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  • The Role of Maritime Autonomous Systems - Dr Robbin Laird

    Dr Robbin Laird, The Role of Maritime Autonomous Systems: Mission Thread Capabilities to Meet the Needs of Modern Warfare, 11 May 2023 Link to article ( If you are looking at the potential role of maritime autonomous systems from the standpoint of traditional acquisition approaches, the legacy concept of platforms, and are not focused on the priority for software transient advantage in modern warfighting, then you will totally miss what the coming of maritime autonomous systems is all about. During my March-April 2023 visit to Australia, I had a chance to meet again with Commodore Darron Kavanagh, Director General Warfare Innovation, Royal Australian Navy Headquarters, to discuss maritime autonomous systems and their role going forward. As a nation facing major maritime challenges, there is probably no nation on earth that needs to get this right more than Australia. Threats tend to focus the mind and the efforts. Maritime autonomous systems don’t fit into the classic platform development mode or the sharp distinction between how particular platforms operate or perform and the various payloads they can carry. They are defined by the controlling software and the payloads they can deliver individually or as a wolfpack with the role of platforms subordinated to the effects they can deliver through their payloads. The software enables the payloads to be leveraged either individually, though more likely in combination as a wolfpack or a contributor to a combat cluster. We started our discussion by focusing on mission threads as a way to understand the role and contribution of maritime autonomous systems. What missions does a combat commander need to accomplish? And how can maritime autonomous systems contribute to a mission thread for that combat commander, within the context of combat clusters? As CDRE Kavanagh underscored: “One of the issues about how we’ve been looking at these systems is that we think in terms of using traditional approaches of capability realization with them. We are not creating a defense capability from scratch. These things exist, already, to a degree out in the commercial world, regardless of what defense does. AI built into robotic and autonomous systems are in the real world regardless of what the defence entities think or do. “And we have shown through various autonomous warrior exercises, that we can already make important contributions to mission threads which combat commanders need to build out now and even more so going forward.” And that is really the next point. The use of maritime autonomous systems is driven by evolving concepts of operations and the mission threads within those evolving CONOPS rather than by a platform-centric traditional model of acquisition. CDRE Kavanagh pointed out that traditional acquisition is primarily focused on platform replacement, and has difficulty in supporting evolving concepts of operations. This is how he put it: “We’re good at replacing platforms. That doesn’t actually require a detailed CONOPS when we are just replacing something. But we now need to examine on a regular basis what other options do we have? How could we do a mission in a different way which would require a different profile completely?” Put another way, combatant commanders can conduct mission rehearsals with their forces and can identify gaps to be closed. But the traditional acquisition approach is not optimized for closing such gaps at speed through the use of disruptive technologies. The deployment and development of autonomous systems are part of the response to the question of how gaps can be closed or narrowed rapidly and without expensive solution sets. In an interview I did earlier this year with a senior Naval commander, he identified the “gaps” problem. “Rehearsal of operations sheds light on our gaps. if you are rehearsing, you are writing mission orders down to the trigger puller, and the trigger puller will get these orders and go, I don’t know what you want me to do. Where do you want me to be? Who am I supposed to check in with? What do you want me to kill when I get there? What are my left and right limits? Do I have target engagement authority? “This then allows a better process of writing effective mission orders. so that we’re actually telling the joint force what we want them to do and who’s got the lead at a specific operational point. By such an approach, we are learning. We’re driving requirements from the people who are actually out there trying to execute the mission, as opposed to the war gamers who were sitting on the staff trying to figure out what the trigger pullers should do.” But how to close the gaps? As CDRE Kavanagh argued: “We need to deliver lethality at the speed of relevance. But if I go after the conventional solution, and I’m just replacing something, that’s actually not a good use of my very finite resources. We need to be answering the operational commanders request to fill a gap in capability, even if it is a 30% solution compared to no solution on offer from the traditional acquisition process.” These are not technologies looked at in terms of a traditional acquisition process which requires them to go through a long period of development to form a platform which can procured with a long-life use expectancy. CDRE Kavanagh simply pointed out that maritime autonomous systems are NOT technologies to be understood in this manner. “We build our platforms in a classical waterfall approach where you design, develop and build a platform over twenty years to make them excellent. But their ability to adapt quickly is very limited. This is where software intensive systems such as maritime autonomous systems are a useful complement to the conventional platforms. Maritime autonomous systems are built around software first approaches and we are able to do rapid readjustments of the code in a combat situation.” And the legacy acquisition approach is not well aligned with the evolution of warfare. Not only is the focus changing to what distributed combat clusters can combine to do in terms of combat effects but the payload impacts at a point of relevance is also becoming of increased salience to warfighting approaches. What is emerging clearly is a need to adapt more rapidly than what traditional platforms and their upgrade processes can do. Gaps will emerge and need to be closed not just in mission rehearsals but in the combat operations to be anticipated in the current and future combat situations. And to endure in conflict, it will be crucial as well to protect one’s core combat capital capabilities and platforms which calls for increased reliance on capabilities like maritime autonomous systems to take the brunt of attrition in combat situations as capital ships become mother ships rather than simply being the core assets doing the brunt of combat with whatever organic capabilities they have onboard. As CDRE Kavanagh noted: “The nuclear powered submarine is absolutely necessary for what we need to do for our defense in depth, but what we’re focused on with maritime autonomous systems completely complements it, because what I want to do is ensure that the dangerous stuff gets done by the autonomous forces as much as possible, because we can rebuild that capability much more rapidly. We can actually restore it whereas we can’t restore a nuclear powered submarine quickly if lost.” I wrote in a previous piece about the shift from the distributed force being shaped in the Pacific to an enduring force. The distributed force and its correlated capabilities are a near to mid-term answer to providing for enhanced Pacific defense and deterrence, but longer-term answers are needed for an enduring force. CDRE Kavanagh closed our discussion by emphasizing the crucial need for Australia to have an ability to stay in the fight in case of conflict in the Pacific. He argued that having their own abilities to innovate in autonomous systems areas was part of such a desired capability. “Resilience in a combat situation is an ability to be able to experiment and adjust on the fly. To have an enduring force that can operate until statecraft can shape an end state, the warriors and their support community must adjust the combat force rapidly to the real-world combat conditions. By shaping a deployment and ongoing development process in the maritime autonomous systems area, we are contributing to such a combat capability.“ Featured Photo: Director General Warfare Innovation, Royal Australian Navy, Commodore Darron Kavanagh inspects the ‘Dive-LD’ autonomous underwater vehicle. Credit: Australian Department of Defence

  • Rethinking Sustainable Defence Forces: A Discussion with Dr. Alan Dupont - Dr Robbin Laird

    Dr Robbin Laird, Rethinking Sustainable Defence Forces: A Discussion with Dr. Alan Dupont, 9 May 2023 Link to article ( In an earlier discussion with David Beaumont, I focused on the challenge facing the ADF of managing what I called the strategic triangle for force enablement. That triangle is conceptualized in the featured graphic for this article. At the core of the triangle is the challenge of sustainability, the provision of supplies, magazine depth and what can produced by the allied arsenal of democracy. At the 28 March 2023 Williams Foundation Seminar, Dr. Dupont looked at the sustainability challenge as understood in terms of the capabilities of the defence industrial base. He provided an assessment of the significant limitations facing the Western industrial base to support sustainable defense forces which could endure through a significant period of conflict. As Dupont characterized the very significant challenge facing the liberal democracies: “The country or alliance that can deliver the biggest punch and outlast adversaries will win. Right now, that is not us. The arsenal of democracy has been replaced by the arsenal of autocracy. The Ukraine conflict has exposed Australia’s and the West’s thin, under-resourced defence industrial base. If we don’t fix the problem – and quickly – we won’t prevail in a conflict with a better equipped adversary.” This is a key challenge as the West simply has hollowed out basic consumable production for just-in time wars supported by just-in time supply chains. But neither the industrial base nor the supply chains are up to prolonged conflict of any sort. If Australia and the West want to deter the post-Cold war legacy approach to defense industry and supply chains will simply not be adequate. A major re-think and re-structuring is in order. I had a chance after the seminar to discuss with him on 3 April 2023 on how to do so. One could consider this a discussion of the defense industrial base, but we both think this is too limiting as it really is about shaping the entire eco-system for sustainable defense forces, which includes specific defense companies, new acquisition approaches, companies that support the core capabilities which defense taps into but are not specifically defense companies per se, and tapping into new logistical and support approaches to support distributed force. As Dupont concluded our conversation: “I think we should move away from this defense industrial base language which can be very clunky and 20th century. People think in terms of big factories and production and development cycles of 20 years. We need a very different focus.” Dupont started the discussion by laying out his methodology for building what he considers to be an appropriate Australian defense industrial effort. As it stands know, Australia is almost entirely dependent on overseas supplies and when Australia orders what it needs it joins the queue along with other customers, with no certainty be supplied in a timely manner. Added to this the tyranny of distance facing the transportation of military parts to Australia, and you have a perfect storm facing Australian defence in terms of conflict. To deal with this challenge, Australia needs to enhance its sovereign defense production capabilities. But to do so, Dupont suggests the need for a realistic methodology to shape the way ahead. What does Australia need in terms of defense capabilities over the next two decades? How much of what it needs could realistically be produced in Australia? What can it do with co-development or co-production with key allies? And what will it simply have to procure from allied countries and producers? In those areas where it feasible to build sovereign capabilities, a new development approach is needed. Many of the dynamic new capabilities being used by defense forces come from smaller more innovative firms. Australia has such firms but there is no Australian government policy to support them or to ensure that they have the capital to grow. There is a need for an Australian industrial policy in this area. In areas where Australia could produce for its own needs, the government should commit to a South Korean, Israeli, or Swedish path of growing for exports. He pointed out that South Korea now exports 17 billons of dollars of exports which provides a key pillar for its own defence. In addition, to discussing his methodology for the development of Australian sovereign defense industrial capabilities, we discussed the strategic direction of defense and how best to support it. Defence forces in the Pacific for the liberal democracies are focusing on force distribution for survivability. There are new technologies to support force distribution such as synthetic fuel production and 3D printing in the field. New approaches to sustaining distributed forces through a relevant development and production support are crucial to provide enhanced capabilities for distributed forces. New platform/payload combinations are being introduced through such sectors as aerial and maritime autonomous systems. How will Australia support this effort? How will it do so in a way that allows for exportability? How will it work with core allies to enhance the rapidity of change in this area? Cost effective and expendable platforms carrying a variety of payloads are a key element of the new defense equipment ecosystem. How will this ecosystem be supported and thrive? Most likely not with old acquisition approaches and older concepts of a “defense industrial base.” In short, a reworking of the Australian approach to supplying its forces is required. But it should be done a realistic manner but with a focus on the force structure changes taking place and the need to help sustain a distributed defense force both now and in the future.

  • Conference Final Report: Sharpening the Edge of Australia’s National Deterrence Capability

    Final Report: Sharpening the Edge of Australia’s National Deterrence Capability National Gallery of Australia 30 March 2023 Final Report Dr Robbin Laird More articles from Dr Laird are posted in Event Proceedings Synopsis and Program

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  • Programs | Williams Foundation

    PROGRAMS We offer an array of activities designed to advance the field of future force design. Beyond our events program, we publish a range of insights and research. We also engage in various support activities to bolster the intellectual base that underpins future force concepts. Air Power Scholars Scheme Read More Grants Scheme Read More

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    Membership Gain members-only access and pricing to our programs & events to maximise your value. Membership of Williams Foundation is tremendous value. It allows me to stay in touch with the latest thoughts on air power and a network of fascinating people from the Services, government, industry and academia. I highly recommend membership for anyone interested in air power, defence and national security. - C. Huet Individual Membership $100 per annum (includes GST) Join Now Package includes: Attendance at up to 4 x Lunches (non transferrable) Attendance at up to 2 x Conferences (non transferrable) Engagement - A vote at our AGM, notices of upcoming events and updates through member newsletters ​ Please note - Places are limited and offered on a first-in basis until the event is at capacity. Tickets are not transferrable. Annual Corporate Membership - Premium $8,000 per annum (plus GST) Join Now Package includes: Complimentary attendance for up to 5 individuals at 4 x member lunches Complimentary attendance at up to 5 individuals at 2 x conferences Complimentary attendance for 1 x at the annual sponsor and supporters dinner Company logo on the Williams website for one year 6 nominated individual members receive a vote at our AGM, notices of upcoming events and updates through member newsletters A nominated bundle coordinator to manage the membership and attendance Places at events are transferable within the organisation ​ Please note - Annual corporate memberships have first priority however places are limited and offered on a first -in basis until the event is at capacity. Annual Corporate Membership - SMEs $3,000 per annum (plus GST) Join Now Package includes: Attendance up to for 5 individuals at 4 x Lunches Attendance up to for 5 individuals at 2 x Conferences Each nominated individual member receives a vote at our AGM, notices of upcoming events and updates through member newsletters Bundled membership for 6 individuals A nominated bundle coordinator to manage the membership and attendance Company logo on the Williams website for one year Discounted sponsorship of a nominated lunch ​ Please note - Places at lunches and conferences are not reserved automatically however notice is provided and places can be reserved in advance. Places are limited and offered on a first-in basis until the event is at capacity. Member Benefits In-Detail ​ Errol McCormack Member Lunches The Williams Foundation hosts 4 member lunches annually in Canberra. Keynote speakers include senior military, public officials and industry presenting on a range of current, operational and strategic topics Frequency: ​ Attendees: ​ Cost to members: ​ Venue: ​ Registration Details: Quarterly Members and invited VIP guests Complimentary Boathouse By the Lake, Canberra Essential - places are limited and registrations are on a first in basis with a maximum of 5 places per organisation. Conferences The Williams Foundation hosts 2 x one-day conferences per year. Since 2013 the Sir Richard Williams Foundation seminars have focused on building an integrated fifth generation force. Recent seminars have evolved from the acquisition of new platforms to the process of shaping and better understanding the environment in which that integrated force will prepare and operate. Highlighted have been the challenges of making the strategic shift from counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan to higher tempo and higher intensity Joint operations involving peer competitors. ​ Within this context, the next seminars will further develop the ideas associated with an increasingly sophisticated approach to Joint warfighting and power projection as we face increasing pressure to maintain influence and a capability edge in the region. The Williams Foundation will continue to look at the evolution of the Australian Defence Force from the perspective of the sovereign lens and setting the conditions for future success. Frequency: ​ Attendees: ​ Cost to members: ​ Venue: ​ Registration Details: Biannually Defence personnel, members, sponsors & invited VIP guests Complimentary for members and Defence personnel National Gallery of Australia Essential - places are limited and registrations are on a first in basis Annual Sponsors and Supporters Dinner Held annually the Sponsors and Supporters VIP Dinner is a small dinner with senior leaders. Invitations are sent to senior military and Defence leaders, industry and politicians. Frequency: ​ Attendees: ​ ​ Cost to members: ​ Venue: ​ ​ Annually 1 x place each for Corporate Partners, Sponsors and Premium Annual Corporate Members. ​ Invited VIP guests include senior military and Defence personnel and politicians Complimentary Varies

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    PEOPLE The Williams Foundation's mission is only furthered due to the dedication of its people. The Foundation has a core intellectual base of experienced board members, writers, non-resident fellows and operations staff. It also draws on external partners and knowledge networks and works with leading international practitioners to participate in the Foundation’s activities. Board Read More Fellows Read More Operations Team Read More

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