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The Australian Army, Navy and Air Force Shape a Way Ahead for the Inclusion of Autonomous Systems

Dr Robbin Laird, The Australian Army, Navy and Air Force Shape a Way Ahead for the Inclusion of Autonomous Systems, 5 June 2021

WGCDR Keirin Joyce noted: “All of the services see robotic autonomous systems as a significant part of the road ahead. It’s just that the services are getting after them differently.” At the Williams Foundation seminar held on April 8, 2021, each of the service chiefs provided their perspective on the way ahead for their service with regard to such systems.

Even though the strategic way ahead is shaping a force able to work across service platforms to deliver the desired combat or crisis management effects, each domain has a physical quality to it different from the other domains. And autonomous platforms like any platforms have to respect the domain within which they operate. And so doing, they might well be able to contribute to platforms operating in other domains, but they must first of all work effectively within a ground, air or naval combat force.

The Australian Army and RAS

With regard to the Army, the ability to experiment is significantly greater than with the other two services. The cost to do so and the fratricide which such systems can introduce into the operational force is much less to do so. There is little doubt that introducing such systems into near term operations, such as logistical support for HADR operations make a great deal of sense and can provide the force with near term learning from which to generate a broader capability to use such systems.

In an August 9, 2020 video, the Army put its case succinctly in highlighting an optionally crewed autonomous casualty evacuation vehicle (OCCV):

“The Australian Army will increase its experimentation, prototyping and exploration of autonomous vehicles and emerging technologies through Defence industry contracts valued at $12 million, allowing Army to learn, prototype and develop future concepts. Technology such as Robotics, Autonomous Systems, and Artificial Intelligence act as a force multiplier, and the mastery of the technology will make us more effective on the future battlefield and help to keep our personnel safe.”

Optionally Crewed Combat Vehicles Link to Department of Defence You Tube video

Lieutenant General Rick Burr, Chief of the Australian Army, underscored the work Army is doing to introduce autonomous systems and to integrate them into the force. The Army’s overall approach is described as accelerated warfare within which autonomous systems are developed and assessed as contributors to enhanced capabilities, like all platforms and systems are as well.

They are part of being what he calls having a force which is “future ready.” The inclusion of intelligence learning machines will contribute to what the Chief refers to as his approach to shaping the Army as a “force in motion.” He argued that Robotic Autonomous Systems (RAS) can maximize solider performance, improve decision-making, generate mass and scalable effects, protect the force and enhance efficiency.

Today, Army is the largest user of uncrewed air systems. The Chief argued that uncrewed ground systems in the future will proliferate in a similar way. “Greater use of autonomous systems will be a feature of future ground forces.”

An important point which he highlighted was that in making capability investment decisions are being done with regard to their ability to incorporate or work with RAS. For example, with regard to the future infantry fighting vehicle, the Army is focused on that vehicle able to operate with RAS, including controlling several smaller autonomous vehicles as well. “The vehicle will have the power and computing potential to operate numerous, smaller uncrewed and autonomous systems.”

In the Army Chief’s approach, autonomous systems are part of the future force, but part of force being driven by a number of technological developments. “Greater platform collaboration, new power sources, new forms of active and passive protection, more lethal strike weapons, and directed energy weapons, are examples of this way ahead.”

He underscored that in the future “Army’s teams will be more connected, protected and lethal so they can achieve their missions against current and emerging threats at the lowest possible risk to Australian soldiers.”

He argued that the force as it modernizes is examining throughout this effort new opportunities for the use of RAS in the force. For example, “our aviation crews are examining the opportunities for manned-unmanned teaming, notably as we look forward to the delivery of the new attack helicopter.”

The Army chief highlighted the nature of the globally competitive environment where maintaining an edge is both more necessary and more difficult. He argued that such a competitive edge could accrue to the ADF to the extent to which the force can be better integrated, and coordinated than its adversaries. This requires superior training and decision-making capabilities. This is why, he argued, why people is at the “center of our efforts. It is people that get the technology working effectively in the dangerous and contested environments.”

The Royal Australian Navy and RAS

The Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Noonan, discussed the Navy’s RAS-AI 2040 strategy which he had introduced last year. As he described that strategy: “The way that we’ve sought to visualize this vision is through five very fundamental effects. Force protection, obviously all about keeping our people safe and out of harm’s way so that they can get on and do their job. Force projection is about how we can achieve mass. Force potential using human machine teaming, ultimately to achieve better and more effective decision-making in the war fighting effort. Partnered force concept around how we will operate as an integrated and joint force by design.”

Vice Admiral Noonan then discussed the six principles which underly the RAS-AI Strategy 2040.

“The six fundamental principles were built around a user centered design. The system design is user centered. In terms of decision support, we are looking to have systems that significantly reduce the cognitive load on our commanders and operators alike, allowing for them to achieve greater shared situational awareness to deliver effective, efficient, and ethical decision-making.

“The joint integration piece is critical. I cannot stress that highly enough in terms of we must ensure that these systems are integrated. Not just integrated into the platforms or their parent platforms but integrated into the force.

“And they are capable of being evergreen. This is the new term for spiral development. It’s about ensuring that we have systems that remain contemporary, and I am challenged on a daily basis about capability gaps and about deficiencies in the long lead times that require us in the shipbuilding space. It takes about 10 years to build a submarine, or five years to build a frigate.

“And are we incorporating old technologies? Bottom answer is no, in that we are designing future and evergreen in growth into our platforms. And I think that’s a very important concept that we have not always fully grasped.

“Finally, is the importance of made in Australia. Our systems must be designed for the very unique circumstances that we operate in, particularly in the maritime environment.”

Vice Admiral Noonan then highlighted really the key aspect of using any new sensor networks, whether they be autonomous or not, namely, their integration into a C2 system.

“Operating all these systems would simply be too complex, too time consuming and ultimately unmanageable without a common control framework. Therefore, as part of the way that we seek to get after that, the building blocks of that framework, as we see them in Navy, it needs to be a legal and ethical module that allows us to have embedded and encoded regulatory and legal protocols. Clearly a common control protocol that unifies the means of machine control.

“We need common control bridges that provide an interface between the proprietary control systems and the combat management systems of the platforms from which they’re housed. We need a common control language that can express C2 in a way that both human operators and RAS-AI machines can understand. And ultimately, we need a common spectrum management protocol, levering and integrating programmed projects to harden and ensure the spectrum in which we operate.”

The Royal Australian Air Force and RAS

The RAAF has already acquired two flying platforms which are designed to work together in a manned-unmanned teaming effort, namely, the P-8 and Triton. These platforms for the U.S. Navy working with other platforms, such as the Romeo Helicopter are providing important real world operational lessons with regard to shaping a foundation for the future.

In addition, with the loyal wingman program underway, the RAAF as one of the most advanced air forces in the world, we introduce the loyal wingman into a force already being reworked with the introduction of the F-35. The challenges to introduce Loyal Wingman and then to use it effectively will be an important part of shaping a way ahead for autonomous systems in the airspace.

At the seminar, Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld provided the RAAF perspective on the way ahead in this area of development and operations. At the outset of his remarks, he noted: “Defense can gain significant advantage through leveraging autonomous systems, that’s to make better decisions faster, to more effectively allocate resources, and to discover new ways of delivering military effects. Artificial intelligence and human-machine teaming will play a pivotal role in air and space power into the future.”

The RAAF is working a way ahead with regard to integrate manned new and existing aircraft with remotely piloted and autonomous systems. A key case in point is Loyal Wingman.

According to Hupfeld: “The true value is indeed hidden inside the airframe of Loyal Wingman. And that is the development of the code and the algorithms which form the artificial intelligence behaviors that will optimize its combat capability. The Loyal Wingman project is a pathfinder for the integration of autonomous systems and artificial intelligence to create smart human-machine teams.

“The aim is to provide capability advantage, working alongside existing platforms to complement and extend our air combat platforms and our other systems. And we’re exploring totally new concepts of operations, whereby multiple systems will pair with crude capabilities, such as the F-35, the Growler, the E-7 Wedgetail, with an aim to bolster our relatively small but potent Air Force.

“And it’s clear how this changes things for us. Such an asset will change the way we calculate risk. The Loyal Wingman is the giant uncrewed gorilla in the room, but we’ve got many other programs that don’t immediately catch the eye. And these programs, though less visible, will no less revolutionize the way we do business.”

He underscored that the Plan Jericho program through the Jericho Disruptive Innovation effort is looking at ways of automation and artificial intelligence that can step in to help pull the weight. There are still jobs in Air Force that we have people performing which are predictable, repetitive, and they don’t require creativity.

“But this is not about replacing people with machines. We’ve got a shortage of people and they’re a scarce resource. And our work in this space is really about freeing up those people so that we can employ them in those areas that humans do best.

“In my view, one of the best examples of this theory at work is some work we’re doing, once again, through the Jericho program, on quarriable sensors program. Now, while we would probably work on a catchier name, and hopefully one that’s easier to pronounce, what this project is seeking to achieve has the capacity to force-multiply our intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance capability by a factor of two or three….

“I believe that our sensors are currently employed very inefficiently. So for example, most of what our sensors stream is meaningless noise, and even when we do capture important information, it’s not necessarily available to the people that need it. The quarriable sensor program takes care of all this by using artificial intelligence and machine learning to automatically detect when an event of significance occurs. It will then report that directly to commanders and decision-makers in real time, enabling the customer to determine whether the automated response and the intelligence is valid.”

Air Marshal Hupfeld provided a good summary to the day and to the presentations of the Service Chiefs.

“We’re disappointed in reporting that we see from some of our commentators who still choose to discuss Air Force capabilities in isolation. Qhether or not Super Hornet can breed another capability one on one is really, to me, not a useful conversation. The force of tomorrow will be characterized by those invisible connections across air, land, maritime space and cyber, with masses of data from sensor inputs being fused, using artificial intelligence and machine learning, to rapidly convert data to information, to knowledge, to insight, all at unfathomable speeds.

“The entire Defence Force will be one integrated system of systems. My vision for automation is that the joint force will be AI-enabled using robotics to augment roles, and humans working with machines, so they get the best out of both. The days of boring menial tasks will be gone. Our most scarce resource, our people, will focus on higher value and the creative tasks that we need.

“And with this vision, we’ll march in lockstep with our colleagues in Navy and Army and across Defense to ensure that we deliver an autonomous future, and the responsiveness and precision of air and space power that we need, into our future joint force.”



War, by nature, remains an intense human activity and the use of armed force to compel change remains at its heart. The character of war is changing with the adoption of emerging and disruptive technologies. As these technologies become more available and affordable, the gap between well-equipped militaries and the motivated individual or group with a cause is closing. Therefore, sustaining and maintaining a technological edge over potential adversaries is becoming more challenging. An area where we can maintain an edge is in the large scale integration, synchronisation and coordinated employment of these technologies, coupled with superior training and decision-making.

This can be achieved through robotics and manipulation of data through advanced networks (or system of networks) that can improve the speed and accuracy of information sharing. These networks can connect soldiers to other combatants (both human and machine), the broader Army, the Joint Force and partner nations; improving situational awareness, survivability and lethality. However, adoption of emerging technologies should be considered objectively prior to acquisition to confirm the capability offered by the technology is justified and cost effective. Risk, informed through future casting, modelling, simulation and experimentation, should also be considered to ensure the right technology is adopted at the right time.

In this context RAS can be viewed as the application of software, artificial intelligence and advanced robotics to perform tasks as directed by humans. Simply “autonomy is the ability of a machine to perform a task without human input. Thus, an autonomous system is a machine, whether hardware or software, once activated performs some task or function on its own”. The term autonomy can be a barrier to understanding as it is, generally, specific to a system or sub-system. Therefore, it can be misleading to refer to an autonomous platform if the entire system of systems is not autonomous. It can be helpful to consider the level of human input, how much discretion the machine has with regard to the task and what aspect of the system has been automated.

Within this strategy, RAS will span the full spectrum of human input from remote control through to full autonomy – the level of autonomy required will be determined by the role and also the maturity of the underpinning technologies such as AI.

Therefore RAS is a lens through which to describe a system, hardware and software, which has varying elements of autonomy and/or robotics and commonly both.


The forward to the strategy by Vice Admiral Noonan:

On 1 July 2020, the Prime Minister launched the Defence Strategic Update 2020. This highlighted that we are experiencing the most consequential strategic realignment since the Second World War. Consequently, our Navy must be able to meet the emerging challenges of regional military modernisation, the risk of state-on-state conflict and technological disruption, to maintain our ability to Shape the Maritime Environment, Deter actions against our national interests in the Maritime Domain, and Respond with credible Naval Power to defend our Nation, and our National Interests.

Robotics, Autonomous Systems and Artificial Intelligence (RAS-AI) are transforming every aspect of our lives. As a Fighting and Thinking Navy, we must leverage these advances to also transform, and improve, our ability to Fight and Win at Sea.

I am therefore pleased to release Navy’s RAS-AI Strategy 2040, which nests within Navy’s capstone strategic documents – Plans MERCATOR and PELORUS, and supports the achievement of each of the five Navy Outcomes.

RAS-AI Strategy 2040 sets out the challenges and opportunities that these technologies present and explains to Navy, our Joint Force colleagues, the broader Defence Organisation, our allies and industry the benefits e seek from RAS-AI, and how we aim to realise them. To fulfil our potential we need to engage in constant experimentation, and encourage collaboration and innovation at all levels. This will enable us to leverage RAS-AI to enhance Navy’s capability by strengthening our Force Protection, increasing our Force Projection in the maritime approaches of our near region, improving our Joint Integration through Partnership, maximising our Force Potential, and ensuring Australian Control.

Just as our people and machines must operate in teams to enhance their strengths and overcome weaknesses, we must team with Defence as a whole, industry, academia and our international partners, to achieve the potential of these technologies. My vision is for Navy, industry and academia to build upon our established transformational partnerships, allowing us to address the challenges outlined in this strategy, together.

Make no mistake; the pace of change is increasing and will challenge us all at some point. To meet that challenge, all that

I ask, is that each of us focus on being a little better – every day.

In embracing technology, we must remember that warfare is, and will remain, a fundamentally human activity. Our people will be at the core of our technological advances, and we must design systems with them at the centre. RAS-AI will make our people better warfighte s, and will enable us to achieve expanded reach across the region, however it is our people who remain our competitive edge.

The race in autonomous warfare has already begun.

Doing nothing, or waiting for allies to solve our requirements, is not an option. I commend the RAS-AI Strategy to you all and challenge each of you to think about how you can contribute to it.

The featured photo: Chief of the Australian Army addresses the Williams Foundation Conference on April 8, 2021.


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