Enabling the digital battlefield through collaboration

Enabling the digital battlefield through collaboration

Cutting edge technologies are changing the nature of warfare and the way defence agencies respond to threats. The emerging challenge is one of integration, training and collaboration, according to KPMG’s Ian McDonald and Peter Robinson.

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Thermal view of fighter jet

The digital battlefield

While tanks, ships and aircraft will continue to dominate the battlefield, how they are used will be determined by data and networks.

“This moves us into an information warfare management environment, shifting from the physical to the virtual as the data grid becomes the battlefield,” says Ian McDonald, Director, Technology Enablement, KPMG. “It’s a new paradigm.”

Technology trends

So which game-changing advances in technology will the Australian Defence Force (ADF) leverage in the future? McDonald predicts that miniaturisation will be the “underlying driver” of change.

“For example, think of the tiny and far more powerful cameras we now have in our smartphones, then extrapolate that to the array of sensors that we can pack into a small space on an aircraft – and not just visual sensors – but also infra-red and electromagnetics.”

Five key technologies for defence include:

  1. Sensors: Behind sensors lies further miniaturisation at the chip level, McDonald says. As processing power accelerates, and artificial intelligence (AI) starts to intrude, modern defence equipment can crunch and analyse intelligence, and target data at a rate inconceivable only a few years ago. 
  2. Processing at the chip: New chip design and manufacturing technologies enable much higher processing speeds and embedded encryption, McDonald says. “So not just faster processing speeds, but we can do encryption at the chip with 0.01 percent performance loss instead of 10 percent.” The result is secure processing and communications without sacrificing speed.
  3. Storage: Storage technologies are another massive advance, he says. Disc drives are yielding to solid state devices with data in silicon at the chip level. Accessing data becomes much faster, which in turn accelerates data processing and integration.
  4. Communication bandwidth: Communications technology is also being transformed by bandwidth improvements. The ability to compress data and enable multiple data streams to share common bearers such as wireless links and fibre optic cables, also increases data processing and integration performance, McDonald explains.
  5. Quantum computing: This will utterly change the computing paradigm that we’re all familiar with, and generate game-changing improvements in computing power and security. AI and cognitive computing will extend that domain. But the necessary breakthroughs aren’t all there yet, according to McDonald, and may still be a few years away.

McDonald explains that integrating these advanced technologies properly will completely change how the ADF fights, manages and wins its future battles. If defence can get more technology onto an aircraft, ship, submarine, or tank, and do more with it, then they can achieve information superiority: they will see further than their adversaries, hear things earlier, and be prepared to think and act faster.

“Information superiority is now the main game: speeding the so-called ‘OODA Loop’ – Observe, Orient, Decide, Act – and doing that quicker than your adversary, doing it more accurately, and with more information. It’s the future and it’s extremely important.”

People, collaboration and skills

Despite the obvious advantages, these benefits will remain unrealised unless defence organisations can adapt. They must change their culture, open themselves up to collaboration and train their people. No single organisation has a monopoly on the specialist expertise that delivers advantage.

Culture change

The Minister for Defence Industry, Christopher Pyne, said in early 2017 that to achieve the defence reforms that will deliver industry innovation and a stronger ADF, organisational cultures and the relationship between defence and the defence industry must change.

"There is a need for industry to be drawn closer to discussions with government and defence about how to extract more innovation, agility and cost savings from the defence-industry relationship,” Pyne said.

He echoed recent KPMG research showing that a majority of defence sector respondents (48 percent) see culture as the most significant barrier to more effective collaborative business relationships. However, the majority (87 percent) say they’re either implementing or planning to implement new models to improve collaboration.

Collaboration

Peter Robinson, Partner, Operations Advisory, KPMG, says the Department must continue to push the limits of effective collaboration within itself, with industry and the research community. He proposes that on a commercial level, the Department will need to find new ways to encourage and facilitate the major defence contractors to embrace ‘co-opetition’ to deliver capability in partnership with competitors. That will sometimes mean becoming suppliers and sub-contractors to each other, combining complementary skills and capabilities to deliver a new capability – which won’t always feel natural for them, particularly when it comes sharing their intellectual property.

“The willingness of Defence to engage with industry is really shifting,” Robinson says. “ Not so long ago, concerns around probity and commercial confidentiality restricted innovation, and while this hasn’t disappeared, now there is a real willingness to engage with industry – far more than there has been in the past.”

The human interface – skills and training

Defence technology largely derives from the northern hemisphere, McDonald explains.

“While we can buy it ‘off the shelf’, we still have to sustain and develop it over the next 20 to 30 years. Embedded in a lot of that technology are things that are not currently taught in our TAFEs and our education systems, so that whole suite has to be picked up and managed. So the response has to be holistic, across the Department, industry, R&D and education system levels.”

McDonald argues that Australia is currently not “match fit” in comparison to other countries.

“We recognise that, and we are moving in the right direction. Technical skills particularly are a problem. We have them, but Australia is a big country – and they’re spread across different industry sectors, and also geographically. We are punching above our weight but we need to do a lot more, given our geography, size and the threats we face.”

Plan Jericho – an innovation case study

Reflecting this agenda for technology driven change, the RAAF is about to become the most advanced air force in the world, introducing both new technology and a new business model for implementing it, according to McDonald.

‘Plan Jericho’, complemented by the smart buyer programs within the central Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group, aims to transform the way the RAAF identifies its needs, engages with industry and academia to develop solutions, and then acquires and fields those solutions.

Defence’s existing procurement process is slow and cumbersome, McDonald explains, and therefore, in the rapidly changing high technology domain, delivers obsolescent equipment.

He says Plan Jericho addresses the knowledge superiority and integration needs within RAAF, whilst procurement reform aims to make the RAAF and its procurement process smarter, faster and more agile. It also illustrates a fundamental change to Australia’s defence business environment: Defence, academia and industry are having conversations about what they need to do, and what they’re going to do, that they couldn’t even contemplate as recently as 2 or 3 years ago.

Vision and certainty

Industry is now recognised by the department as a ‘Fundamental Input to Capability’ (FIC), says Robinson, and as the it plans to launch acquisition projects worth AUD $190 billion over the next decade, that’s a timely change.

“We’re now seeing a clear policy and a clearly defined investment plan, and therefore real certainty for industry, which is great. The fact that industry is now a FIC acknowledges that it’s just as important to the ADF as the equipment and training. But that places a reverse onus on industry to be mature in how it deals with that role. Australian industry must rise to the challenge by developing competitive management, technical and marketing skills,” he says.

Defence is also reorganising itself to address the need for more integration of technologies across the entire military response issue says Robinson. They’ve recently gone through what is called an ADF Headquarters reorganisation with Air Vice-Marshal Warren McDonald, former deputy chief of air force in charge, and now the capability joint coordinator.

Despite many challenges, the prospects are good, says Robinson.

“Australia is well placed, compared with other nations, to really try and solve this issue. More than any other nation we’re at the forefront of this, and I think it’s a really exciting place to be.”

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