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Supporting defence innovation with an Australian DARPA

Establishing an Australian DARPA is an essential step to progress the critical link between Defence and defence industry, in turn fostering world-class technology for Australia’s warfighters.

Establishing an Australian DARPA is an essential step to progress the critical link between Defence and defence industry, in turn fostering world-class technology for Australia’s warfighters.

The creation of an Australian DARPA is fundamental to enhancing the link between Defence and defence industry, ensuring that Australia’s warfighters have world-leading technology to safely and effectively execute their wartime operations.

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This is the view of Graeme Dunk, head of strategy at Shoal Group, and James Kruger, board director of ANU’s Quantum Brilliance, in ASPI’s The Strategist this week. The pair argued that the creation of such an agency would close the gap between test and development procedures, and see the creation of more cutting-edge technologies.

“We envisaged this Australian version of DARPA filling the ‘valley of death’ between lab testing and demonstration of a prototype (that is, between technology readiness levels 4 and 7). It would utilise private as well as public funding, and it would provide a sovereign approach to development,” the pair argue.

This would create better technological outcomes for Australia’s warfighters by creating an agency that would have a less risk averse profile and the innovative bounds required to build a world-leading defence force.

The pair argue that while the government has taken critical steps to begin addressing this issue including the creation of the ‘comprehensive review of Defence innovation, science and technology’, historical analyses show that technological innovation doesn’t always favour Australia.

“But the track record of bringing Australian defence innovation into being isn’t great, with byzantine processes hindering both speed and risk taking. And the situation will worsen when we concern ourselves with software-based technologies rather than pure domain-specific hardware,” the pair contend.

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“Technology advances rarely take hold in isolation and are unlikely to develop in a slow, steady and predictable fashion. They expand via the convergence of a few different technical improvements and enjoy tailwinds and feedback loops from adjacent and new products and markets.”

The pair note that the new agency should have dual commercial-military developments in mind, for which DARPA has long been famed.

“Would we expect the best-of-breed LiDAR-enhanced autonomous drones to be developed in isolation without ancillary-use cases and feeder markets for parts of the technology stack? Do we think cyber security is simply staying on top of the game of classified systems access?” the pair suggest.

Indeed, DARPA has long refined the art of using dual commercial-military equipment to develop national security advantages. Writing in SPIE, Stephen Anderson details how commercial-military partnerships drove the growth of the unmanned vehicle market.

“Open competition with substantial prize-based incentives is a tool used by DARPA since 2004 to promote innovative solutions to national security problems,” Anderson explained.

“The original competition, DARPA's Grand Challenge for Autonomous Vehicles (2004, 2005, 2007), grew out of the United States Defense Authorization Bill for fiscal year 2001, which codified the goal of fielding unmanned ground combat vehicles for the US Armed Forces.”

Following this pedigree, Dunk and Kruger recommend establishing a multidisciplinary board to analyse research proposed by Australian organisations and find innovations that should be prioritised.

“The agency’s role would be to take calculated risks and embrace the approach that projects don’t really fail — they provide lessons to build future success on,” the pair contend.

“Board members would network widely across industry and academia; they should not just be retired military officers or political appointees.”

This would be bolstered by a robust hiring process, in which the staff would have relevant backgrounds and serve for five-year rotations. The agency would in turn be overseen by an industry professional for set time limits.

Dunk and Kruger note that this would enable the organisation to not only enhance Australia’s defence industry, but develop the nation building technologies that often begin with defence innovation.

Interestingly, the piece from Dunk and Kruger came as Australian researchers from the CSIRO’s Data61 placed second in the recent DARPA Subterranean Challenge. As part of the challenge, the Australian team built six autonomous robots that were tested in an underground course. Throughout the course, the robots correctly identified a series of objects while mapping out the terrain.

According to team leader Dr Navinda Kottege, it is the first time Australia has placed so well in the DARPA challenge.

“We are the first Australian team to place in the top two at a DARPA robotics challenge. This cements CSIRO’s place as a world leader in robotics and puts Australia firmly on the map in this increasingly important area of science,” Dr Kottege said.

“I’d like to thank team partners Emesent and Georgia Institute of Technology for their exceptional research and development and contribution to this amazing result.”

It’s clear that Australians have the capability to build cutting edge weapons technologies. An Australian DARPA could be another important addition.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch with [email protected], [email protected], or at [email protected]


Supporting defence innovation with an Australian DARPA
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