Opinion: If the Australian Defence Force (ADF) is to keep pace with modern practices and digitally transform its operations, it will require an insurgency from within. It sounds controversial, but remember, there are many reasons to build an insurgency. There is one category – the reformist insurgency – that does not seek to replace the existing order, but instead compel it to undertake important reforms. The digital transformation of the ADF should be a reformist insurgency, writes LTCOL (Ret’d) Caleb Walker, vice president of defence and government at WithYouWithMe.
The ADF has several competing priorities. Hidden in the background is the exponential capability gap in the digital domain. In essence, the rest of the world is adapting faster every year in this domain, and the ADF is struggling to keep up. The conflicts of today and tomorrow are won by those that can master the digital space. For those following recent conflicts, they only need to look at digital sophistication of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. These two countries are economically, very tiny, but were able to deploy combat drones, sophisticated surveillance, coordinated misinformation via social media and targeting of ballistic missiles. Interstate conflicts, criminals and terrorists fight and win in the digital space.
ADF leadership are often hamstrung on the purchase of new hardware. Defence acquisition programs are complicated, over budget and under delivering. The battlespace continues to evolve during the procurement process, and equipment and infrastructure is often obsolete before coming into service. Procurement is political, complex, and political. Yes, I said political twice. If you read Christian Brose’s book The Kill Chain, you will see that traditional procurement focuses on hardware – when it needs to enable software. Improving the kill chain in iterations at the edge is critical.
We can’t hire five hundred software engineers that have five to ten years’ experience to build this. Digital workers are expensive, they don’t want to work on Army projects and don’t understand our problems. More importantly, every government department is competing for the same talent. The Australian government has embraced the Secure Cloud Strategy and is spending billions of dollars migrating legacy systems to the cloud. The ADF needs to develop and retain in-house talent to ensure the longevity and security of our digital future.