In 350BC the Macedonian phalanx was the (combined) Joint Strike Fighter and Main Battle Tank of the ancient world. Aged just 20 when his father was assassinated, Alexander the Great inherited a tiny force from a backward country, north of Greece. But these soldiers possessed the sarissa, a huge, six-metre spear that reached out, crushing opponents before they could strike back. Alexander penetrated to the very heart of Persia, the greatest empire the world had ever seen; attacked overwhelming numbers; scattered them; and captured every city that dared stand in his way. The only thing that stopped him smashing beyond India and into China was his soldiers. They'd become tired of victory and plunder and just wanted to go home.
Alexander's revolutionary innovation created an entire new way of fighting. No matter how huge they were, the armies of the past were suddenly irrelevant; outgunned; overpowered.
Today Australia risks investing billions - money that we don't have - in the similarly outdated weapons systems of Alexanders enemies. The country risks being equipped for the wars of the past and not the wars of the future.
It's not a conspiracy. Nobody wants to send massive amounts of money overseas to buy inappropriate and obsolete equipment but that's what happens unless politicians, the military and industry are talking to one another. The politicians want their photo in front of a huge warship; commanders want to buy the equipment they needed to fight the last war; and defence multi-nationals just want to keep the profits flowing. Notice what's left out? Australian industry.
Unless there's communication, a sharing of ideas and capabilities and a willingness to take a calculated risk, a small country like Australia will always be left behind, playing catch-up. That's why MilSYS plays a vital role. This conference creates an opportunity for the different players to meet and find common ground. But just because it' a chance to discuss new ways of doing things doesn't mean anything will happen: real progress requires people to shift their mindsets. It requires people ready to grasp the new sarissa.
Fortunately, now, this is happening. Using MilSYS as his forum Mick Toohey, a former colonel and now director of the Land Systems Program Office, reached out. He appealed for ideas, which is something small Aussie businesses have in abundance - although, on second thoughts, perhaps it's inappropriate to describe the next participant in this story as small.
EOS, or Electro Optic Systems, is only "little" when placed next to US behemoths like Lockheed Martin or Raytheon. Based in Canberra it's been a quiet achiever, developing remote-controlled weapons systems and space sensors that are world leaders. These are, if you like, the new version of the sarissa, that long, six-metre pike used by Alexander, except that they're a bit more advanced than two rods of wood that click together.
EOS has developed entirely new ways of harnessing directed energy and new automatic sensor technologies. Because these rely on genuinely world-leading technological breakthroughs and innovation, its products were picked-up by foreign military purchasers from Europe to the Middle East. But not, until recently, Australia.
This wasn't deliberate, but it was systematic and lodged deeply in the way we perceive issues.
When he took over the Defence Industry portfolio, Christopher Pyne saw his problem as both (urgently) equipping the forces and boosting local content in any way possible. He proclaimed he was a "fixer" and brilliantly achieved his objectives, committing massive sums for decades into the future. This solved yesterdays problems, however it didn't consider alternatives outside the box or attempt to peer into the future to work out what would be needed next. That's why, quite understandably, the forces continued serving up traditional options.
Just take the new submarine.
Since the '60's, we've operated these vessels and, since the '90's, built them too. They've become fixed as part of the force structure, so deeply entrenched in our psyche that we can't consider other ways of achieving the tasks they were designed to achieve. The issue is the world's moved on in the century since the Navy first operated submarines but our way of thinking hasn't. We are locked into replacing our current subs with new ones, like-for-like, except the new ones will be a bit more black and a bit more quiet underwater.
These advances, however, will inevitably be incremental and, as a result, minor. They won't (like the sarissa) revolutionise our understanding or capability. This is, however, what is being achieved as a result of that breakthrough at the MilSYS conference.
In July Scott Morrison announced the government is buying 251 remote weapons systems from EOS that will equip our Bushmaster and Hawkei Protected Mobility Vehicles. The timing of the announcement at the Canberra facility, together with the appearance of (then) Liberal Candidate for Eden Monaro Fiona Kotvojs may have had just as much to do with attempting to boost her chances of winning the byelection (she lost) as it did with equipping the army, but leave that aside. The point is that when the purchaser (government), user (military) and local Aussie businesses get together, good things can happen and new capabilities provide an injection of opportunity.
There's still a lot that needs to be done. Figuring out how to actually use these new weapons effectively will take time and ingenuity, precisely because they represent a huge break from a past that privileged tanks as the best compromise between achieving massive firepower, mobility and protection. Now there's a new way of doing things and this requires new ways of thinking.
It's the same as the incredible fighting power of the phalanx. Nothing, it seemed, could ever beat or would ever overturn the world order.
Then the phalanx met the Roman legion.
- Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer