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Op-Ed: Australia can deliver a world-class TUAS sovereign capability

The manifestation of a global pandemic and an increasingly uncertain regional geopolitical environment has led the Commonwealth of Australia and Defence to examine issues such as potential fragility of supply chains and long-term assurance of delivery with renewed urgency and vigour, explains Jack Kormas, managing director of Textron Systems Australia.

The manifestation of a global pandemic and an increasingly uncertain regional geopolitical environment has led the Commonwealth of Australia and Defence to examine issues such as potential fragility of supply chains and long-term assurance of delivery with renewed urgency and vigour, explains Jack Kormas, managing director of Textron Systems Australia.

As the Strategic Update 2020 makes clear, the full spectrum of Defence responsibilities and tasking are affected by this renewed focus on independent sovereign capability.

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These responsibilities range from high-intensity combat operations to Defence Assistance to the Civil Community (DACC) and Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) missions that continue to be part of Australian life, as evidenced by the ADF’s prominent response to the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires.

Of the Commonwealth’s Sovereign Industrial Capability Priorities, unmanned systems have a particularly prominent role to play in “surveillance and intelligence data collection, analysis dissemination and complex systems integration”.

The importance of these capabilities is underscored by the investments announced in the 2020 Force Structure Plan, with approximately $30 billion AUD allocated to uncrewed capability projects

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The supply of systems to meet the Tactical Unmanned Aerial System (TUAS) and Maritime Unmanned Aerial System (MUAS) capabilities sought by Army and Navy, respectively, provide a unique opportunity to build an important element of the in-country Sovereign Capability so strongly sought after by the Commonwealth and Defence.

Numerous success elements exist which show that Australian industry’s skills and expertise are well-suited deliver a world-class TUAS/MUAS capability.

These include: systems fundamentally suited towards nimble production and support, rapid development cycles, smart engineers with a cross-disciplinary mindset, and a strong, focused industrial base that is ready and willing to deliver.

The nature of the system

Unlike traditional aerostructures, TUAS/MUAS are generally comprised of smaller structural elements which do not require the heavy infrastructure needed to support commercial and manned military aviation.

Individual components such as fuselages, wings and mounting structures can be carried by hand and positioned without the need for heavy, expensive jigs. Detail component design is driven by minimum manufacturing thicknesses more often than by high stresses, enabling innovative weight savings to be achieved by techniques such as 3D printing and out-of-autoclave cure without exorbitant cost.

Electronics and payloads can be designed, built and tested in small laboratories and factories. And with runway independent systems, the need for landing strips and expensive flight test facilities is eliminated.

Why this matters: whereas traditional aviation is beholden to large, footprint-heavy factories and constrained by site proximity to runways and heavy facilities, TUAS and MUAS can be supported by a more distributed, non-traditional industrial base.

This means that small, nimble UAS production and support sites can be set up and maintained around Australia in ways that enable them to stay agile and cost-competitive.

Rapid development cycles

In stark contrast to the decades-long block cycles common in major defence procurements, it is not uncommon for the capabilities of a UAS to be refreshed in as little as 18 months.

For example, on the Aerosonde system (produced by Textron Systems Australia) new payloads, modules, data exploitation software and even airframe modifications such as wing extensions routinely go from clean sheet to fielded capabilities in under two years.

This enables the system to stay disruptive and ahead of the curve, particularly on covert missions where counter-insurgency tactics are ever-evolving. In contrast, traditional procurements such as FMS, that are supported overseas, often have strict limitations on the degree of modifications that can be made to the supplied system.

Why this matters: Australia cannot afford to wait at the behest of foreign countries who may impose restrictive FMS conditions that prevent rapid TUAS and MUAS upgrades essential to maintaining their technological edge.

There is a compelling case that such rapid, agile refresh of capabilities can only be – and should only be performed in-country.

Australian engineers: A hard-earned reputation

Australian engineers have a hard-earned reputation for displaying a “systems engineering” mindset, being trained to think in a cross-disciplinary manner. Unlike the much more formal, silo organisational structures favoured by overseas primes, Australian engineers are experienced at working in agile environments where resources are scarce, and innovation is crucial for survival.

This enables them to thrive in the UAS sector, where the rapid development cycles discussed above require sustained agility and cross-disciplinary competence. Australian universities are a key enabler in producing engineers of this calibre, being highly ranked relative to world standards.

We continue to punch above our weight and are producing some of the best and brightest young professionals in fields that support unmanned and autonomous systems.

Why this matters: with a mindset inherently geared towards innovation rather than bureaucracy, Australian workers are ideally suited to form the intellectual backbone of the desired TUAS/MUAS capability.

An industrial base that is ready, willing and able to deliver

The Australian aerospace base, long relegated to a Tier-2 or Tier-3 role and unable to compete with established overseas Primes, has nonetheless managed to retain high value-add capabilities, with smaller AS9100 accredited SMEs still actively supporting programs such as the F-35.

This benefits the TUAS sector as this experience on recent major military programs provides the foundation necessary for suppliers to rapidly manufacture high complexity products in-house without sacrificing quality.

Australian manufacturers are well versed in the digital CAD/CAM/PLM processes that make rapid iteration of product possible, and have been actively supported by major government investments such as the SADI program to skill up in this area.

Why this matters: to support the challenging turnaround times required for continuous capability refresh, the Commonwealth will need to rely on trusted, capable, local SME partners who will prioritise the comparatively small order quantities for the required capability bricks.

A pathway for veteran employment in UAS

Transition from Defence to civilian life remains a bipartisan priority, and the growing UAS sector offers a unique, emerging avenue veteran employment. The valuable skills of ADF veterans with a UAS background can be deployed to train young soldiers to become UAS operators and maintainers.

For example, Textron Systems Australia’s veteran employees are co-located on base at Gallipoli Barracks, where the team actively transitions their significant skills to their Army counterparts in a highly cooperative, collaborative and trusted environment.

This is a proven, effective model for how future programs can fully align veteran employment needs with sovereign capability objectives.

Why this matters: Australia needs to value its veterans, and utilising their skills, leadership and experience to provide valuable training and support to TUAS/MUAS in-country is a win-win arrangement.

Our veterans are highly skilled with a range of qualifications and understand the end user and the challenges they face.

The first fruits of policy

While it is early days, so far there have been some promising signs that the government’s policy framework may be starting to yield genuine innovation and opportunities in the unmanned systems sector. Significant contributors to these developments include:

  • Textron Systems Australia, previously known as Aerosonde, has been one of Australia’s early innovators, manufacturers and subsequent exporter of unmanned systems in Australia since 1995. The company continues to thrive, having exported over 500 unmanned Aerosonde aircraft worldwide for commercial and military users. In addition, the company has gained a reputation as an incubator for many SMEs, both locally and internationally, to enter the unmanned aviation industry.
  • The emergence of the Boeing Airpower Teaming System, known as Loyal Wingman, without doubt is a massive boost to Australia’s emerging unmanned systems industry. Such high visibility programs are essential to prove the industry’s overall credibility, and to provide the crucial confidence that Australians can indeed execute leading-edge programs in this sector. This has been a significant shift in the Commonwealth’s procurement mindset, investing $40 million into the program with the expectation that it will deliver the RAAF a highly capable unmanned teaming system with potential export sales.
  • Innovative and emerging players such as SYPAQ, AVT Australia and Sentient Vision have grown in the UAS sector also taking advantage of government grants that encourage innovation.
  • Well-connected industry advocacy groups such as AAUS, the Australian Defence Alliance and the Victorian Defence Alliances have been playing a crucial role in connecting industry with end users, ensuring an unprecedented level of alignment and effective communication of strategic vision.
  • The creation of the $14.5 million Cloncurry Flight Test Range in north-west Queensland, designed and constructed by QinetiQ. This is a first-of-its-kind facility that will benefit in-country UAS development for decades.
  • Research and development organisations such as DST and most Australian universities are investing in cutting-edge research exploring the interaction of artificial intelligence and unmanned systems.
  • The explicit focus on sovereign capability is evident within the requirements issued for the LAND 129 Phase 3 and SEA 129 Phase 5 programs, indicating a clear top-down strategy and alignment from a policy and procurement perspective.

All of these are evidence that Australian industry is aligned with government and stands ready to deliver genuine sovereign capability in the TUAS and MUAS domains.

The foundation is strong and ready to support a new vision of innovative, in-country activity that will set the industry up for decades. Where we go now is fundamentally a question of political will

Jack Kormas is the managing director of Textron Systems Australia and has worked in the aerospace and unmanned industry for over 30 years.

Op-Ed: Australia can deliver a world-class TUAS sovereign capability
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