Since the birth of our nation, Australia “has been a small country living in a land of giants”, as termed by Coral Bell for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Our population is tiny in comparison to our neighbours to our north – countries such as China, India, and the much closer Indonesia have a much larger population to draw upon in times of need such as conflict.
This numerical superiority extends invariably to the size of the defence forces in the region, and this could be an issue if our relations with the other powers in the region sour under any cause. Peter Layton addresses this issue in his latest article for ASPI's The Strategist, presenting a possible solution to Australia's issues of recruitment and numerical disadvantage – automation.
To commence his article, he writes:
"There’s a constant in Australian defence: not enough people. In peacetime, the defence organisation’s difficulties with recruitment are an ongoing saga, occasionally surfacing in headlines like ‘Sailor shortage strands Australian warship HMAS Perth in dry dock for two years’. With less drama, ASPI’s Marcus Hellyer revealed real problems reaching workforce objectives; since 2016, the number of Australian Defence Force personnel has risen by only 600 against a target of 1,730."
Layton also points the current pandemic as a cause for an even further drop in Australia's population and overall workforce due to factors such as visa holders being told to return home as Australia closed its borders in an attempt to suppress the spread of the virus.
Layton writes, "Hundreds of thousands who were in the workforce at the start of 2020 have left and it’s been suggested that about 600,000 will be gone by year’s end. A former immigration official recently said, ‘We could be on the verge of the biggest percentage and absolute decline in our population since 1788’. It may take years to get back to the population size Australia had four months ago."
While these workers may not have worked within the defence forces or its supporting industries, the loss to the workforce as a whole is still significant, as many of them may have been young, causing the further demographic ageing of the workforce and diminishing the number of younger people the ADF could draw upon, as a diminishing workforce in the whole will affect all sectors.
Is automation the answer?
Automation is nothing new, we have been using it to produce products from food to cars for decades cutting down the number of people needed to bring the products we all use to shelves and homes. As we have driven further into the digital age more complex systems and processes have been sped up and advanced through the use of digital automation.
Layton writes, "High-tech systems are now embedded in Australia’s major port facilities, supermarket chains, mail distribution centres, construction industry services and even our homes. A recent study of the mining industry predicts that the application of digital technology over the next decade will occur in three stages."
Layton points to the example of mining to show how complex processes using heavy machinery and dangerous tasks are becoming streamlined as advances in automation take people out of the loop.
"Mining companies’ use of automation today involves individual, non-interoperable, semi-autonomous vehicles. By 2025, mines will feature smart sensors, autonomous vehicles, limited self-learning systems and some pieces of equipment that will operate together. From 2030, autonomous machines will work in mines with other such machines to complete tasks," he writes.
Layton uses mining to directly show that the automation of these tasks and those similar can be applied to the Defence Force with the most obvious application to him being airbases.
"Open-source platforms will integrate readily with similar equipment, allowing machine-to-machine communications and real-time data exchange so they self-learn and can make decisions. Mining companies are doing this with large productivity gains. If they can do so, why can’t Defence?" he asks.
Australia has long relied on a qualitative advantage over its neighbours when it came to defence, our defence forces have been supplied with state of the art equipment and training and we have been supported by our strongest ally in the US. However, the qualitative gap to other countries in the Indo-Pacific region has greatly diminished or in some cases completely disappeared as other nations have raised defence spending and modernised their military to standards not reached before. Automation may be one way of retaining this qualitative advantage and lessening the quantitative disadvantages we face.
Layton points to a famous example as to how a qualitative advantage when it comes to air power and aircraft management can overcome a numerical advantage.
"Notions of generating more airpower using fewer people draw inspiration from the Israeli Air Force’s first day of the Six-Day War. The IAF had only about 200 combat aircraft but flew 1,000 sorties. The crucial step was to emphasise very rapid aircraft turnarounds. Generating more sorties gave a virtual, if not literal, increase in air combat fleet size. Automated airbases could bring this step-up to Australian air power."
This is where Laytons article gets interesting, as he lists the multitude of application that automation could be used to improve the efficiency of airbase operations.
"The range of commercial technologies that airbases may employ includes artificial intelligence, digital twins, big data, cloud computing, the internet of things, autonomous operations and robotics, 3D printing and human augmentation. Digitally transformed airbases could generate more aircraft sorties, faster, with considerably fewer people than now," Layton writes.
"Robot turns of serviceable aircraft, including refuelling and weapons loading, could be possible. Predictive maintenance using artificial intelligence would make unscheduled maintenance rare, or at least uncommon. Real-time stock tracking would ease logistics, while 3D printing means airbases might resupply themselves with some items.
"Airbases would appear uninhabited, with personnel at central control centres managing engineering and logistics tasks both there and at remote airbases. Bases might even generate their own power to become semi-self-sufficient."
Layton believes the automation of airbases could be used Australia-wide and been be extended to bases abroad. Importantly, he points to the fact that northern bases would especially benefit from automated systems that could shrink the number of personnel needed for high capacity operations closer to our northern neighbours, something that has been much discussed at Defence Connect and ASPI.
"Keeping up with the rest of Australian society is not necessarily a good argument for the ADF embracing digital disruption. However, unless it does, by 2030 its fixed bases may be lonely outposts of 20th century technology in a 21st-century world.
"Events over the past few months make digital transformation even more important. A post-pandemic Australia with a smaller national workforce would increase the pressure on the ADF to embrace automation at its airbases. The possibility that the post-COVID-19 era will leave us with fewer people makes airbase digital transformation essential."
While automation, in theory, would be a great way to ensure efficiency and quality in the Defence Force, the road to a realistic application will be long and expensive but if we don't act now the horse could have already bolted, leaving us behind.