Australia is in the midst of an unprecedented investment in its military platforms. Our Navy is set to receive new submarines, air-warfare destroyers and future frigates. Meanwhile, our Air Force is receiving the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and our Army is taking possession of new combat vehicles and attack helicopters.
These are all enormously capable platforms that will be at the cutting-edge of military hardware, but there is a missing link - interconnectivity between the discrete platforms. These next-generation platforms are able to gather data at a phenomenal rate, but data on its own is useless unless it can be shared, processed, analysed and acted upon.
The ability to share and use this data will require a significant investment in the systems that connect platforms to each other and the systems that can exploit, add value and disseminate. Yet this is where we risk failing the women and men operating this cutting-edge hardware, and where we are in danger of shortchanging our significant investment in hardware.
Because while our focus has been on the acquisition of these next-generation platforms, there has been less attention paid to the systems that enable them to reach their full potential. While we certainly need the welders and engineers who will build our future fleets, we equally need the software and systems engineers who will connect them to make the most of the data they collect.
Because the battles of the future are as much about ones and zeroes as they are about nuts and bolts. This is not the stuff of science fiction or a febrile imagination. It is how these platforms are being designed. Our military platforms are increasingly able to connect with each other and pass on vast amounts of information.
An F-35, for example, is a phenomenal fighting machine, but its capability extends well beyond its maneuverability and stealth. Connected to a wider network, a flight of F-35s can share data with other assets like the E-7 Wedgetail or our new Air Warfare Destroyers to create an enormous view of the battle space. Unmanned aircraft such as the Triton can survey the entire coastline of the country in a single flight. As we acquire a fleet of these highly capable aircraft, we need to invest in the ability to process the unprecedented volume of information that will be coming our way.
In our home lives our access to information now extends beyond the limited collection on our shelves. We now have access to all the music, all the movies and all the books a few clicks away on our device. We buy the devices but we also invest in the applications and the internet connection to enable the full functionality of the information age.
The same is true on the modern battlefield with huge amounts of data available to assist commanders to make decisions, but with that huge volume comes the burden of having to sort, analyse, disseminate and protect that data. As yet Australia does not have the Spotify or Netflix of modern combat to make use of the extraordinary data available nor the internet connection to make it possible. All we have done so far is buy the smart TV.
In his detailed analysis of the Defence budget, Dr Marcus Hellyer from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), argues that the "network is more central to the system than the platforms themselves, and likely to cost more than the platforms". Dr Hellyer, ASPI's senior analyst on defence economics, argues that while designing and delivering such a network is no easy task, "it has to be created anyway, since modern manned platforms are already datacentric and have limited ability to function without the network; and that network is already being created".
Dr Hellyer's ASPI colleague, Malcolm Davis, points out that the entire concept of a joint force depends on the ADF being able to operate across, land, sea, air, cyber and space. "We have to have systems of systems, not just stovepipe platforms," he argues.
While there is academic support for a system of systems approach, buy-in from the political class is more difficult to come by, but such support will be crucial and there is a political risk if it is to be allowed to slide. Our big-ticket purchases - which run to tens of billions of taxpayers' dollars - will be left wanting when they are most needed.
There are two difficulties to overcoming the capability gap when it comes to connecting our platforms. The first is the unavoidable fact that systems are not sexy. They are the broadband modem of the home while platforms are the shiny new smart TV. No prizes for guessing which one an MP would choose for a pre-election photo-op. This means systems lack a champion who will push for investment and a long-term commitment.
As we acquire a fleet of these highly capable aircraft, we need to invest in the ability to process the unprecedented volume of information that will be coming our way.
The second obstacle is the lack of confidence in Defence's ability to deliver such a complex technical system. It is a fair question to ask how Defence expects to connect a Joint Strike Fighter to an Air Warfare Destroyer when it struggles to run its own email system.
This speaks to a need to commit to more investment in the personnel and skills needed to develop, operate and maintain these systems both within Defence and in industry. With government set to reassess its spending priorities under Defence's Integrated Investment Plan (IIP), now is the ideal time to put systems at the centre of our modern defence force.
This certainly will not be a quick fix - it will need a long-term commitment to investments in developing the IT skills required to build and sustain these systems. But the benefits extend well beyond defence. What we will end up with is a highly skilled, highly capable workforce and industry that is ready to take on the 21st century in all sectors.
Without investment in the systems that glue together our advanced platforms Australia risks being the family with the latest smart TV but no internet connection to the house.
- Tyson Sara is chief strategist at CMAX Advisory. He is a former senior executive with the Department of Defence and a senior ministerial adviser.