Is a tech procurement revamp on the cards for the Australian Army?

Is a tech procurement revamp on the cards for the Australian Army?

A Department of Defence-funded think-tank recommends changes to the force's IT procurement approach

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An independent think-tank has called on the Australian Army to change its tech procurement model in a bid to better adapt to the pace of change in the IT landscape.

In its Digital land power: The Australian Army’s cyber future report, published in late December, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) suggests that the Army needs to ensure its procurement processes are informed by changes in the threat landscape and the broader tech industry.

Additionally, the think-tank proposes that the Army’s capability take-up should be rapid, and based on a modular upgrade system, with maximum use of commercial and military off-the-shelf hardware.

“Although the task is challenging, the Army needs to anticipate and mitigate the near-term redundancy of certain capabilities so that it can keep pace with rapid developments on the ground,” the report stated.

To this end, ASPI recommends that the Army should “embrace a spiral procurement process” if it wants to “exploit the benefits and avoid the dangers associated with the iterative nature of cyberspace and cyber technologies”.

The report, penned by ASPI International Cyber Policy Centre analysts, Zoe Hawkins and Liam Nevill, comes as a result of an ASPI-hosted roundtable discussion on the strategic, technological and force structure adjustments that need to be made for the Australian Army to adapt to the challenges of the digital landscape – with procurement playing a big part in the proposed changes.

“The conventional approach to asset acquisition—at least for major acquisitions—is tightly regulated, rigid and designed to address multiple decades of military need in advance,” the report said. “That style of procurement simply doesn’t work for many C4ISR [Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance] applications.

“Not only does it mean that the Army’s in danger of missing out on beneficial technologies as they become available between procurement cycles, but it also leaves assets vulnerable as the capabilities of adversaries adapt and become more advanced.

“The problem is that networks are only as strong as their weakest link: a few unaddressed vulnerabilities can render the entire system insecure,” it said.

In the report, ASPI stresses the fast-moving and iterative nature of today’s technology, recommending that the Army’s acquisition approach keep temporary utility in mind to prevent the accumulation of legacy technologies and retain the agility to upgrade.

“Increasing the speed and agility of the procurement process will also require effective project management feedback loops and the ability to acknowledge and address shortcomings as they arise,” the organisation said.

“This iterative nature also needs to be reflected in the acquisition process. Streamlining reviews, reducing timelines and improving cooperation between users and acquisition staff would prevent the Army from receiving platforms that are already out of date.

“It’s critical that the Army monitors technological advances and changes in the threat landscape and uses that awareness to inform and shape the near-term requirements of its cyber capabilities,” it said.

ASPI recommends a shortening of the acquisition cycle and a faster flow of technology from initial development stages to operational deployment, stating that such a move would represent a better tech investment for the force.

“To achieve this, the Army should prioritise modular design features in its technology development,” the report said. “Establishing this model in discussion with industry partners will enable security considerations and interoperability with existing and future systems to be built into the acquisition cycle.

“This will make the acquisition process more flexible and facilitate an incremental spiral upgrade process,” it said.

Whether the Army takes on the recommendations made by ASPI – which was established by the Australian Government in 2001, and is partially funded by the Department of Defence – remains to be seen.

As it stands, the Department of Defence, which oversees the Army, as well as other armed forces, such as the Royal Australian Navy and Air force, is one of the government’s largest spenders on procured IT hardware and services.

In November last year, the Department revealed a strategic plan to spend $20 billion on IT over a 10-year period, while outlining how it intends to undertake its ongoing technology overhaul to 2020.

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