Last September’s drone attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil refining facilities came as a shock, but not a surprise. Something like it had been anticipated for ages.
In an age of ‘Hybrid Warfare’ we must anticipate the use of innovative, asymmetric equipment and tactics targeted on unexpected vulnerabilities. In September 2019 somebody did some very smart targeting using high-order geospatial intelligence to achieve a surgical drone and smart weapon strike on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil refinery.
Anybody capable of lateral thinking understands that key parts of any nation’s critical infrastructure are vulnerable to asymmetric attack. The attack surface accessible by a potential adversary is huge: every part of a nation’s infrastructure has not-so-well-hidden vulnerabilities. Damage or destroy some of these and the nation’s capacity to respond to a threat is diminished severely.
One side’s capacity to think and act faster than the other’s and to do the unexpected, perhaps with novel equipment, gives it a major advantage. Example: the 1973 Yom Kippur War – the Egyptians used massive water cannon to destroy Israeli emplacements in the sand dunes overlooking the Suez Canal and effect an innovative, rapid and highly successful water crossing.
This is the challenge for defence innovators: who might threaten us? What does an adversary seek to achieve? How – what are the vulnerabilities he might exploit? How do you protect these? How do you ensure sufficient awareness of a threat and sufficient warning of an attack? The scope for innovation in addressing each of these points is huge.
The ability to wage industrial-age warfare with tanks, guns, ships, bombers and masses of infantry may still be a necessary deterrent, or war-winner. But you can’t change the design of a ship, tank or bomber quickly.
You can, however, change and enhance things like situational awareness, intelligence, command and control, logistics and the processes that deliver good-ish decisions quickly enough that you can respond to an aggressor effectively, or pre-empt a hostile action. And that aggressor could be a super power, a regional power or a non-state terrorist group.
Good intelligence and an informed imagination can identify potential aggressors and your own vulnerabilities; innovation – research, development, experimentation, all conducted iteratively and continuously – can provide solutions. The right kit can give you a competitive advantage but, to quote a former head of DMO’s Land Systems Division, our acquisition system must also be part of our competitive advantage – a good idea is useless if it can’t be turned into something a soldier can actually use in a timely way.
This is a whole of Defence challenge: imagining how to fight a traditional battle better and, simultaneously, how to counter (or pose) a new and unimaginable asymmetric threat. The innovation process requires Defence to confide in both industry and the research sector – none of them know enough by themselves to solve the problem, but together they can add up to considerably more than the sum of their parts.
However, Australia’s sustainable advantage lies in the collective capacity of Defence and adjacent agencies – the AFP, Border Force, ASIO and so on – firstly to identify and then assess threats and devise effective ways to respond. And then, when the unexpected happens (“Of the two courses of action open to the enemy, he will always choose the third…”), they need the institutional capacity to quickly absorb the shock of the new, understand what’s happening and respond effectively. That demands careful selection and training of leaders and the led and a flexible organisation that encourages innovative thinking.
This means that innovation isn’t a discrete process conducted by an elite (or sidelined) few. Innovation needs to involve the whole enterprise, at every level.
The enterprise must be capable of incremental innovation: improving what we’ve got so we can do things better. And it must embrace disruptive innovation: anticipating, or inventing, completely new ways of doing things. Both require a close, trusting relationship with industry and the research sector and a nimble acquisition system. And finally, leaders and their staffs owe it to the men and women they lead, and those who pay them, to develop the capacity to be imaginative, innovative, effective and resilient.
The whole enterprise needs to be innovative in preparing for and responding to threats and contingencies – and that means continually challenging and potentially disrupting the traditional relationships and ingrained processes which govern our defence and security. It’s an endless journey and it starts here.