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Op-Ed: Sovereign tech is the key to surviving the next major security crisis

With Anzac Day fresh in our minds, it’s worth remembering our military history is replete with stories of courage and mateship from previous wars; less well acknowledged are the lessons and insights that these past conflicts have on future military engagements.

user iconIan Langford
Tue, 09 May 2023
Op-Ed: Sovereign tech is the key to surviving the next major security crisis
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To coincide with Anzac Day this year, and just prior to the release of the May federal budget, the government released its much-anticipated Defence Strategic Review (DSR). The 114-page publicly released DSR essentially explains three things. Firstly, it provides an analysis of Australia’s geopolitical environment, including the significant factors that will shape the country’s security settings over the coming decades. While the return of great power competition and the disruptive impacts of emerging technology feature heavily, so too does the question of Australia’s national level of resilience and preparations for an increasingly uncertain future.

Secondly, the report describes what capabilities the ADF should acquire in order to meet these challenges. Missiles, autonomous systems, and a maritime “step up” are first-order priorities.

Lastly, the review focuses on two increasingly important issues critical to future military capability: emerging technology (specifically artificial intelligence, robotics and automation, high-speed weapons, and quantum computing) and sovereign defence industry (with a focus on supply chains, capacity, and workforce as a way of accelerating the delivery of military platforms and equipment).

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It is in the arena of technology and sovereign defence industry that opportunity awaits. One only needs to appreciate the rapid disruptive impacts of recent cyber security breaches (including the Optus and Latitude hacks here in Australia) as well as artificial intelligence (via the rise of ChatGPT) to directly demonstrate the changes that these technologies will have on every aspect of life from here on in.

Military operations are no different; the cyber domain and the ability of artificial intelligence to support command and decision making in high-intensity warfare are but two examples of how these recent phenomena are changing the character of future conflict faster than any defence review can anticipate it. Additionally, quantum technology, robotics, hypersonic weaponry, and space systems increasingly have a profound impact on future military capability; you get a sense of the scale of change that is about to occur.

The pace of change is literally mind-boggling.

So what can the government, as it implements the DSR, do about this? Well, firstly, it can prioritise onshore technology and the reskilling of our workforce to build the type of advanced manufacturing capabilities needed in the event of a major security crisis or conflict in our region. Unlocking Australia’s technological competitive advantage through the prioritisation of engineering, training, learning, and development in data and computer science is an important first step; “operationalising” these capabilities through exposure to military experimentation as well as operational test and evaluation allows emerging technology to “spiral” into existing military platforms and systems as well as feature in the needs and requirements of future capability.

And it’s not just in advanced science where Australia faces critical shortages; welders and avionic technicians are but two desperately needed skills.

Just how defence capability might be able to keep pace with the rapidly changing operating environment is core to the DSR. While military expenditure is always an unfortunate impost on national budgets, prioritisation and alliance sharing (through the recently created AUKUS initiative) can alleviate some of this pressure.

Australia, by comparison to most countries, is small in population. But we are big on talent. People and technology are how we win. The DSR emphasises this. When combined with the right mix of technology, integrated into our military platforms, a DSR-inspired Australian Defence Force will “punch above its weight”. It is little wonder our military personnel and equipment are universally regarded as world-leading; it is because they are. The DSR can reinforce this by allowing our people to access the right technology and apply it to full effect.

When we reflect on the past, as we do on Anzac Day, it is never about military budgets or weapons. It is always about people. We owe it to them through the DSR to make sure they are ready for an uncertain future as well as avoid the mistakes of the past. We don’t need another failed Gallipoli campaign.

Associate Professor Ian Langford, PhD is a former senior military officer and is now a strategic adviser at UBH Group.

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