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Delivering Disruptive Innovation through Proximity and Partnerships

Soldiers kneeling one in foreground and one in background, walking autonomous drone between them

The Australian Army is in an exciting period of change and development. New strategic guidance and a generously funded force structure plan, coupled with the demand of senior leaders for change, presents opportunities for substantial enhancements to Army’s structure and capabilities. Seizing the opportunity requires innovative employment of emerging technologies grounded in real-world experience.

This article will use the example of a Semi-Autonomous Combat Team concept to illustrate how disruptive innovation is being explored and explain the important role of proximity and partnerships.  These notions describe organisational and human relationships between the Army’s modernisation enterprise, industry and the end users - our soldiers. They are important ideas that have a vital role in moving from discerning possible threats and opportunities to identifying, selecting and delivering novel capabilities.   

Changes in military effectiveness are described in many ways. Slow changes are considered evolutionary and in general, are a normal function of efficient business practices. The ADF describes incremental improvement more generally as modernisation. Rapid changes can be more disruptive, often prompted by the immediacy of an unforeseen crisis. Some crisis will have modest long-term influences on the organisation, such as recent experiences with COVID-19 and national bushfires. Some crisis will be more organisationally profound, as was the case of the East Timor intervention in 1999 or the fall of Singapore in 1942, leading to changes in the outlook, structure, equipment and tactics of the Army. Additionally, militaries can seize opportunities to engineer discontinuous changes in military effectiveness as a deliberate process. The most common description of such change is the Revolution in Military Affairs or ‘RMA’, in which new technologies are often the catalyst for subsequent developments in tactics, organisational structures and operating concepts which boost military capacity.

The Australian Government’s present investment in military capabilities, coupled with the willingness of senior leaders to drive change, presents a golden opportunity for the Army to increase its long-term operational effectiveness. The real challenge is converting the potential into effective military capabilities. In this sense, capability is the sum of people, organisational processes, tactics, training and leadership – never simply the underlying technology.

Currently, there is a structural disconnect between the desire to seize opportunities offered by new technology and the processes of capability development. This is largely because management practices reflect and reinforce a mindset of modernisation through incremental (but often minor) increases in performance – rather than the pursuit of more revolutionary increases in military effectiveness.

This conservative approach has in part, been shaped by Government’s reform of the Defence Materiel Organisation after a series of mismanaged high-profile procurements. While the updates to the capability lifecycle (CLC), embedded through the 2016 First Principles Review, improved oversight and management of defence materiel, it has not enabled fast and disruptive change opportunities to enter military practice. Present capability management practices are more closely aligned to modernisation than RMA forms of change, reinforcing a mindset of change through incremental increases in performance – rather than the pursuit of more revolutionary increases in military effectiveness.

This critique does not imply any unwillingness to change or a lack of leadership to do so. Quite the opposite. What is a largely missing are processes and structures to empower change. While the Army’s Robotic and Autonomous Systems (RAS) strategy highlights a more radical change in direction, it does not have the organisational processes to enable change beyond incremental updates to current capability pathways. There are however, two practical steps, or principles, we can adopt to improve the speed and scope of exploratory development and accelerate new capabilities:

  • Create proximity between problem owners and potential problem solvers.
  • Develop partnerships that enable multi-functional teams with diverse skills to tackle problems together.

These steps are useful because there is a gap between soldiers – the problem owners, and the potential of industry, academia and technologists to be problem solvers. The technologies driving societal change now, and certainly into the future, include computational technologies, artificial intelligence, advanced robotics, nanotechnologies and biotechnologies. Few military practitioners have any experience or expertise in these technologies. In reverse, experts in these technology fields are generally not military practitioners, creating a gap between the needs of military users, and the potential of new technologies.

Proximity between the two groups is a first step towards exposing both parties to the needs of the other and enabling better understanding of opportunities to act upon. Currently, the Defence Science and Technology Group (DSTG) provides Army’s awareness of leading-edge technologies, while the defence Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group (CASG) engages with industry to acquire such technology. Capability managers have the responsibility of sitting astride both these functions across the four phases of the CLC, however, this oversight is largely theoretical because much of the development work remains divided into specialised organisations. The staff officers who represent the practitioner perspective necessarily struggle to maintain both a wide and deep perspective, especially when proposed technologies are new and different. Consequently, their capacity to recognise, comprehend and assess novel technologies, or novel use of technologies, is constrained. This leads to user requirements that reinforce continuity over change. Proximity between the problem owners and the potential problem solvers can assist the development and realisation of more innovative military capabilities.

An important change that could improve capability exploration and innovation is to better connect and involve academia, industry and military practitioners in the concepts and requirements setting phases of the CLC. Involving a more diverse group of experts allows new eyes to observe the challenges and opportunities for disruptive capability development. Exploring military problems needs habitual not ad hoc relationships – requiring partnerships over the more common interaction of transactional exchange. Partnerships require practitioners to be physically brought together to understand problems and identify opportunities – this is achieved through proximity. Identifying the challenges to be solved provides the structuring logic for partnerships to solve tough challenges.

As technological change accelerates, options and opportunities to apply new technologies in novel ways will similarly expand. Yet recognising and choosing between these myriad possibilities in the context of changing defence tasks and changing geopolitical circumstances will be challenging. Enabling proximity and developing habitual partnerships is one means for supporting the rate of capability innovation demanded of the Army in Motion.

Work is presently underway to harness the potential of proximity and partnerships. The Trusted Autonomous System Defence Cooperative Research Centre (TASDCRC), the Defence Innovation Hub (DIH), DSTG and the Dismounted Combat Program (DCP) at AHQ have teamed up with the Combat Training Centre (CTC) Townsville, to create the Combat Applications Lab (CAL). The CAL is a physical space where practitioners, industry, academia, DSTG and CASG engineers can collaborate. This partnership is enabled by the DCP team who manage the funding and provide broad direction for development efforts.

An example of how proximity and partnerships contribute to new capabilities in demonstrated through the case of Human-Machine Teaming exploration - this is a construct that employs RAS to improve the close combat effectiveness of a dismounted infantry Platoon. Several novel capabilities, including remotely piloted and autonomous ground and air robotic platforms, are being linked into high capacity data networks with data analytic capabilities. This will deliver better understanding, first, of the utility of these systems in close combat, and then, of the opportunities that may exist to develop the concept further.

The current exploration is being driven by a tactical concept titled Semi-Autonomous Combat Team (SACT). The SACT has been developed by DSTG’s Joint Operational Analysis Division (JOAD) in conjunction with DCP and CTC. The SACT applies machines and data as forms of mass to improve the lethality, situational awareness and tempo of close combat land forces. In doing so, the concept requires human-machine teams to cooperate together in combat. A key change articulated in the SACT is a move away from a mindset of resource scarcity, towards a mindset of machine and data abundance.

The process of exploration is occurring in four parts;

  1. The conceptual framework of SACT was developed to provide sufficient guidance and analytical rigour for field and desktop simulations and experiments. The concept development phase is iterative and not static, providing an ‘actionable concept’ for Army to design against throughout the exploration.
  2. A consortium of industry partners was engaged through the DIH and TASDCRC to build prototype materiel for the CAL to employ. The materiel closely matches the SACT concepts materiel requirements to validate assumptions and introduce industry to defence practitioners and the environments under which mature technologies would be employed.
  3. Regular engagements (5 days per month) between industry, academic researchers and the end-users creates an iterative cycle of development and feedback to improve the effectiveness of new technologies and generate new military capabilities.
  4.  CTC employs the SACT concept with the new equipment in live force-on-force exercises to validate findings, amend the concept and provide guidance on the utility and potential of new technologies to DCP and CASG. The findings form the basis of more disruptive military practices and the requirements for such capabilities to enter the capability acquisition cycle.

The exploration of SACT is embryonic and will continue through to the end of 2022. Important changes in capability direction have already been identified including new digital networking needs, the desire to limit changes in robotic hardware through common platforms with interchangeable payloads, and the use of artificial intelligence enabled decision support software for tactical combatants. These findings are a step towards the integration of RAS for close combat, but more importantly, it shows an alternate pathway to disruptive capability development built around the principles of proximity and partnership.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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