We welcome Keirin Joyce to the Central Blue to continue the conversation he began with his presentation at the Williams Foundation’s #selfsustain seminar in Canberra on 11 April 2019. At the seminar, Keirin challenged us to question our underlying assumptions and beliefs as to what it means to #selfsustain. He continues this logic in this post for the Central Blue by exploring efforts to take a different approach for Australian sustainment of unmanned aerial systems (UAS.)

I was recently a panellist at the Williams Foundation’s #selfsustain seminar in which I discussed strategies for self-sustainment, specifically concerning UAS. However, what was in the term ‘self-sustainment’?

My generation of Australian Defence Force aviation professionals has grown up with this as a term due to the vast majority of military aviation capability being acquired through offshore companies and then sustained through-life onshore by Australian industry. This is what we are used to: two distinct geographically determined strategies. Accordingly, we have looked to maximise the Australian industry contribution to sustainment and increase the effectiveness of onshore self-sustainment.

Unveiling of the restored Jindivik at the Officers Mess at RAAF Base Edinburgh. (Source: Department of Defence)

However, that is not how we have always done it. A decade or two ago, Australia was building or assembling Blackhawks, Hornets, and Mirages under licence. Australia designed and built the Nulka, Nomad and Jindivik. For these programs, where acquisition occurred through designing, manufacturing or producing onshore, we did not use the term ‘self-sustainment.’ It was just plain old ‘sustainment’; we demonstrated the ability to produce, repair and modify on a sovereign production line.

That is what I spoke about at the #selfustain seminar: Army’s experience over the past 15 years with onshore self-sustainment of its offshore acquired UAS, and where Army and the Australian Association for Unmanned Systems (AAUS) are driving towards: a sovereign industrial (drone) capability.

To keep the discussion going here on The Central Blue, I will further discuss two efforts: small UAS and logistics UAS.

Under project Land 129 Phase 4, Army is delivering a small UAS (SUAS) to every combat team. The SUAS can be characterised as an air vehicle of less than 2kg weight, 5 km range, 45 minutes endurance, and an ability to operate day and night and be waterproof. Phase 4A approved the acquisition of an offshore Californian-based AeroVironment RQ-12 Wasp AE, with onshore sustainment by XTek in Canberra.

Corporal Doug Coombs (left) and Corporal Matthew Molloy (left) from 2nd/14th Light Horse Regiment (Queensland Mounted Infantry) with a Wasp AE and a PD-100 Black Hornet unmanned aircraft vehicle at Gallipoli Barracks, Brisbane, on 5 October 2016. (Source: Department of Defence)

The Government also approved funding for the Army to make best efforts to seed an Australian industry competitor to replace the Wasp AE in the mid-2020s under Phase 4B. The Defence Innovation Hub has been used as the framework to drive this Australian industry effort, and thus far six contracts have been awarded to small to medium enterprise (SME) innovators in Sydney and Melbourne. These efforts have been successful with several innovations demonstrating prototypes within the next year and are on schedule to support Phase 4B tendering in coming years. There is solid potential for global export success also. A key characteristic of SUAS technology is its ability to scale up and down reasonably well: down into Nano/micro UAS air vehicles, and up into tactical UAS air vehicles, exemplified by another three contracts executed for TUAS-scale technologies.

Another area of successful investment is in logistics or combat service support (CSS) UAS. Three contracts are underway through the Defence Innovation Hub to explore technologies that automate the tactical supply chain, thus removing resupply missions from trucks and helicopters. This is a very exciting space, running in parallel with commercial innovation that targets parcel delivery (small scale logistics) and unmanned aerial taxis (large scale logistics). At least two of these innovations are demonstrating prototypes within the next year. A mechanism by which Defence can assist in developing these innovations is the experimentation flexibility we can offer under the Defence airworthiness framework.

These are two examples of Army leading innovation within the emerging Sovereign Industrial (Drone) Capability. There are many other ideas out there. Since the Defence Innovation Hub opened, more than 600 proposals have been processed; almost 100 of them are technologies within the tactical UAS field. Navy is also managing two contracts. The writing is on the wall that Australia has the smarts and the capacity to be a world leader in UAS technologies. Should we succeed as a nation within this realm, we might just be able to break the new paradigm of ‘self-sustainment’ and revert back to just plain old ‘sustainment’.

Lieutenant Colonel Keirin Joyce, CSC is an Australian Army officer. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect the views of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence, or the Australian Government.