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Dr Nigel McGinty and Professor Tanya Monro

Fostering mission-driven industry excellence

The Manhattan Project has been in the spotlight through the movie Oppenheimer. It was a mission-driven race that sought strategic competitive advantage.

This was a project on a massive scale – 130,000 employees and US$28 billion (in today’s dollars) over four years – which was defined by the research and development of new capabilities at the absolute bleeding edge of science.

The stark clarity of the goal, and the imperative to deliver, drove both focus and scale. The focus and scale needed to achieve significant impact remains as relevant today as ever.

Photo: Ryan Fletcher/Shutterstock

The rapid evolution of science and technology had led to increased operational capability – as evidenced by outcomes over 116 years of Australian Defence Science. Many strategic needs have driven significant research projects and resulted in state-of-the-art Defence capabilities.

The need to observe aircraft movements across northern Australia resulted in the development of the Jindalee Over-The-Horizon Radar (JORN), which is still a world-leading capability.

The Nulka active missile decoy was developed to protect surface fleet from a global proliferation of advanced anti-ship Exocet missiles.

Scientific discovery has driven innovative capabilities, like the Starlight interactive link, the Laser Airborne Depth Sounder (LADS) and the Redwing Counter Improvised Explosive Device. Almost every defence platform used today, from the Bushmaster to the F35, has relied on Aussie science to perform its role.

Innovation, science and technology in Defence continues to deliver leap-ahead capabilities to meet the unique needs of the Australian warfighter. Indeed, it must keep on delivering, because continuing to fill the capability gap by replacing like with like is increasingly unsustainable.

The Department of Defence published the ‘More, together: Defence Science and Technology Strategy 2030’ paper in 2020. Its goal was to ensure that Defence was positioned to realise its potential in a rapidly evolving environment.

By establishing science and technology priorities for Defence, and outlining the future aspirations of the sector, the strategy marked an important step toward delivering strategic advantage across the full spectrum of Defence capabilities.

A few key principles of the strategy are:

  • To focus on larger-scale science and technology programs which support Defence’s strategic priorities
  • Increase cooperation by working with international partners and grow scale by aligning the national science and technology enterprise;
  • Deliver impact – and a capability advantage – through streamlined and secure innovation pathways.

Through More, together, Defence has developed missions to focus our research, it has launched programs to grow diversity and STEM skills within our workforce, and it has engaged with the like-minded Australian and international partners.

Partnering within the national science and technology enterprise drives further strategic advantage and capability.

The Safeguarding Australia through Biotechnology Response and Engagement (SABRE) Alliance brought together twelve leading science organisations to focus on synthetic biology to address the capabilities for safety, security and biotechnology. This alliance brought participants together for a common purpose and is underpinned by shared resourcing.

Building off the NASA moon-shot, the Science, Technology and Research Shot (STaRShot) program has been a transformational concept for Defence Science, and was a foundational component of More, together.

The STaRShot program has encouraged strategic research on a number of bigger, specific and challenging problems, to drive the development of leap-ahead Defence capabilities.

The STaRShot program has brought together researchers from across Defence’s academic sector to build enduring networks – which continue to have an impact on Defence challenges, including the Centre for Advanced Defence Research and Enterprise Operating in Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Environments (CADRE-OCE).

From startups to larger businesses, a range of partners have worked through the Q-assured PNTSS to develop state-of-the-art technology for areas like Quantum Position, Navigation and Timing (PNT) sensors. 

The remote undersea surveillance also led the establishment of the $140 million Ghostshark co-development with Anduril Australia – bringing together Defence scientists, Navy personnel and Anduril robotics specialists to prototype unique, extra-large, unmanned underwater vehicles for the Navy.

The STaRShot concept has even been able to influence broader government programs, like the Department of Education’s Trailblazer Universities program, and the Critical Technology Hub – led by the Department of Industry Science and Resources.

Driving a new innovation, science and technology strategy

More, together was able to grow and align the national science and technology base at Defence through targeted missions. It prepared the ecosystem for the current strategic environment.

Despite this, recent critical changes mean we need a new defence innovation, science and technology strategy to achieve the intentions of the Defence Strategic Review.

It will also address the need for asymmetric solutions, the establishment of the Advanced Strategic Capabilities Accelerator (ASCA) and the forthcoming Defence Industry Development Strategy.

The Defence Strategic Review has provided direction for how Defence must pivot to respond to an ever-evolving geopolitical environment defined by reduced warning times, persistent targeting by state and non-state actors operating in the grey zone, and the potential for increased conflict in the Indo-Pacific.

As a result, the review has directed Defence to focus on specific capability priorities which support an integrated future force. 

It also identified that the priorities for the innovation, science and technology ecosystem are hypersonics, directed energy, trusted autonomy, quantum technology, information warfare and long-range fires. This work must deliver the next generation of capabilities for the war-fighter.

The Defence Strategic Review also highlighted the need for more concentrated effort for collaboration and cooperation with international partners, and a whole-of-government approach to national Defence.

The Defence Strategic Review states “technology has a significant impact on the character of warfare and deterrence, and will shape the changing balance of power”.

The modernisation of military capacity in the Indo-Pacific region, and the implications of growing strategic competition, mean it is no longer feasible for Australia to hold a broad competitive edge.

In response, Defence needs to focus on asymmetric advantages to ensure its qualitative advantage in critical military technology areas. Asymmetric advantage refers to military actions that pit strength against weakness – aimed to ensure an adversary may have no effective response prepared against that action.

At times, asymmetry can be applied in a non-traditional and unconventional manner. It considers what advantages Australia has that cannot simply be defeated by applying scale from a potential adversary – including through funding, people, and capabilities.

Asymmetry also aims to apply capabilities, tactics or strategies that differ from the adversary’s, in order to circumvent their strengths.

Being empowered through science, technology and innovation programs, Defence aims to co-invest with industry in projects that provide these asymmetric capabilities.

The Ghostshark concept is a co-development between Anduril Australia, Defence Science and Technology Group (DSTG), Navy, and more than 30 small and medium enterprises.

Fostering these relationships with industry, research agencies and academia in secure ways that share risk will continue to be a priority. It will ensure new solutions are developed and that existing technologies are utilised in novel ways to achieve asymmetry.

Asymmetry is not necessarily about developing top-of-the-range, advanced and expensive technologies, and can be achieved by investing in innovative, cost-effective solutions.

Australian company SYPAQ Systems illustrates this point – SYPAQ Systems has developed low-cost, expendable unmanned aerial vehicles made of cardboard, which are currently undertaking intelligence collection and other critical functions in Ukraine.

The Defence Strategic Review also outlines the need for Defence to improve its response to disruptive new technologies – ultimately translating them into capabilities and Defence partnerships within the Indo-Pacific.

In response, the Advanced Strategic Capabilities Accelerator (ASCA) has been established, which will be critical in responding to these gaps and opportunities.

ASCA aims to accelerate the development of solutions, and rapidly put them into the hands of military personnel. ASCA is fundamentally different from previous Defence innovation initiatives in two ways.

It is a dedicated defence agency, and it is driving a mission-led approach based on priority Defence problem statements with the Vice Chief of Defence’s endorsement – including a path to acquisition if successful.

Agility, speed and working in collaboration with partners will be fundamental to the operation of ASCA, which will ultimately see asymmetric innovation transitioning into Defence capabilities.

Opportunities for the new strategy

To reach for the stars, Defence must stand on the shoulders of More, together, championing a holistic and fully integrated ecosystem which supports the delivery of Defence’s mission. The strategy will cover the full spectrum, from longer-term strategic research for the next generation, to innovative solutions that can be used by warfighters for the fight tomorrow.

Now more than ever before, we will commit to mission-driven research with impactful outcomes that will foster creative, innovative solutions. By clearly defining Defence’s needs, a pathway can be made to expedite science and technology solutions into capabilities.

Defence Science and Technology Group (DSTG), alongside ASCA, will play pivotal roles in linking to the research and industry sectors to focus their work on the development of advanced and asymmetric capabilities.

For Australia to have significant strategic advantage, as outlined by the Defence Strategic Review, capability advantage is crucial. This can be attained through advanced technology, or the ability to use technology in asymmetric ways.

Defence will achieve this through an ambitious and inspirational new Innovation, Science and Technology strategy – a strategy focussed on Defence’s highest priority needs, enabling the Australian Defence Force to operate in a complex and contested world. 

Dr Nigel McGinty is the Chief Technology Officer Science Strategy, Communications and International Engagement at the Defence Science and Technology Group, Defence. He is responsible for science strategy, policy direction and the advocacy of science and technology. Dr McGinty is also leads DSTG’s international engagement program advancing science collaboration with allies and key partners. Through his career, Dr McGinty has held a number of roles in Defence science. Previously he led the National Security Science and Technology program; transformed the department’s approach to identifying and analysing emerging and disruptive technologies, and; had a foundational role integrated with Defence’s force design and integration areas.

Professor Tanya Monro has been Chief Defence Scientist since March 2019. In this role she is head of Defence Science and Technology Group (DSTG) and Capability Manager for Innovation, Science and Technology within the Australian Department of Defence. Previous roles include Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research and Innovation at the University of SA and inaugural director of the Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale Bio Photonics at the University of Adelaide. Professor Monro is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE), the Optical Society of America and the Australian Institute of Physics. She also sits on the board of the national science agency, CSIRO.

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