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Guiding Defence’s R&D and innovation agenda: On Point with Dr Alex Zelinsky

The Chief Defence Scientist has the core responsibility of guiding and nurturing the Defence Science and Technology (DST) agenda to ensure that the Australian Defence Force is capable of meeting the operational and strategic requirements placed on it by government.

For former chief defence scientist Dr Alex Zelinsky AO, the DST organisation plays a central role in supporting not only the operational and strategic capabilities of the ADF, but also the long-term survivability and capability of the force to ensure that each of the branches remains at the leading-edge in the ever-changing modern threat environment. 

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DST plays this critical role by nurturing collaboration between Australia's defence organisation, industry and academia to help reshape and change the way the defence bureaucracy identifies and overcomes challenges from an individual through to platform or nationally strategic level, while also providing avenues for increased commercialisation and private sector success for Australia's defence industry. 

In the latest edition of On Point, Dr Zelinsky discusses the role of the Chief Scientist and DST and the government's focus on commercialisation and success for Australia's defence industry ecosystem. 

What is the primary role of the Chief Defence Scientist and how does it fit within the broader Defence bureaucracy?  

As Chief Defence Scientist, you're there to provide impartial expert advice that can actually help the government make strategic decisions, and you help the government try to reduce or mitigate or handle strategic and operational risks.

Strategic risks could be long-term capabilities that need to be created, and so the idea is that you want to have technologies that can create or prevent surprises. And then there's the day to day, and let's face it, military equipment and technologies are quite complex.

There's a lot of interactions with a lot of systems, and you do need an expert workforce that can actually look at those technologies and systems. In fact, it is even about the whole force structure and being able to give advice about what things we should acquire, and how can we de-risk the acquisition? How can we maintain them?

Because ultimately you want to make sure that Australian Defence Force has the capability edge over its adversaries. So that's the role from within the government context, while at the same time, you've also got the privilege of leading some 2,100 scientists and engineers and technologists who are there working for the good of our nation.  

Our scientists, technologists, academic minded people, you can actually work on solving problems and make a difference to our defence and national security. I think that's the driver really. The fact that you can create a technology that can keep our armed forces safer or give them the competitive edge is what keeps people dedicated. 

What sort of research does DST do? Is the focus on platforms like ships and aircraft or technology additions or a combination of both? 

It starts all the way from platforms. For example, we are acquiring platforms, like submarines. So we would not be building submarines, but there are subsystems that are really important in a submarine.

For example, the sonar pulses that then allow the submarine to be aware of its surroundings. That's very clever. Processing of signals is required. If you can process a very faint signal better than other people can do, you can see further.

Likewise, you look to create a cloaking for the submarine through stealth technologies. What absorbing materials can you cover the submarine with that makes it hard to see? And then there's other elements like other noise or signature elements like the propellers or the propulsors on a submarine. How do you make them quiet? By making them quiet, you get a competitive advantage. So these are things that you don't necessarily have to be worried about, the nuts and bolts and machinery. 

But also they were also interested in better radars. Australia's got a fantastic indigenous technology with CEA Technologies, world-leading. One of the things that DST is doing is working with them on the next generation of radars, the current radars are fantastic, but in 10 years time they won't be what they need to be.

In this case, DST has partnered with CEA to start the research to develop the new algorithms and new technologies that can be incorporated in the next radar. So the scientists will help CEA understand their problems, think about what we can do next, solve some of those problems, and in partnering with the industry, deliver the new technology. 

How closely does DST, and by extension Defence, collaborate with each of the niche industries which contribute to Australia's defence capability, what successful examples do you have? 

As you know, it's been a while since we've been building ships, so we didn't have many scientists who are working in metallurgy. That was something that faded away. We weren't doing much work in that, so the people retired, weren't replaced.

We got into a situation where we needed to analyse steel strengths and properties of steel, and was 'Steel A' better than 'Steel B'? for example. And we had some ideas but not absolutely sure. What we did was, we then engaged some academics who were doing metallurgical studies who understood these things, and some industry people, and worked with them sometimes on contract, getting them to do some experiments or some testing with us. And that would allow us to then confirm our hunches or our ideas, or disprove them and take us on the right technical path. 

At times we've had to do that, the people don't exist in Australia who can help with some very specialised areas. So then we've had to reach out to our allies in the US, in the UK, New Zealand, Canada, and say: "Look, we've got a question about this. Not sure. Have you got an expert who knows about this?"

Being successful also means having the humility to know that you don't have all the answers. It's just like one person doesn't know everything. Your whole team doesn't always know everything, and we've always been humble enough to say, "You know what? We don't know enough about that. We better go and find that."

In your opinion, how big an impact did the 2016 Defence White Paper have on the success and new found confidence in Australia's domestic defence industry? 

I've got to say that the current government deserves a lot of credit for the 2016 White Paper. It's a very good one. It had really outlined the strategic context. It also outlined the three missions the Australian Defence Force had to endure, undertake, be able to undertake what missions from protecting Australia to enforcing global rules-based order, and also being able to contribute to the security of the region.

Then we have to be talking about, what force do you need to do that? And then thinking through, well, it's not just an acquisition strategist can go and buy these billions of dollars of platforms from overseas. Actually thinking, well, how can you maximise the impact for Australia? How can Australian industry and the innovation sector contribute to that?

The Defence Industry Policy Statement is one of the few industry policies I've seen across any sector, and they've backed it. Government hasn't said: "Here's a policy statement", and then it's just wallpaper.

It's actually been implemented. And inside that industry policy statement was a $1.6 billion innovation program that we were heavily involved in. And that's got some fantastic elements allowing industry, academia, DST, Defence to work together in new exciting technology areas. It is definitely having an impact, we have seen the new Defence CRC in trusted autonomous systems, we're doing great work in hypersonics and there's a great program in new technology radars.

The full Defence Connect Podcast with Dr Alex Zelinsky AO, former chief defence scientist, is available here

Listen to previous episodes of the Defence Connect podcast:

Episode 152: PODCAST: Evolution of cyber security, Matthew Gollings and Patrick Batch
Episode 151: PODCAST: Naval Shipbuilding Institute and what it means for the industry, Ian Irving, NSI
Episode 150: PODCAST: Passive radar systems, space and defence, Dr James Palmer, Silentium Defence
Episode 149: PODCAST: Thought leadership and the power of self-awareness, Mark Hodgson
Episode 148: PODCAST: Supporting ex-service personnel transition to corporate life, Mike Whitelaw, Wandering Warriors
Episode 147: PODCAST: Utilising technology to save the lives of military veterans, Chris Rhyss Edwards, Soldier.ly
Episode 146: PODCAST: Supporting allies, growing economies – Richard Cho, Hanwha Defence Australia
Episode 145: PODCAST: Reflecting on an almost 18-year career with the Royal Australian Navy, Lieutenant Commander Elizabeth Raymond
Episode 144: PODCAST: Commemorating Australia’s military history, Dr Brendan Nelson AO, Australian War Memorial
Episode 143: PODCAST: Engineering the defence vehicle of today for 30 years of service in the battlefield, Kevin Wall, Thales

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