Blog 07: RAS, the budget, and the election
Defence matters have been surprisingly and unusually prevalent during the Australian federal election campaign these past few weeks. Both major parties have seized on the announcement of a military cooperation agreement between China and the Solomon Islands as an opportunity to turn to their electoral advantage. Amidst this has been a number of defence spending announcements, following some significant budget announcements prior to the start of the campaign. It seems a good time, then, to take stock of what has been happening with regards to robotics and autonomous systems (RAS) during and since the budget, and the key potential implications of the election outcome.
The big headline of the budget in defence terms was the announcement of REDSPICE (resilience, effects, defence, space, intelligence, cyber, enablers), the single most significant investment in the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD). Autonomous systems feature only as one of the challenges that REDSPICE is responding to, with the funding itself focused more on cyber matters. Indeed, the allocation of funds to REDSPICE was, in part, a result of the cancellation of the AIR 7003 Phase 1 project to deliver the MQ-9B SkyGuardian from General Atomics, an armed medium altitude long endurance remotely piloted aircraft system – a controversial decision critiqued by analysts and defence industry. At the same time, exploration of unmanned aerial capabilities for the civil maritime environment was also paused in preference for continuing manned flights. Home Affairs Secretary Pezzullo stated ‘that the state of unmanned aerial capability globally and in use by defence was not going to meet our requirements … in a civil maritime environment’.
While some RAS projects seem to be struggling, others are doing better. For instance, a suite of funding announcements from the Minister for Defence Industry on the 6th of April included several contracts focusing on the development of uncrewed systems. The golden child of Australia in autonomous systems, however, is the Ghost Bat, formerly known as the Loyal Wingman program. It is an unmanned aircraft, designed to fly alongside manned and unmanned aircraft. The Ghost Bat was recently praised by the US Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, who stated that ‘we’re going to use technologies that are coming out of programs like the Australian Loyal Wingman program and others, and we’re going to integrate those into our operational capability’.
Given this sea of hits and misses, what differences might we expect the election to bring?
The major parties are in broad agreement about much of defence policy, including a commitment to higher defence spending and a more or less shared perspective on Australia’s deteriorating security environment. Both are committed to the US alliance and to the AUKUS partnership. The usual differences remains, for instance with Labor also more interesting in boosting diplomatic capacity.
Both come to autonomous systems from the same point of view of seeking military advantage in an environment of strategic instability, managing alliance relations, and trying to plug capability gaps in the near term.
In terms of differences, Labor has stated they would consider reinstating the funding for the SkyGuardian program to acquire up 12 armed drones. Shadow Defence Minister Brendan O’Connor said ‘we’d be examining that as a matter of urgency if elected’, and argued uncrewed armed drones were an area where Australia is ‘deficient’.
Labor has also announced they will create the Advanced Strategic Research Agency (ASRA), the Australian answer to DARPA. It will ‘fund pivotal research in breakthrough technologies for national security’, with an aim to ‘boost Australia’s involvement in technology sharing and research and development, through the new AUKUS partnership’. This could provide a vehicle for boosting research and development of RAS, but it will depend on priorities.
These policies compare with the Coalition’s focus on cyber under the auspices of the ASD, their existing Action Plan for Critical Technologies, and continuing to develop the AUKUS partnership.
Aside from these details, there isn’t a huge amount of difference evident between the two parties at this stage. Both are, in principal, committed to expanding defence spending and focusing on new and emerging technologies, particularly in the context of the AUKUS partnership. The biggest difference in how autonomous systems develop, I believe, will lie much more in the practicalities of how these shared principles will be enacted. In particular, research and development and higher education policies will be influential, as they will shape the research that underpins the relevant technologies. Another significant factor is external changes – whether this be changes to the security environment that encourage higher defence spending or different acquisition priorities, or situations such as the use of armed drones in Ukraine prompting more attention on RAS.
In short, the election does little more than emphasise how little daylight there is between the two major parties on defence policy. It demonstrates we will see a doubling down on AUKUS, the US alliance, and a continuing focus on new and emerging technologies with national security implications. The result of the election may make a difference in the machinations of how such things are accomplished, but little difference to what is trying to be accomplished.