Accelerating Defence innovation: The strategic imperative for change

Australia is in an ever evolving and challenging strategic environment made increasingly uncertain by rapid technological development. This has been clearly spelt-out in the Defence Strategic Review published earlier this year.

The DSR concluded that:

“The strategic demand for Defence’s capability innovation systems has never been higher. Defence must have a national science and technology system that enables the development of disruptive military capabilities, including harnessing advanced and emerging technologies to provide asymmetric advantage for the Australian Defence Force.” (Chapter 9)

To accelerate the delivery of Australian Defence Force (ADF) capability needs, more effective support for innovation, faster acquisition and better links between Defence and industry are needed.

Defence must draw imaginative ideas and practical solutions from traditional and non-traditional sources – like our research organisations, startups and small businesses – and then pull these innovations into capability solutions for the ADF, and with an urgency driven by the deteriorating strategic environment.

Defence has a long and proud history of harnessing leading Australian science and research to build new ADF capabilities.

Prime examples are the Nulka active missile decoy and Jindalee Operational Radar Network (JORN). But there is now a demand to innovate at greater pace, to address the rapidly changing environment and lack of warning time.

Thus, the Australian Government has established the Advanced Strategic Capabilities Accelerator (ASCA). ASCA commenced operations from 1 July 2023, with a mandate to connect, streamline and accelerate the defence innovation system.

The vision is to drive capability development and acquisition pathways at speed, and more effectively harness and coordinate the innovation ecosystem. This means a significant change for a system optimised to always reduce risk.

A licence for courage

To address the ever-changing strategic environment, a new approach is required – one which embraces risk and demands greater courage.

ASCA has been established with that mission in mind – a licence for courage to do things differently, with urgency, pace and acceleration.

Importantly, this means ASCA will not be a one-size-fits-all entity. Rather it will test and refine a range of approaches to develop the most effective solution, embracing risk as it does this.

ASCA will demonstrate new approaches to the way Defence acquires capabilities and help drive change across the sector where needed.

A pathfinder activity which exemplifies this approach is the Ghost Shark program. Commencing in July 2022, the program has focused on delivering three combat-ready, prototype, extra-large autonomous underwater vehicles for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN).

The co-development between Anduril Australia, Defence Science and Technology Group (DSTG) and Royal Australian Navy (RAN) is guided by a collaboration charter, which all participants must agree to.

The charter outlines a commitment to how the team will work together, including; striving for simplicity, attacking hurdles and obstacles collaboratively, and elevating decisions quickly to address problems and challenges.

The agreement also calls on participants to embrace risk and have an explicit tolerance of failure – allowing for quick learning to pivot at pace.

A new approach to Defence innovation

Innovation is at the heart of good research and development and is critical to building and maintaining a capability edge.

In the simplest sense, innovation is about learning by doing. Like evolution, it is a process of constantly discovering opportunities to rearrange the world in ways unlikely to arise by chance – which also happen to be useful.

Innovation flourishes when people are free to explore and experiment. Successful innovation systems rely upon multiple and flexible approaches, and the design for ASCA is no different.

Throughout the implementation of the accelerator, we have learnt from those who have walked this path before us – like the Defence Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) and the Defence Innovation Unit (DIU) in the United States – but have ensured ASCA is shaped to fit the Australian context. 

The Science, Technology and Research Shots (STaRShots) were released in 2020 alongside the Defence Science and Technology Strategy, More, together. The STaRShots have demonstrated how a mission-based approach can be effective in shaping the entire Defence Innovation, Science and Technology ecosystem towards common goals.

ASCA has harnessed the success of the STaRShot blueprint and accelerated it, utilising partnerships with universities, startups and small businesses to achieve goals. Critically, the accelerator will build capability transition pathways for its missions before they commence.

The ASCA approach

At its core, ASCA is mission-focussed – strategically directed to rapidly pull asymmetric innovations into capabilities. To meet Defence’s strategic needs, ASCA missions are driven to deliver tangible capability outcomes in accelerated timeframes.

ASCA missions will be addressed and problem statements endorsed by the Vice Chief of the Defence Force. If the technology is proven, affordable, and has a capability sponsor, it will be acquired.

Our nation’s most capable technical leaders will drive ASCA missions – recruited to ASCA on fixed-term contracts for the duration of the mission (typically three years).

These leaders will be supported by Defence scientists, military end-users, and dedicated acquisition and professional backing. These missions will deliver ‘minimum viable capability’, not prototypes. 

The delivery of capabilities which solves strategic priorities will be accelerated by:

  • Articulating the problem and not specifying the solution
  • Co-designing the problem with Defence, including military end-users, delivery agencies, industry, and academia
  • Encouraging and embracing risk, with missions to cease if a solution is not proven or transition to capability is no longer viable
  • Identifying and implementing new approaches for more agile contracting and procurement

To directly support the missions, ASCA will implement two programs aimed at nurturing the Australian innovation system – ensuring access to ideas, technologies and skilled innovator which can contribute to existing and planned missions.

ASCA’s innovation incubation program is about discovering new innovation. Addressing Defence capability priorities, the innovation incubation program will take a challenge-based approach to the market, similar to the US Defence Innovation Unit.

The program will allow ASCA to undertake market testing/scanning, new concept explorations, and new concept demonstrations. Innovation challenges will be used to identify and support the development of innovations which can be rapidly adapted, tested, and acquired for military purposes.

ASCA released its first innovation challenge in July 2023 – the Sovereign UAS Challenge. It sought submissions from industry and research providers with capability and capacity, to contribute to the development of sovereign uncrewed aerial systems (UAS) for Australia – focussing on low-cost, general-purpose systems.

ASCA’s emerging and disruptive technology program is about disruptive innovation. This requires the exploration of new technology and the consideration of disruptive ways of applying technology.

This program will have a combination of small-scale, emerging technology exploration activities and larger, targeted research programs in order to develop disruptive technology.

Priorities for this program will be set by the Chief Defence Scientist – taking into account Defence strategic needs and the results of strategic technology forecasting and horizon scanning.

This is a program which can only be delivered through partnerships with academia, other research providers and international partners, and is where opportunities for unexpected and asymmetric capabilities may be identified.

A coordinated and connected ecosystem

Key to realising this new approach to accelerated Defence capability, is a vibrant, connected and integrated Defence ecosystem.

ASCA has been established with a collaborative approach, with governance and leadership including; military through the Vice Chief of the Defence Force; Defence Science and Technology through the Chief Defence Scientist, Capability Acquisition and Sustainment, and Strategy, Policy and Industry. 

ASCA will work closely with the other elements of the Defence innovation system – including the Defence Science and Technology Group (DSTG), Domain innovation program, and delivery agencies – and capability managers, as well as links to broader government policies and programs.

This includes linking to the whole-of-government critical technologies agenda and priorities, through the critical technologies hub and node model. This will ensure innovation delivers both strategic and high-priority capability.

ASCA will also play a role in accelerating aspects of the advanced capabilities under AUKUS, in collaboration with UK and US defence innovation systems and industrial base.

Universities and other research providers underpin Defence’s research capacity, particularly in the development of new and disruptive technologies.

They provide an established research and development base to support Australian industry, which can be critical for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and startups who often do not have internal capacity to support such activities. The support can include access to specialist skills and training, research infrastructure, and capacity to rapidly scale research activities.

Defence supports and nurtures the university and research ecosystem through DSTG, and in particular, through the Australian Defence Science and Universities Network (ADSUN) – which connects Defence with researchers from universities, industry and the broader research community.

The development of advanced Defence capabilities underpinned by dual-use technologies which bridge the defence and civilian markets, will enable an enduring and diversified integrated innovation ecosystem.

This ecosystem will enable industry to capitalise on their intellectual property and will enable them to be dynamic to meet market demands. For dual-use technologies, the protection of key sensitive capabilities will be required to ensure Australia maintains its strategic military advantages.

Innovation sits at the heart of Defence strategy. It delivers advanced capability and develops new technologies aimed to support innovation and foster relationships between Defence and industry.

The idea of scientific advancements leading the strategic environment is not a new concept. As our world becomes progressively more contested, science will continue to be an integral driving force behind Defence’s edge.

Professor Emily Hilder is the interim Head of the Advanced Strategic Capabilities Accelerator (ASCA), a role in which she is leading the establishment of ASCA. Professor Hilder joined Defence as Chief Maritime within Defence Science and Technology Group in 2020, and held the role of Chief Platforms from July 2022 to April 2023. Prior to joining Defence, she was Director of the Future Industries Institute (FII) and Deputy Director of the ARC Research Hub for integrated devices for end-user analysis at low levels (IDEAL) at the University of South Australia. Professor Hilder is a graduate of the University of Tasmania where she completed her PhD in analytical chemistry in 2000.

Professor Tanya Monro has been Chief Defence Scientist since March 2019. In this role she is head of Defence Science and Technology Group (DSTG) and Capability Manager for Innovation, Science and Technology within the Australian Department of Defence. Previous roles include Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research and Innovation at the University of SA and inaugural director of the Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale Bio Photonics at the University of Adelaide. Professor Monro is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE), the Optical Society of America and the Australian Institute of Physics. She also sits on the board of the national science agency, CSIRO.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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