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The new era of armed conflict: Imperatives for digital defence

Matt Gollings, the managing director and defence lead for Accenture ANZ, weighs in on the changing nature of warfare amid the proliferation in digital transformation technologies.

Matt Gollings, the managing director and defence lead for Accenture ANZ, weighs in on the changing nature of warfare amid the proliferation in digital transformation technologies.

 There is no doubt that we are living in a time of unprecedented uncertainty, with the ongoing pandemic escalating geopolitical trade tensions, while simultaneously accelerating the pace of digital transformation across all industries.

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In recent times, we have seen threats increasingly being made against Australia’s national security, prompting a spotlight on Australia’s defence capabilities and our capacity to confront looming threats.  

Defence organisations, government and industry are recognising that the nature of military action is evolving, and as a result armed forces must be ready for, and effective in, pan-domain operations.

We have seen our regional neighbours advancing their military capabilities by incorporating artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and big data to develop innovations such as autonomous and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

While Australia has been applying these technologies, such as commissioning the Loyal Wingman drone, there is a palpable sense of urgency for a faster and more advanced defence system to address new and unpredictable threats.

Now, more than ever, it is crucial for defence to lead in the digital domain as technology strategy and prowess will be vital in gaining and maintaining material advantage over digitally advanced adversaries. Digital in defence is now indispensable.

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It applies to every functional and operational element of defence – from intelligence and targeting, recruiting and retention, supply chain and network resilience to combat, program management, shipbuilding and enhancing force-readiness.

Digital engineering and digital twin technology will be particularly invaluable in gaining and maintaining situational awareness, foreseeing and mitigating risks, and understanding the potential consequences of failed execution on the battlefield.

The untapped potential of digital twins

Digital twins are an intelligent technology tool used to create living end-to-end representations of the real-world, offering significant advantages and a world of possibilities for the armed forces.

Digital twins are linked to their physical assets by a ‘digital thread’ that weaves across processes and systems to generate data and inputs in real-time.

While the Australian Defence Force is currently utilising flight and weapon simulators, digital twinning makes it possible to connect simulators to actual forces in the field in real-time and utilise AI to simulate movements of units on the ground – whether friendly or hostile.

The result is a multilayered environment where augmented, virtual personnel and components exist alongside military personnel in a physical environment, allowing multiple scenarios to be simulated concurrently and multiple outputs to be analysed and understood.

Digital twin technology can also provide views across the entire force – battalions, units and individual soldiers, to determine people and equipment readiness, the state of weapons systems, chart transportation and the movement of mission critical elements like food, water and fuel.

By enabling testing and training for a vast range of scenarios, digital twin technologies can help ADF service men and women foresee the unexpected – and thus change the game for Australian defence.

The advent of AI and automation

Only in March this year did Australia’s first semi-autonomous UAV take its first flight, demonstrating the potential of integrated technology systems to defence.

According to Boeing, the design of the Loyal Wingman drone involved a ‘digital twin’ simulation, which allowed Boeing to virtualise the aircraft’s operation, identify and mitigate potential issues, as well as plan ongoing maintenance of the aircraft.

There is immense opportunity in autonomous systems, not only for the ADF, but for industry and enterprise as well, to enhance Australia’s sovereign defence capabilities and grow Australia’s defence supply chain.

AI and machine learning technologies that can gather and interpret situational data to take rational action on the battlefield, without human intervention, will have a transformative impact on traditional combat, let alone provide significant strategic advantage to Australian armed forces.

While automated technology can help lower risk of injury or loss of military personnel, they will inherently possess their own set of vulnerabilities such as being destroyed or disabled in combat or compromised by a cyber attack.

From a governance perspective, the ADF and industry developers will need to consider that non-liberal democratic adversaries could have greater freedom of governance when it comes to manoeuvring unmanned systems, compared with Australian and allied forces, and factor this into simulations and scenario planning to understand, scope and prepare for operational implications.

Our global research shows that 84 per cent of defence leaders think their organisations need to fast-forward digital transformation, having recognised that digital is core to their mission success.

Australia’s advanced manufacturing sector has the industrial capability matched with government support and funding, to develop world-leading technologies and scale up our defence industry in revolutionary ways.

With the right ecosystem partners and commitment to enhancing digital literacy among senior defence leaders, incited by the pure necessity for transformative change, Australia can maintain its military prowess in the new landscape of digitally driven warfare.

Matt Gollings is the managing director and defence lead for Accenture ANZ.

The new era of armed conflict: Imperatives for digital defence
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