The yawning policy gap between Defence and Industry. It’s a problem

James Riley
Editorial Director

Ask pretty much any Australian company commercialising a dual-use technology and they will tell you there is yawning policy gap between the Industry portfolio and the Defence portfolio that is working against the national interest.

This is a national interest problem in the sense that industrial development opportunities are falling through the cracks and the potential economic benefit is forgone.

But against a backdrop of geostrategic uncertainty, it is ultimately a national security issue. If Australia does not have an industrial base with the sovereign capability and capacity to scale-up quickly at times of trouble, then we have a real problem.

The proposition that a process-driven political construct that keeps ‘Industry’ and ‘Defence’ operating in separate silos is going to deliver for either Australian industry or the defence of Australia is dangerously relaxed thinking.

The whole notion of a ‘defence industry’ is structurally unsound.

The fact that there is a separate Defence Industry minister in Australia is laughable. Ask any Australian company building dual-use tech and they will tell you there is no such thing as a ‘defence industry’. There is only ‘industry’.

We either have a technology-driven industrial base that can support our defence needs when called upon, or we do not.

The Defence portfolio, in pursuing a stronger more capable Australian industry, should be working hand-in-glove with the Industry portfolio. But they don’t.

Instead, and for reasons that look like nothing more than political courtesy, they swim in distinctly different lanes, producing sub-scale programs that miss the mark – or that have allowed exciting local companies building strategic capability to fall between the cracks entirely.

For example, the Australian Industry and Science minister Ed Husic issued a joint statement with the UK secretary of state for Science, Innovation and Technology on “co-operation on quantum technologies” – effectively a memorandum of understanding.

The joint statement used a lot of words like ‘cooperation’ and ‘collaboration’ and ‘ecosystem’, and promised regular meetings of government officials. But it did not refer to ‘defence’ (or even ‘defence industry’) or defence applications, even in passing.

How can that be taken as a serious document? To say it lacked gravitas does a disservice to the word ‘gravitas’.

Local quantum leaders contacted by say they were not consulted on what might be useful in a joint statement with the UK and say it does not enable anything in the UK that they could not already do. These Australian quantum leaders found out about it after it had been signed.

In the absence of meaningful federal funding, these companies can be forgiven for thinking this “joint statement” was just an announceable (which is exactly how it was described).

The Australian government’s industry development support budget is measured in the low tens of millions of dollars.

At least if the quantum leaders in the UK were equally perplexed by this gravelly-voiced announcement, they could console themselves with the fact that the UK government has committed more than $4.5 billion to quantum industry programs. That’s a couple of orders of magnitude for comfort, right there.

For the record, Defence says quantum tech is important and that it is cooperating with the Industry portfolio.

Quantum technologies are a kind of ground zero dual-use tech, with massively important and valuable markets in the civilian commercial markets and in defence markets. But it’s the same tech.

Dual-use tech refers generally to emerging technologies with important use cases across both civilian commercial markets and within specific applications for defence.

An example might be the high-powered, drone-killing lasers that can also be used on a battlefield also being sold as a cutting tool within an advanced manufacturing machine.

In the space sector, a rocket that can send satellites into orbit has obvious military and commercial applications. The satellites themselves, and the ability to build them here in this country, is also an important dual-use strategic technology.

But quantum computing, quantum sensing, artificial intelligence, automation and remote automation, robotics are all classic dual-use technologies. All of these areas are at risk through sub-scale, ineffective industry support programs.

All of these things have both massive potential in civilian commercial markets, and huge strategic value in defence. Australia is too small for the Defence portfolio and the Industry portfolio to work in isolation in building Australian capability in these important dual-use technologies.

Defence industry does not exist. There is only industry. Australia needs an industrial base that can quickly scale to meet defence needs in an emergency.

The Defence and Industry portfolios must surely work together more closely. Building industrial capability and capacity is the mission for both.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

Leave a Comment

Related stories