The Importance of Remote Autonomous Systems for the Future of the ADF

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In his speech for the launch of the 2020 Defence Strategic Update, Prime Minister Scott Morrison expressed to the audience:

“We must be alert to the full range of current and future threats, including ones in which Australia’s sovereignty and security may be tested.”

He was referring to the changing geo-strategic environment Australia finds itself in, one of high tensions over territorial disputes, coercive activity, misinformation, an enduring terrorist threat, and the expanding reach and potential of military capabilities.

Defence’s planning for these future threats includes the development of the ADF Concept for Robotics and Autonomous Systems to highlight the potential opportunities and challenges of Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS), and the capabilities required by the ADF to embrace this technology.

While the use of RAS by the ADF and other militaries is not new, technologies are converging to create more advanced and disruptive systems. This article identifies three trends which, in addition to technological developments, are driving the ADF’s need for RAS out to 2040: a greater demand for ADF engagement, the changing character of warfare, and regional military modernisation.

Demand for ADF Engagement

The likelihood of armed conflict with the potential to affect Australia’s national interests is unlikely to diminish in the Future Operating Environment (FOE) and, in an era of renewed great-power competition, territorial disputes as well as the potential impacts of COVID-19, that likelihood may intensify. The possibility of conflict in the South and East China Seas, the Korean Peninsula and the Indo-Pacific will be of particular concern to Australia.

Changing population demographics, inequality and resource scarcity, the proliferation of extremist ideologies, and increasingly sophisticated (and accessible) weapons could result in civil wars or the proliferation of violent non-state groups likely to destabilise communities in Australia’s near region. Globally, attacks by violent extremists will rise. Where these instabilities threaten the security of Australia and its national interests, the ADF may be called upon to work independently or with allies to defend those interests.

The ADF will also continue to be deployed in contingencies short of armed conflict, both within Australia and the immediate region. The effects of climate change will also likely result in more environmental catastrophes in the region, and the ADF will be expected to engage in humanitarian aid and disaster relief missions where needed.

By 2040, the ADF will likely be operating in a world more demanding of its engagement, where there will be increasing pressures on the ADF in terms of preparedness, capacity and capability. Utilising RAS will help mitigate these pressures and allow the ADF to increase its effectiveness in achieving its objectives, within the constraints of Australia’s resources.

Changing Character of Warfare

The FOE will see greater competition, conflict and military cooperation in environments that are dangerous, inaccessible or inhospitable to humans; and which occur beyond the capabilities of human cognition. RAS will offer the ADF a source of sustainable competitive advantage in these environments.

Increasing urbanisation and the movement of populations away from rural areas will mean cities are more likely to become conflict zones, particularly through violent non-state actors. Urban conflicts present unique operational challenges. The often complex above and below ground infrastructure, integrated surveillance systems, and congested populations are just some of these operational dilemmas.

Similarly, the volume of electronic devices that ‘clutter’ the electro-magnetic spectrum will test the ADF’s surveillance and communications systems in profound ways. For the ADF to achieve operational success in future urban environments, it will need to utilise RAS technologies to overcome these challenges.

The threat of Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) weapons by both state and non-state adversaries is likely to continue in the FOE, with future scientific advances making these weapons more precise and deadly. The ADF may find itself in combat roles in high-risk and hazardous environments where there is potential exposure to CBRN weapons. RAS capabilities will allow more effective operations without risking human exposure.

Space and cyberspace, as warfighting domains, will continue to evolve out to 2040. The ADF’s reliance on information networks will make cyber-attacks attractive to state and non-state adversaries. The increasing use of algorithms and artificially intelligent ‘cyberbots’ will mean a larger number of faster and more sophisticated attacks are likely in the future.

Further, the ADF is dependent on space-based capabilities for information technologies and communications. As space-based technologies become cheaper and proliferate amongst state and non-state actors, space will become an increasingly congested environment. Autonomous or semi-autonomous capabilities may be used to target satellites and destroy or degrade adversary capabilities. Involvement in such an environment will drive the use and development of RAS technologies.

RAS also offers a means to counter warfare conducted at speeds beyond human cognition (cyber-attacks, computer-driven electronic warfare, directed-energy and hypersonic weapons), where the sheer pace of events outstrips the human capacity to respond. They also offer a means of adapting warfighting to battlespaces that will become increasingly complex, not simply because of the increased speeds at which warfighting will be conducted, but also because of the drive to field small swarming systems.

Those systems are likely to severely complicate the sensor picture and the ability of commanders to make sense of the battlespace.

Regional Military Modernisation

The modernisation of regional militaries in the Asia-Pacific has resulted in the development and deployment of weapons and capabilities that challenges the ADF’s military capability edge. The fiscal realities of Australia’s economy means that the ADF cannot expect to compete with larger powers through traditional military capabilities.

In the Indo-Pacific region, defence spending is trending upwards, driven by strong economic growth, territorial disputes, internal security concerns and ongoing tensions between the US and China. Notably, China could emerge as the global leader in total defence expenditure by 2040, and its military technology will likely be comparable to that of the United States in operational capacity and strategic reach.

An example of this strategic reach is playing out in the region through major arms deals, particularly in the field of RAS. China has already provided armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to a range of countries including Myanmar, Pakistan and Iraq.

As China continues to develop its military capabilities, neighbouring states will continue to have incentives to bolster their own militaries. India’s growth profile and continuing tensions with neighbours will likely see it rank third in defence spending by 2040, and Indonesia could be a major world economy and significant defence spender in South East Asia. With defence spending continuing its upward trajectory, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia are also becoming the biggest importers of arms and equipment in the region.

While these trends may not persist in an economically strained post-COVID world, it is likely that existing patterns of military investment that favour the acquisition of large numbers of low-cost platforms rather than small numbers of costly and ‘exquisite‘ platforms will be accelerated, particularly for small to medium states. RAS will become increasingly low-cost due to greater market availability and a rapidly expanding civilian market, allowing Southeast Asian nations greater opportunity to acquire it and achieve competitive advantage over larger militaries that fail to adapt.

Although autonomous weapons systems are currently not widely proliferated in Southeast Asia, regional militaries do have access to small to medium size surveillance UAVs. Given arms exporters to the region are developing increasingly autonomous weapons systems, it is likely ASEAN states will have greater access to autonomous weapons in the FOE.

The FOE will challenge the existing capabilities of the Joint Force. Defence will need to embrace RAS to meet the demand for the ADF’s resources, operate in new and dynamic environments, and ensure Australia maintains a capability edge in our region. The development of the RAS Concept is an important first step towards meeting that challenge and being prepared for the future environment that the Prime Minister described.

About the Author

Madeleine is a futures analyst in the Department of Defence. She works on the assessment of the future operating environment out to 2040. Her opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Defence or the Australian Government.