A slow Capability Accelerator is unacceptable

The Capability Accelerator has to be fast - and that means outside Defence

Written by

Michael Shoebridge

One proven way for organisations to deal with uncomfortable recommendations from external reviews is to accept what they recommend and then implement them in ways that are business as usual, but with new paint.

The Advanced Strategic Capabilities Accelerator (ASCA) announced by Defence Minister Richard Marles looks like being a good example.

It’s being established in response to the Defence Strategic Review’s diagnosis that the two key Groups inside Defence charged with keeping it at the forefront of applied technologies – the Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group and the Defence Science and Technology Group – have not done so. As the Review says, the internal approaches pursued for years by Defence are ‘not fit for purpose’.

It’s unlikely that Stephen Smith and Angus Houston were the first to recognise this. David Peever probably did so in his review of the Defence innovation system in 2022, although we can’t be sure as the text of his review has not seen the light of day.

The one essential feature the Smith/Houston review identified was that this new organisation “must be an unencumbered entity outside of Defence”. Whatever else it might be, the Advanced Strategic Capabilities Accelerator doesn’t look like this.

Instead, in a classic case of redefinition and redirection, it “will be guided by senior levels in Defence; the Vice Chief of the Defence Force, the Chief Defence Scientist and the Deputy Secretary, Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group”. That’s a heavy load of senior Defence leadership help.

And the key line from the Strategic Review that ‘ASCA must be an unencumbered entity outside of Defence’ is missing from the announcement. That omission is almost certainly not a simple oversight.

Back in March 2017, another minister for Defence, Christopher Pyne told us about his version of the most significant change to Defence innovation in decades when he established the Next Generation Technologies Fund, led by the Chief Defence Scientist.

Then, minister Pyne told us this would ‘deliver game-changing capabilities for the Australian Defence Force”. The Fund would provide ‘the creative capability solutions that Defence needs while benefiting Australian industry’. Its priorities included ‘quantum technologies, trusted autonomous systems, … advanced sensors, hypersonics and directed energy’.

5 years and one month on, Richard Marles now tells us of his ‘most significant reshaping of Defence innovation in decades’.

Echoing Pyne’s words, he says ‘that the new ASCA will ensure game-changing ideas are developed into capabilities that give the ADF an asymmetric advantage’, and ASCA ‘will deliver vital capabilities for the ADF, as well as create more jobs in the Australian defence industry’. And its priorities are: ‘hypersonics, directed energy, trusted autonomy, quantum technology, information warfare and long-range fires’.

It’s very difficult to find any information on whether Defence’s innovation system has delivered anything into ADF service since 2017. With the experience to date, though, it looks like both sides of politics are being misled by Defence claims that the Department can drive innovation itself.

The problem – aside from a natural desire by current leaders to control any new organisation – seems to be a disturbing complacency about delivery timeframes for new military capabilities.

At a time when the Government tells us that this three-year period we are living through may be definitive for the security of our region, the Accelerator will have ‘a phased start up over the first 18 months to develop, test and refine the operating model”.

There’s more than the whiff of a new Defence bureaucracy here, built with the same mindset the Review condemns.

This stately approach is probably partly due to the funding facts: with no new money for new initiatives, the Accelerator is left harvesting funds already allocated to innovation programs like the Next Generation Technologies Fund and the Defence Innovation Hub, while it waits for four years to pass and the new money promised by prime minister Albanese to flow.

That means whoever heads up this new Accelerator will spend much of the first 18 months in dense internal negotiations about what funding it actually has and who has already made what commitments with that money.

The announcement says $3.4 billion will be invested over the decade in this research and development effort. At about 0.4 per cent of the Defence budget over the period, that’s not a healthy effort for a technology-based organisation of this size.

So, what does urgent creation of a new military capability look like? Two examples show what’s possible with an actual Capability Accelerator.

The first is Lockheed’s Skunkworks outfit. In 1953, the Pentagon knew it had a problem doing reconnaissance over the Soviet Union. Its existing planes were vulnerable to fighter and missile interception. It set out a short requirement to solve the problem: an aircraft that could fly at 70,000 feet (above the missiles and fighters) and have a range of 3,000 miles.

Lockheed’s Chief Designer Kelly Johnson proposed a simple radical design using the existing XF-104 fuselage, a jet engine already in production and glider-like wings. Kelly handpicked his team to build the aircraft and delivered the first one eight months after getting the contract. Updated U-2s are still flying missions today.

Eight months. Not 18 months to develop test and refine operating models here – just a clear operational requirement and a small team led by a capable expert with a bucket of money and a time imperative, with industry right in the tent from the start. And an understanding that rapid results aren’t about new scientific breakthroughs – they’re about applying what exists now.

No one in these small teams had a career there for life. Like the hugely successful US DARPA, project leads are appointed for a set time to deliver and they finish up at the end of that time win, lose or draw.

The other example of urgency comes from inside Defence – but in an outfit that had high levels of independence outside normal organisations and processes because of the urgent life or death purpose it served. It’s the Counter IED Taskforce that kept Australian men and women safe from the lethal and rapidly changing IED threat while deployed to Afghanistan.

Like the Skunkworks example, there was a ruthless focus on a practical military outcome, and a small team of diverse experts with a bucket of money and the licence to do what was needed to deliver results fast. If the head of this taskforce had suggested taking their first 18 months to settle and refine its operating model, there would have been a new leader fast.

There’s still time to shape the government’s new Advanced Strategic Capabilities Accelerator to work like Skunkworks on the U-2 or even like Defence’s experience with the CIED Taskforce.

Step one is delivering on the core attribute that it be ‘unencumbered’ by Defence. Step two is giving it some real new money of its own well before four years pass us by. Step three is getting it to have industry in the tent from the start, bringing existing applied technologies to bear to solve practical military problems.

That would be game changing.