25 Feb 2019
Speed, technology are more essential to survival in future war
Australia must embrace ‘‘leap ahead’’ technologies in defence-force capability. Failure to do this increases the risk the ADF will be slow to develop in the face of rapid change.
There are some obvious steps that could be made as part of the next defence policy white paper.
First, science and technology must be recognised as a fundamental input to capability (FIC) of equal standing to the defence industry and the other FICs. Second, it would be a smart move for government to establish an Australian equivalent to the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
This organisation would aim to identify ‘‘maxim gun moments’’ in innovative technology that, if applied, could allow the ADF to avoid technological surprise and develop more ability to punch above its weight, even against major power adversaries.
Three aspects of future military capability — mass, autonomy and speed — need to be emphasised in future acquisition programs.
Australia needs to exploit ‘‘the small, cheap and many’’, implicit in swarms of unmanned autonomous systems that can overwhelm an opponent through sheer mass. Trusted autonomy and artificial intelligence are essential to enable these systems to operate with minimal oversight by humans ‘‘on the loop’’*. It is neither desirable nor practical to have humans “in the loop’, given the rapidity of future war.
An important element should be manned-unmanned teaming with large numbers of low-cost disposable autonomous systems. Quantity does have a quality of its own, and the future force must better balance small numbers of high-end exquisite platforms with large numbers of low-cost unmanned swarms.
We must also recognise the value of speed and reach alongside a knowledge edge. Hypersonics allow revolutionary effects in the future battlespace, yet despite Australia maintaining one of the world’s best R & D into hypersonics, we seem wedded to slow short-range systems such as the Harpoon anti-ship missile. It is time to go faster, whether with hypersonic standoff weapons or greater emphasis on developing directed energy weapons.
The outcome of future war will be decided by the actor that can identify critical technology advances early and incorporate them most rapidly in a manner that locks out an opponent’s advantages. Since the 1990s the knowledge edge has been of critical importance but now that is not enough. Future wars will see mass, speed and autonomy as key. Australia must be ready to leap ahead or be left behind.
* A print version of this article wrongly uses the term “in the loop’’ instead of ‘‘on’’ in this sentence because of a production error.
Explanation of terminology for readers: ‘‘On the loop’’ means that humans have broad oversight of autonomous systems, but the platform (such as an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone) makes most of its own decisions, in terms of navigation, sensors, identifying targets, etc. Humans intervene if the platform uses lethal force. By contrast, “in the loop’ means humans maintain total control over the unmanned platform’s systems and activities throughout the mission. So a vehicle such as the Reaper is remotely piloted, with humans operating its systems, whereas a future unmanned combat air system would likely be autonomous, with humans “on the loop’’ giving only broad direction.