top of page
Line Concept Level 3 page 2.PNG

Australian Defence needs an Office of Robotics – Alan Stephens

If, as the eminent strategist and military historian Edward Luttwak has argued, the people in our armed services define themselves through their ships, aeroplanes and tanks – a phenomenon he describes as “platformitis” – then the Australian Defence Force’s dominant culture is both obvious and near-impossible to change.

As thing stand, for the next twenty years at least, the ADF’s force structure and, therefore, its self-image and the way in which it is able to conduct operations, will continue to be dominated by large manned platforms.

The RAAF and the RAN in particular are presently engaged in major re-equipment programs. In strictly institutional terms the Air Force is the more fortunate of the two services because its program is nearly completed and cannot easily be undone. The arrival in recent years of C-17s, Super Hornets, E-7s, C-27s, P-8s and KC-30s, soon to be followed by Growlers and F-35s, has given the RAAF its most potent combination of platforms since the end of World War II.

Concurrently, the Navy has commissioned the largest vessels it has operated since that war in the form of its two LHDs-come-amphibious assault ships, which are being joined by three air warfare destroyers. There is also an intention to acquire twelve submarines at a cost of around $50 billion over the next thirty years.

In what is an era of dramatic global technological and social change described as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it is the broader implications of the words “platformitis” and “thirty years” that’s the worry.

First, however, let’s deal with the present.

By any measure, we live in interesting times. Geopolitics, the balance of power, alliances, treaties, and long-standing props of the international order are the most unsettled they’ve been for decades. We can hope that things will improve but, as the Athenian general and historian Thucydides noted more than 2000 years ago, hope can be an expensive commodity. We need to be able to protect ourselves, and in today’s uncertain world Australians should be grateful that they have a powerful, first-class defence force based on high-quality people and platforms.

The question is, though: how much longer will the model that has produced this outcome remain valid?

The preceding three industrial revolutions were driven by technological developments in which new machines changed the way we worked and how we lived. Extreme though those changes were, they will be far exceeded in scale and effect by the Fourth Industrial Revolution which, in the words of the World Economic Forum, is being driven by a “fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres”.

Graphic from the World Economic Forum

This time, change will be neither incremental nor linear, and it will be not merely transformative, but socially destructive. The Fourth Industrial Revolution will change everything, and it will do so in a compressed timeframe.

The various technical components of this new model are well-understood: computers, the Internet, robotics, artificial intelligence, 3-D printers, drones, and so on. What is not well-understood is how we can make those components best work together, for our benefit; and what the probable effects will be on the social, political and economic certitudes that have underpinned Western society for the past seventy years.

Authoritative sources have suggested that, among other things, the irresistible rise of robotics and artificial intelligence will hollow-out today’s workforces by anywhere from 40 to 80 per cent. The implications of that are, of course, stunning.

The military will not be immune from any of this. As it happens, Western defence forces have been leaders in developing technologies such as UAVs, UROVs, bomb disposal robots, self-driving vehicles, stand-off weapons, voice command devices, and so on. The ADF, for instance, has any number of research centres and test and evaluation units conducting valuable work on advanced technologies. But the issue is far bigger than that.

At this stage it is necessary to explain the connection between the Fourth Industrial Revolution and so-called “manifold” or “hybrid” warfare.

Traditional warfare has been characterised by the use of armies, navies and air forces; direct clashes between those forces; and winning by defeating the enemy on the battlefield. Manifold warfare, however, is challenging that model through the increasing use of non-military and covert means; the open targeting of civilians and their infrastructure; remote strikes using precision weapons; the use of robotic systems; cyber attacks; and winning indirectly by disrupting an enemy’s political, economic and information support systems. The nature of the current fighting in Syria, Iran-Iraq, and the Crimea is cited as evidence of this model.

It is, if you will, a model for a “post-platformitis” world.

As noted above, numerous official and industry groups in Australia are already working on different aspects of the challenge this presents. But an ad hoc approach does not come close to addressing the magnitude of the task. Who, for example, is seriously studying the acute implications for the ADF’s organisational arrangements, or culture, or workforce, or strategy, or concepts of operations?

Given Edward Luttwak’s conclusion regarding the socialisation of Western military forces, it’s unlikely a satisfactory response will come from within the ADF.

If Australia is going to confront the profound national defence implications of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the government needs to establish an independent, authoritative, properly-resourced Office for Robotics to systematically examine every aspect of this phenomenon – technological, institutional, political, economic, social, and military-strategic. Maintaining the status quo cannot be an option.

Dr Alan Stephens is a Fellow of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation


bottom of page