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Australian defence sector ‘needs university help’

Image: Universities Australia

Fast-changing environment and nuclear-powered submarine project require stronger workforce, defence scientist says

A defence sector under increasing pressure is looking to universities to boost its R&D efforts, Australia’s chief defence scientist has said.

Tanya Monro (pictured) said the nation was entering an “absolutely pivotal time” in the relationship between the sector and university researchers. “Warning times have reduced…You could argue that we are constantly in ‘grey zone’ conflict with the rate of cyber challenges to our businesses, our institutions. This requires a really different approach to the nation’s defence.”

Monro told Universities Australia’s annual conference on 23 February that “we need to harness more of what universities do for defence’s highest-priority challenges”.

The upcoming Australian, UK and US submarine project and a move to more agile, “asymmetrical” strategies will require a highly trained workforce, she said.

The Defence Strategic Review, a report handed to the Australian government on 14 February, will not cause a “minor tweak” to Australia’s approach. “This is quite a dramatic transformation,” she said. It will have “so many implications for universities and for research”. The review is currently in the hands of the government and has not yet been made public.

Workforce crisis

Monro said that defence minister Richard Marles, Australia’s deputy prime minister, “has flagged that we have a defence workforce crisis”.

Defence is seeking experts in information and computer technology, business, enterprise architects, psychologists, communication specialists, cyber and strategic analysts and “engineers of pretty much every flavour”, Monro said.

She would like to see the upcoming Australian Universities Accord, which is currently under discussion, provide incentives for universities to “deliver to those areas of greatest government priority”.

“We need an uplift in this nation’s science and technology pipeline to support the nuclear-powered submarine intent.”

Monro said there were “relatively few institutions and roles for our very best scientists that have job security”, which is creating a “career path crisis”.

Different approach

She said the Defence Science and Technology Group, a part of the Department of Defence that brings together interdisciplinary expertise, had changed in the past decade. Where it was once an adviser on technology acquisition, it is now playing an active role in finding Australia’s technology strengths and fitting them together with technologies from partner nations.

“The government’s intent is to accelerate the development of capability and get it into the hands of the war fighter faster,” she said, and “not get stuck in admiring the problem and developing perfect solutions”.

It is moving away from matching the scale of threats to finding clever ways to create “asymmetric deterrents”, Monro said. Defence is asking: “What do we have in Australia that cannot be defeated by simply applying scale?”

In 2020, the Department of Defence launched its More, Together science and technology initiative. This includes eight “star shot” programmes, aimed at boosting research in areas including space, information warfare and undersea surveillance.

The department is developing uncrewed drone submarines, dubbed “ghost sharks”, as part of its research efforts.

Monro said that boosting defence research would also require the help of existing state-based defence-university research groups, which work directly with state governments.