The world is changing, fast.
The technological edge the armed forces of the West have enjoyed over the past 50 years has been eroded.
Now, the ADF is fighting back.
The Defence Science and Technology Group (DST) was given a bucketload of money in 2016 to spend on groundbreaking new ideas.
You probably already know the type.
The famous Dam Buster’s raid would not have been possible without the inspired idea of a bouncing bomb. Its designer, Barnes Wallis, went on to produce the first deep-ground penetrating ‘earthquake’ bombs to shatter buried concrete bunkers.
The idea — and application — of radar completely turned the tables when “The Few” Spitfires and Hurricanes of Britain’s Royal Air Force faced off against the Nazi war machine during the Battle of Britain. And the concept of pumping pulses of sound into the sea, and listening for echoes, kept the lifeblood of commercial shipping flowing during the Battle of the Atlantic’s submarine offensive.
Now, the DST wants more.
It wants ideas that will give Australia’s relatively small defence force a fighting edge. It also wants ways to counteract emerging, disruptive technologies as threats.
“Think big. Start small, but move quickly,” the Defence Force’s Chief Scientist Dr Alex Zelinsky told the SCINDICATE symposium bringing together industry, academia and defence last week.
And he’s got $730 million in the Next Generation Technologies Fund to make it happen.
“We are looking for game changing ideas,” he told the gathering of business and academic leaders.
After a little more than a year of looking, he’s found a few.
But not enough.
“Part of the problem, I’ve got to say, is some of the proposals we’ve received are too conservative,” Dr Zelinsky said. “They’re a little bit incremental. Our colleagues are saying some of them are a little bit pedestrian. They weren’t game-changing.”
What our defence needs, he says, is inspiration.
“That’s what we’re seeking. This is not just the next iteration of an acquisition or a tweaking of an existing product. We’re looking at what can actually give us game-changing outcomes that will ultimately take forward ADF capability.”
The Next Generation Technologies Fund has already committed $146 million to projects it has judged to be sufficiently promising. And that means financial commitments for up to three-or-four years of research and development.
“Industry has got to lead a bit more stronger and we want our academic partners to be more ambitious in their aspirations. Only the projects we feel are meeting that high threshold are being funded,” he said.
Inventors get to keep their intellectual property through patents — with just one proviso. If you don’t actually produce the product Defence wants, they will activate a clause to enable its delivery via another source.
“We’ve a lot of very good people in DST, but we don’t have all of the best people,” he said. “We’re seeking to work with them, to put together collaboration under a very modern way to handle intellectual property. We need your work.”
It’s not about building a better gun (though if it’s better enough, that’s another thing).
It’s about machine learning. It’s about the capture and analysis of data. It’s about developing fast, responsive and efficient new manufacturing techniques.
And there area areas DST has identified as priorities:
Quantum technology: The world of the infinitesimally small is weird. But it is full of potential. From radar and uncrackable communications to ultra-fast computing, Defence needs both ideas for its application and production.
Integrated intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance: It’s about giving commanders in the field better information, faster, upon which to make decisions. At the moment all incoming information must be processed by the Mk1 human brain. But it can only cope with about 5 per cent of the workload. Defence wants automated intelligent systems to sift through and process the remaining 95 per cent of the data, judge it, assess it — and present it in a form that will dramatically improve the commander’s situational awareness.
Trusted autonomous systems: We all know about the power of drones. And we’ve heard much about artificial intelligence. But secure, reliable machines capable of operating on their own and delivering the right action at the right time in the right way is proving to be a difficult nut to crack. Have an idea? Defence wants to speak to you.
Directed energy: Drones are cheap. Drones are capable. Drones are hard to shoot down. So while laser cannons sound good, they’re currently big and expensive to build and operate. Are there other ways of targeting delicate systems with a pulse of energy to disrupt their functionality?
Hypersonics: Russia and China appear to have stolen the march in this emerging arena. Which is why it’s become all the more important to understand the science and challenges behind flight at many times the speed of sound — and produce solutions.
Space capabilities: Satellites are no longer safe. But the services they provide have become virtually indespensible. So how can Australia increase the reliability and survivability of its space-based surveillance and communications?
Enhanced human performance: From the provision of super-nutrient bars to the ways soldiers collect and interpret data in the battlefield, Defence wants to improve them all. Exactly how is the problem.
Medical countermeasures: Chemical and biological warfare is only getting easier with modern technology. And, like the common cold, such weapons themselves can be rapidly shifting targets. So Defence wants to explore way to provide the fast development of medical treatments for everything from radiation poisoning through to engineered pandemics.
Advanced materials: The challenge is to protect soldiers, sailors and airmen as much as possible. And we’ve gone a long way from simply strapping on steel plates. Exploring new stealth and protective materials is the first step. Manufacturing them quickly and efficiently is the next.
Cyber war: The lights going out across the nation is a disturbing — but real — prospect. But hacking the energy grid is just one cyber security threat. How do we stop secret information from being stolen? How do we track attackers? How do we identify and repair such vulnerabilities?