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JUST IN: AUKUS Allies Kick Off Robotic Development Programs
Australia — as a low-population country with large swaths of territory to defend — is a natural proving ground for unmanned systems being developed under the tri-nation AUKUS agreement, military officials from the nation said Feb. 1.
Under the first pillar of AUKUS — which stands for Australia, United Kingdom and the United States — Australia will host and eventually procure nuclear-powered submarines. Pillar II includes advancing a host of emerging technologies, including robotic weapon systems.
Ten months after the three nations revealed details on the agreement, cooperative programs focusing on unmanned systems are already in the works, Emily Hilder, interim head of the Advanced Strategic Capabilities Accelerator at the Australian Department of Defence said during a panel discussion organized by the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.
“It's fabulous seeing the momentum in the U.S. system … I think we're starting to see some of that momentum here in Australia and also in the United Kingdom,” she said.
Aside from robotic systems, the three nations are working on a “challenge statement on electronic warfare” where the three militaries’ innovation units can work together on a problem set that they all see as a priority, she said. Those tech incubators include the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit, Australia’s Advanced Strategic Capabilities Accelerator and the Defence and Security Accelerator in the United Kingdom.
Meanwhile, Australia’s small population of about 27 million — along with the large territories it must defend in land, sea and air — gives its military strong motivation to develop robotic systems, said Brig. James Davis, the Australian army’s director general of future land warfare.
“You're drawn to the conclusions that the only way to try … to bridge the gap in the vast geography and the small populations is through the increased use of autonomous systems,” he said.
As far as the air domain, Air Commodore Ross Bender, director general air combat capability at the Royal Australian Air Force, said “You can only have a certain number of aircraft. You only go a certain distance in a certain time.” Autonomous systems give the service greater reach and persistence, he added.
Australia embarked on developing the Boeing-built Ghost Bat uncrewed combat aircraft before the AUKUS agreement came to light. It is also receiving a fleet of four U.S.-manufactured Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton long-endurance surveillance unmanned aircraft, which were also in the works before the agreement.
Two Royal Australian Navy programs developed in country include the Ghost Shark unmanned underwater systems developed by Anduril Australia and the BlueBottle uncrewed surface vessel developed by Ocius Technology Ltd.
Capt. Adam Allica, director of general warfare innovation at the Royal Australian Navy, said the service has enormous parts of the ocean to the north to protect and it needs to arrive at its destinations a long way from its shores ready to deliver effects. “It's not actually about replacing our defense force with improved systems. It's really about enhancing the force … with asymmetric effects to make our existing capabilities more effective.”
“There's a lot of discussion going on in the background under AUKUS that covers Pillar II as to how might we co-develop sensors and payloads for platforms like” BlueBottle and Ghost Shark, Allica said.
“The sheer mass of the U.S. system can help accelerate some of those very complex pieces,” such as integrating different platforms, he added.
While larger platforms such as Ghost Bat and Ghost Shark are being developed, the trend in autonomous systems is toward swarms of inexpensive drones that can overwhelm opponents such as the Pentagon’s Replicator program. This is a key opportunity for cooperation, the Australian officials said.
Hilder said: “We have an industry based in Australia that's largely small and medium businesses and more on the small side. There's an opportunity for us here to harness that industrial capability.”
Developing swarms will mean scaling up production to where they can be produced at a low cost, she said.
“Rapidly scaling is not about necessarily taking a small business and growing it into a large business. But it could be about how we can work with multiple small players dispersed across the country to be able to deliver that capability. And these smaller uncrewed systems have incredible opportunities in that space,” she said.
Davis said larger platforms need to be in the mix as a means of taking the smaller drones to where they need to be.
Ultimately, there needs to be a mix of large and small, inexpensive and “exquisite,” Bender said. “We need to work out how we are designing that ecosystem and that system of systems so all of those can come together and then when required, have both exquisite and crude platforms in all domains to come together to provide that security for the nation,” he added.
Another advantage is Australia’s size in terms of low population. It makes collaboration easier, Hilder said.
“We're all largely almost in the same building here and could see each other regularly and we're connected. This is this is a real strength in the Australian system, not just the connectivity within between our services but also with the wider defense organization,” she added.
Davis said he was recently in Washington, D.C., holding talks about AUKUS robotic development programs, sharing notes with his U.S. counterparts on what Australia is trying to achieve with its unmanned systems.
Going forward, cooperative efforts won’t be unlike regular military technology development programs. “We just start out with a different set of capabilities,” he said.
In the air domain, the RAAF signed in March 2023 an agreement to cooperate with the U.S. Air Force on collaborative combat aircraft, the concept where robotic wingmen fight alongside piloted aircraft, Bender said.
“We are all learning at the moment, and no one has the answer. We are all working collaborating. And it's really learning by doing,” he added.