Comment

Defence white paper lacks innovation grunt

It is difficult not to conclude that Defence Minister Marise Payne has applied little more than a veneer of innovation to the 2016 Defence white paper. Gone are the commitments found in previous white papers to maintain our defence technology edge into a future increasingly driven by innovation.

Perhaps it is meant to be implicit but while defence expenditure is set to nearly double over the next decade, no such priority appears, costed or in principle, for defence research and development.

Troubling regional and global trends are well noted, such as a more complex strategic environment and forecasts of regional defence spending to 2035. Over this same period, global science and technology trends follow a similar trajectory. Forty per cent of all global R&D investment is now in Asia, North America retains 30 per cent and European R&D is 20 per cent. If our long game doesn't include meaningful defence R&D, the White Paper's step up will be short-lived.

The 2000 Defence white paper identified strategic technological drivers and stated that 'to succeed in this dynamic environment Defence, and particularly the Defence Science and Technology Organisation, must remain attuned to trends and be agile in responding to them.'

Regarding procurement, the 2000 White Paper said of co-operative research and development programs, including with our allies, 'This will be critical if Australia is to retain its 'knowledge edge' and if we are to invest wisely in future capability.'

The 2009 white paper held, 'Defence will explicitly plan to maintain a strategic capability advantage, and to achieve it through capability development strategies, self-reliant defence research, development and innovation, and collaborative programs with scientifically and technologically capable partners'. The 2013 white paper stated, 'government will continue to place a high priority on our science and technology advantage'.

Advertisement

The 2016 white paper says 'the government's new approach to defence innovation is focused on promoting the strong partnerships and collaboration necessary to maximise the benefit for Australia's capability'. Substantial collaboration is an overdue initiative but if this is at the expense of abandoning self-reliant, deep defence science and technology public sector expertise, then that's a strategic mistake.

Australian expenditure on defence R&D has fallen since 2011, and the defence R&D share of the overall defence budget has dropped from 2 per cent in 2008−09 to a forecast 1.1 per cent in 2017−18 ($200 million). It appears there is no intention to even restore these major cuts. The white paper nearly doubles the demand to be a smart buyer and user of futuristic high-tech equipment. Yet seems set to check our capacity to do so.

Has there been a silent decision to outsource Australian defence innovation overseas or was Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's innovation agenda retrofitted to the white paper without a budget?

The white paper says little about how our defence intends to remain technologically cutting edge in 2035, apart from major acquisitions. Materiel programs can take 10 to 15 years in the procurement phase and then a further 20 or more years in service. Deep and ongoing R&D is what protects platforms from technological disruption over time or obsolesce before they see service.

The world technology landscape will be different and still evolving during the period the white paper shapes Australia's defence. For example, robotics is widely predicted to have a profound global impact over this period, yet the white paper doesn't mention robotics.

The February Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community noted human genome editing was an example of a potential weapon of mass destruction. Yet the white paper fails to mention the global dissemination of profound life science discoveries. Cyber challenges were covered – daily attacks are hard to ignore. Will we be prepared for disruptive technological attacks of other kinds though?

History tells us technological challenges have to be met. Distant risks can become present threats. Preparedness can't be bought off-the-shelf, whether to counter in-theatre danger or procurement problems. Underspends during previous periods of defence materiel ramp ups were often related to inadequate technological capability to manage procurement in the first place. Subsequent fixes invariably involved research, development and technology trouble-shooting.

The white paper outlined a public service "rebalance" with 1200 new positions, to be offset by ongoing reductions elsewhere in Defence. Disconcertingly, no detail was offered about the skills deemed redundant or about future requirements of post-graduate science, engineering and technology skills.

Off-the-shelf purchasing offers a seductive simplicity but it is the seller who is the innovator and the buyer shops for what is on sale. We'll have to wait until the budget in May to see if the Turnbull government has opted for an overseas off-the-shelf defence innovation policy as well.

Martin Callinan and Alan Gray wrote Defence science and innovation: An affordable strategic advantage, a 2015 special report for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.