August 10, 2018

Defence innovation is critical for the future of the Australia–US alliance

By Daniel Kliman and Brendan Thomas-Noone

The outcome of the recent AUSMIN meeting—the annual gathering of the secretaries of state and defence from the United States and the foreign and defence ministers from Australia—was a signal of the alliance’s increasing focus on the Indo-Pacific region.

The joint statement stemming from the meeting announced the creation of a ‘joint work plan’ that would focus future efforts on the Indo-Pacific, touching on diplomatic, security and geoeconomic activities throughout the region. On the defence collaboration front, a new agreement was signed to jointly develop, research and test new cyber capabilities. Hypersonics were singled out as an area where cooperation between the two countries should be strengthened, particularly on concept development, testing and ‘validation’ of high-speed flight technologies.

This was a welcome shift in direction. But considering the location of the meeting—Stanford University, in the heart of Silicon Valley—it was a missed opportunity to drive an ambitious agenda for how the alliance can invest in joint defence technology projects and use private sector innovation to address shared national security challenges.

Since the Cold War, traditional defence companies and national laboratories have lost the monopoly they once had on developing the cutting-edge technologies that will be central to future military advantage. In select areas, research and development funding has also shifted from the government to the private sector. Innovative major companies and even start-ups are making advances in fields important to national defence, such as machine learning and quantum technology.

Harnessing these advances is critical for the future of the alliance. Despite growing defence budgets, Australia and the US can’t spend their way out of the mounting security challenges in the Indo-Pacific—ranging from an increasingly assertive and militarily capable China, to a still nuclear-armed North Korea and resilient terrorist networks in Southeast Asia. Harvesting technologies from the commercial sector can help offset the cost of new defence capabilities while addressing some of these shared challenges.


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