The Autonomy Advantage

By WGCDR Keirin Joyce

In April this year, The Sir Richard Williams Foundation’s return-from-COVID seminar Next Generation Autonomous Systems (NGAS) offered a stirling line-up of thought leaders from across the air power community, charged with exploring the force multiplying capability and increasingly complex requirements associated with uncrewed systems. I had the honour of being its Master of Ceremony. It was a good event and clearly showed that Australia continues to ‘punch above its weight‘ in getting after autonomy, but I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Are we missing an Air Power opportunity?”

What we know

The NGAS Seminar clearly showed that we know what we could be doing: We have the historical context; We have the legal context; And we have a (loose) Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) concept that could guide us forward to 2040. We are even thinking about how to Counter and Counter-Counter uncrewed tech. To get after the research aspects, the ADF has established the Trusted Autonomous Systems Defence Cooperative Research Centre (TASDCRC) to “develop the capacity of Australia’s defence industry to acquire, deploy and sustain the most advanced autonomous and robotic technology”. The knowledge framework is full spectrum, and equipped with the Subject Matter Expertise (SME) to be successful, but knowledge alone isn’t enough.

What we are doing?

Project Land 129-3 is scoped to integrate its Tactical Uncrewed Aerial System (TUAS) Ground Control Station into a Bushmaster Protected Mobility Vehicle in order to protect its crews. It will also enable significant C4ISREW capability as the RQ-7B Shadow 200 TUAS is replaced. The project has down-selected two contenders proposing 80%+ Australian Industry Content (AIC). They have also both proposed to integrate the Australian designed Ascent Vision Technologies Australia CM-234 Spitfire optical turret which was prototyped out of a $5.2m Defence Innovation Hub prototyping grant.

Project Sea 129-5 has been directed to pursue a high level of AIC, and has recently announced its five down-selected competitors. It’ll be another year or so before we understand just how much Aussie content is involved, but the Chief of Navy has assured that it will be high.

Project Land 129-4B has teamed with the Defence Innovation Hub to support 10 contracts and invest more than $10million in order to generate a globally leading Australian prototype technology to compete to replace the RQ-12A Wasp AE Small UAS. Sypaq Systems have developed the Corvo-X and Ascent Vision Technologies Australia have developed the CM-62 Micro-Gimbal.

These projects illustrate that the Australian Army and Navy along with the UAS technology industry is capable of leading the world. The NGAS Seminar was an excellent opportunity for both the Chief of Army and Chief of Navy to signal that they intend on championing ADF efforts in autonomy. These examples of the ADF “doing” are a firm step forward; however, they are currently all funded project-by-project in piecemeal undertakings. Project-by-project is inefficient and slow.

The first efficiency dividend has been claimed by CASG through the Australian Association for Unmanned Systems (AAUS) RPAS at the Australian Skies Conference in March. Here it was briefed that CASG centralised Project and Sustainment Teams for the management of tactical capabilities which were being resourced by separate Service project contributions.

Is there a case for a joint multi-domain program here? CASG has signaled such.

The situation within Air Force for current UAS acquisitions is not as positive.

Project Air 7000-1B is acquiring the MQ-4C Triton via a collaborative program with the United States Navy (USN). Australian requirements are baked in due to the long run partnership (first announced in 1999), but there is very little Australian industry content and little room for Australian development.

Project Air 7003 is acquiring the MQ-9B SkyGuardian via Foreign Military Sales through the United States Air Force (USAF). Teamed with the RAF Protector Program, this RPAS will be the world’s first certified (and armed) system to enter service, blazing a path for significantly greater utility of uncrewed aerial systems integrated into all classes of airspace. But, again, there is very little room for Australian industry content or Australian development.

What all of the ADF UAS currently in acquisition have in common is that they are remotely piloted; there is no autonomy built in, there are no manpower efficiencies and they do not contribute to generating mass. They do however help ‘Deter’ by detection: no one likes being watched. They will also assist us ‘Respond’ quicker by adding significant ISR into the operating picture. From an Air Power roles perspective, these investments are cornered into ISR (with a sliver of Strike). This is where ADF should have been a decade ago – these systems only put us on the starting blocks of the autonomous aerial systems race.

What we are building

Launching off the blocks is the Boeing Air Teaming System (ATS) Loyal Wingman; a prototype that could contribute to three Air Power roles (Control of the Air, ISR and Strike). Boeing’s Andrew Glynn briefed the NGAS Seminar that the ATS is 70%+ Australian content, with the Chief of Air Force firmly underwriting the importance of the ATS as an experimentation platform that will shape the future of Air Force’s aircraft fleet. The first step is as a partner in Control of the Air; then in ISR, then in Strike; with each step taking the place of a crewed aircraft. Design (and build) of the ATS in Australia is the most positive step taken so far, but it is a long way from reaping an offset dividend down the track.

What we are missing

Quite famously, the role of Strike and the warfighting function of Force Application were fundamentally changed by the First and Second Offset strategies (Nuclear weapons and Precision Guided Munitions). At the beginning and end of the Cold War, western air power practitioners changed the way air power was defined – reconceiving what aircraft looked like and how they performed, along with rewriting air power doctrine and tactics. Autonomy and AI enable the teaming of human and machine to improve everything from decision-making and accuracy to efficiency and automation. Autonomy and AI have been heralded as the 3rd Offset strategy/technology, however, I’m not sure we’re embracing it to generate the offset advantage that we should be seeking: this offset is yet to change how we do air power, or even light a fire under it. The ATS taking the place of crewed aircraft is not enough to generate an offset advantage on its own; we’re missing the offset opportunity.

Iterating, not evolving, the Air Power missions

Let’s look at the Air Power roles one at a time:

Control of the air – The ATS will assist in generating Combat Air Patrol mass by allocating flights of ATS to crewed systems such as JSF, Super Hornet and Wedgetail.

Strike – The ATS may assist in autonomous strike in the future.

Air Mobility – There is currently no autonomy augmentation of air mobility being scoped. The USN has done some work with uncrewed air to air refuelling (AAR) in the MQ-25 Stingray, which we could follow, but this is simply an uncrewed iteration of AAR capability.

ISR – The MQ-4C Triton and MQ-9B SkyGuardian RPAS are being acquired, and will generate additional hours and extended range in support of maritime patrol and land force support, but this is an iteration only in capacity: they are crewed systems with no autonomous functions. Not until project Air 7555 will Air Force get another project-led opportunity to evolve. In the meantime, the ATS may assist in autonomous ISR collection in the future.

In sum, the ADF is looking to take humans out of the cockpit offering a safety and risk enhancement – an iteration – but this is a piecemeal approach to evolving an air power advantage. It is no more than making the Second Offset uncrewed: doing air power better. If we are to truly evolve, or revolve, or even game-change our air power advantage, to seek the Third Offset advantage through RAS/AI that has been proposed, we should not be looking to make slices of air power uncrewed. We should be looking to air power as a whole to be renewed. We should do better air power.

How do we do that?

Australia has to decide if it wants to do this, not just Defence. The successful first and second offset strategies required whole of government national mobilisation toward the proposed end state. The NGAS Seminar had Defence and Defence Industry, but was missing Government representation from outside Defence. Government’s weigh in so far on RAS/AI is limited to the 2020 Force Structure Plan (FSP20) which includes a number of uncrewed capability projects across the services: Air Force leading, followed by Army and then Navy; around $30 billion in total. This investment remains in iterative stovepiped projects that do not give the Services direction or freedom to explore an autonomy evolution/revolution: without intervention, we might realise the autonomy revolution just in time for #AirForce2121.

We need to lean in as a nation. Australia needs a strategy or roadmap that draws together the 2020 Defence Strategic Update (DSU20), the ADFRAS2040 Concept and the projects that have been approved in FSP20. It must wrap it all up with a whole of government approach to innovation and industry that will mobilise Australia to achieve it. If we don’t get after the offset opportunity properly, Australia will not yield the offset dividend we need to fight and win the contest that the DSU describes.

Should we do it? The scaling advantages of autonomous systems are not to be underestimated. Uncrewed systems are orders of magnitude cheaper than the JSF, Submarines, Attack Helicopters and Frigates. TASDCRC’s Jason Scholz proposed at the NGAS Seminar that we remove one submarine from the scope of SEA1000 and sink that into autonomy development: the room lifted with an air of positivity, that someone had proposed a bold move like this: not necessarily a submarine, but a (big) slice of IIP funding. Offset advantage requires boldness. Well done Jason.

The DSU20 reset Australia’s strategic position. The ADF is to now Shape, Deter and Respond. The force-in-being and objective force are built and resourced under FSP20 to shape and deter in the twenty-teens. Many argue that the ADF, even with FSP20 delivered, is short in sovereign response options/ability. An autonomy evolution or revolution would change that. A re-alignment and investment in autonomous systems could significantly add to deterrence and response, much more cheaply and quickly than our usual approach to buying limited quantities of the usual platforms. What does that revolution look like? A good topic for an #AirForce2121 paper or three…

Wing Commander Keirin Joyce, CSC is an Air Force officer who has been supporting UAS technology development within the ADF for the last 15 years. Keirin sends his thanks to article collaborators Jo Brick and Chris McInnes. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not represent the views of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.

This was published by Central Blue, July 2021.