The Defence department is running as silent as the nuclear submarines it plans to acquire about the future of its innovation programs, much to the frustration of small commercial researchers that have engaged on capability projects.
The publication on Tuesday of the mothballed Defence Innovation Review shed no light on the structure of Defence innovation, even as the AUKUS leaders announced a submarine program that is founded in technological development and collaboration.
Australia’s Defence Innovation Review, which was handed to the previous government in December 2021 and published only yesterday as a result of a Freedom of Information request, was so heavily redacted that it no longer held meaning.
The timing of the release of the review was exquisite. The review is understood to have been highly critical in parts about capability development in Australia.
On a day when Australia entered the most consequential defence acquisition arrangements in our history – and all of the significant technological development that comes with it – Defence is running silent on the structures that will support that capability development.
There are a couple of points to make here. The first is that the Peever Review was about Defence’ innovation systems, rather than Defence capability.
Given that Defence had approached Industry for feedback on the innovation system – you might think these industry partners deserved access to a meaningful report on the results of that review.
The second point is that anyone with a search engine can get a pretty good idea of who is getting funded through programs like the Defence Innovation Hub or the Next Generation Technologies Fund and what projects they are working on.
The overzealous redaction of a review of policies and programs is surely not productive. Of course Defence is different from your average industrial program.
But it does seem weird that on a day that celebrated the way in which Australia, the US and the UK will collaborate on submarines and advanced capabilities, that our own Defence department would shut down the information flow about how it will collaborate with Australian industry on these very things.
The AUKUS announcement was utterly silent on the Pillar Two issues – the areas of fast-moving technology in advanced capabilities that have been included under the AUKUS partnership.
There is a fundamental reality here. AUKUS is a two-speed arrangement and both speeds have to be geared accordingly.
One is the multi-decade program that will result in the acquisition of advanced submarines by the Royal Australian Navy.
The second is in collaboration on developing technologies that will underpin future defence capabilities – tech that is moving so fast that whatever it looks like today will bear little resemblance to the technology that will exist when the first submarine is launched.
That means things like quantum technologies and artificial intelligence, automation, cyber and robotics.
These systems are advancing rapidly. Whatever a quantum computer is capable of today is vastly different to what it will be capable of by the time Australia takes delivery of its first nuclear submarines.
Defence must get better at engaging with industry, because it is industry that is going to deliver on so many of these technologies.
The arrangements that will put Australia in the development supply chains of these advanced capabilities is arguably as important and valuable as the acquisition of the subs.
But Australians are being kept in the dark about what Defence has in mind for the structure of the local innovation system.
How does a commercial innovation or an institutional researcher engage with a department that runs as silent as a submarine?
Perhaps the nuts and bolts of the Defence Innovation Review has been picked up and incorporated into the Defence Strategic Review that was handed to government last month.
Maybe the programs like the Defence Innovation Hub and the Next Generation Technologies Fund will be subsumed into some new agency – such as the Advanced Strategic Research Agency, which was mooted ahead of the 2022 but did not appear in Jim Chalmers first budget.
The AUKUS announcement was always going to prompt as many questions as it answered. And in terms of the Defence innovation system and the AUKUS Pillar Two advanced capabilities, that has certainly been the case.
Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.