many years.
Over 100 years ago at the 1911 Imperial Conference in London it was decided that the Empire needed to develop aviation branches in order to harness this new potential they called aviation.
Out of all the nations represented, only Australia acted immediately on this Imperial decision. The Australian Government authorised the establishment of a Central Flying School in September 1912. By 1913, the Australian Flying Corps had been formed as a Militia Unit and aviation remained first with the Army until the formation of the Australian Air Force on 31 March 1921.
Individuals have also been active in producing great and lasting innovation. One man stands out as a particularly good example in this regard and his story is worth briefly outlining - Sir Arthur ‘Mary’ Coningham. He was born in Brisbane, Queensland in 1895.
His parents would today perhaps be described as ‘colourful’. The family moved to New Zealand while he was a young boy to avoid several scandals. Coningham served as a soldier in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force from August 1914, taking part in the capture of German Samoa.
He then served as a trooper in the Canterbury Mounted Rifle Regiment in Egypt and Somaliland, but was invalided out with typhoid fever. Instead of heading home, he made his own way to England. He joined the Royal Flying Corps and undertook pilot training. He was both a Squadron Commander and an Ace by the end of the First World War.
Coningham remained in the UK after the Armistice, becoming a member of the RAF when it was formed. He rose through the ranks during the inter war years to eventually become an Air Marshal.
In 1941, as an Air Vice Marshal, Coningham commanded the Western Desert Air Force.
It was here that he developed and implemented a tactical doctrine or air-ground integration that was employed with great success not only in the desert campaign, but for the subsequent allied campaigns in Europe.
The basic tenets of Coningham’s doctrine endure in today’s air-land cooperation. Many also view his innovations as the basis of modern joint operations doctrine.
Today, I believe we have created one of the most impressive and well balanced air forces in world. I now want us to take a look ahead. Well ahead to sixth generation questions that stretch our assumptions and expectations of air and its potential in air-land integration. But where I’m looking is not the realm of science fiction. From a technological standpoint it is imminent science fact.
Civilian industry is already demonstrating autonomous cars. It is not a particularly large leap of the imagination to expect that autonomous cars will be commercially available in the short to medium term future. This will occur in years rather than decades.
If we can have autonomous cars on our busy highways, then truly autonomous Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) are surely equally possible, at least beyond the end of life of the JSF, if not well before. And I would suggest well before.
This lets us imagine an air force without pilots if we took an extreme view. An air force that would be, if we chose, solely equipped with UAS.
While technically possible, such a fleet is not without risk. It challenges us with a few questions.
Is it important to actually have a human physically engaged in combat? Physically operating these platforms?
Do we still view combat as a human endeavour or is it something we can outsource to machines?
How much will we, or indeed can we, rely on a communications link to control these machines?
We probably need to back cast and work out where and when we might still want a human physically present in the machine. I think the discipline of back casting from the extreme is essential if we are to avoid incrementalism and embrace, when they arise, asymmetrical opportunities to our own advantage. Perhaps on the development path some aircraft will be manned, some unmanned, and some providing for a pilot as an optional extra.
This may well be the path of our next JSF - let’s call it the F-53. If we know anything about the F-53 it is that it will be enormously expensive. This will be especially true if it is manned.
The historical record of such things suggests the likely complexity of the systems and the cost of its technical development will exceed all that preceded it, as others have before. Indeed, one F-53 could cost the same as 100 F-35s. A mind boggling thought for some future Finance Minister.
The decades of investment (development and cost) required to attain future platforms such as our imaginary F-53 may present the future joint force with a very real risk of dislocation.
Let me explain.
In the not too distant past, the speed of computing or technology development was led by the military. It is now led by industry. And the innovation cycle is accelerating at a rate that I suggest makes the projections of ‘Moore’s Law’ look conservative.
Such change places on the table the possibility of a future where costly, long acquisition time, high end military platforms (our F-53) will be dislocated by technology that was regarded as science fiction when the platform was being procured.
It is conceivable some platforms will be obsolete even before they deliver an initial operating capability. We already have examples of accessible civilian technology dislocating expensive military technology.
From the land domain an example of dislocation is the increasing lethality, and extraordinarily low cost of the IED.
The proliferation of IEDs has had a marked effect on the design and employment of our vehicles and the manner in which we operate them.
The cyber domain is reflecting this trend.
We need to remain vigilant about our current and future heavy reliance on our digital communications systems.
What happens if these digital communications are not assured? Or worse, subverted so that others may even use our systems against us?
I don’t think we can assume that some of our more ‘traditional’ areas of strength will be free of this trend. What will it mean when swarms of (relatively) cheap, autonomous and armed UAS are operating, and potentially, more agile across the same space as our relatively few F-53s?
We don’t want a future where other people solve these problems for us. Or pose questions that we haven’t at least considered the answers to. Not thinking boldly enough about that future represents a risk, as does ill-disciplined or foolish thinking about such a future. But who arbitrates the difference between bold and foolish?
As I stated in my opening remarks, Australia hitherto has a comparatively good record with innovation in matters relevant or related to the air-land domain.
Previously we have been amongst the world leaders in radio astronomy, rocketry, gravitational wave research and aspects of space technology. I believe there are now, and will continue to be, some areas where we should seek to lead again.
Australian innovation and investment in niche technologies in partnership with our allies and friends could help maintain a capability edge in the air-land realm. This is important given the potential for our military capability edge to gradually erode given the changing power and economic relativities in the Indo-Pacific region.
I hope that development of new technological capabilities in the air-land space should also inform conceptual development about how the joint force will operate in the future.
I say ‘hope’ because the record of recent decades doesn’t suggest a direct correlation between the development of new things and subsequent new thoughts about how we conceive of and operate in the air-land space. Our conceptual imagination can be bound by our military culture and lived experience, particularly for an Army in the terrestrial domain.
Innovative thought about the ways we might use the air, space and cyber domains to prosecute joint campaigns will be instrumental to capitalising gains made through technological research and innovation; all of which we should be aspiring to.
Other opportunities may exist with respect to being agile in our risk management processes associated with development of systems. As an example, the software development cycle for one of our helicopters is presently around two years; yet only about two months of this time is actually taken up with writing code. The remainder of the time is the test and acceptance regime required to satisfy airworthiness requirements.
Let me be crystal clear here – I am certainly not advocating abrogation of airworthiness standards; but I do believe new thinking about risk could enable the organisational agility we require.
The Chairman of the Williams Foundation (Air Marshal (retd) Errol McCormack) noted in today’s conference papers: air-land integration is one of the most important capabilities for successful joint operations.
I completely agree.
From my perspective as the ADF’s land capability manager, I do not want to see the Australian Army prosecuting joint land combat operations without such integration. But I do question – if we simply see the future as ‘more of the same’ – will it get us to a sixth generation solution in 2050?
Let’s go back to Arthur Coningham for a moment. His point in history is now, give or take a decade or two, roughly equidistant in time between the present and the Battle of Waterloo.
The change in the conduct of war fighting between Wellington and Coningham’s time was profound. We can reasonably speculate that Wellington would have been agog if he were to have seen joint air-land operations as practiced in the deserts of the Second World War in 1943 or Northern Europe in 1945.
I believe that Coningham would be somewhat less bewildered if he were to witness contemporary air-land operations in the Middle East area of operations. While the means are more advanced, reaction times quicker and effects more lethal and precise; the constituent elements he refined and codified as joint doctrine in 1942 endure.
Surely the task confronting us then, is to realise the next innovation or innovations which will make our present way of operating across the domains as obsolescent as Wellington’s. These innovations will doubtless include new ‘things’. Equally importantly though, they will include new concepts and innovation.
New things without new thoughts will leave us still trailing in Coningham’s intellectual wake and will cede the initiative to others.
We have had a good record of innovation in this domain. Invigorating it is vital to our future joint force.