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Australia and New Zealand nurture the 'digital fabric' of military operations 

Published 1 March 2021


Australia and New Zealand are adapting to a new strategic environment, where major state warfare is once more a significant threat. 

While the countries operate with fewer resources than larger military powers, their membership of the Five Eyes alliance could be a crucial advantage in the decades ahead, according to regional experts.  

The threat posed by major powers has rapidly expanded for the Five Eyes alliance members, which also comprises Canada, the UK, and the US.  

This new focus comes after many years of prioritising counterinsurgency operations. Australia's 2020 Defence Strategic Update include this as a key theme, which warned that 'major power competition has intensified. The prospect of high-intensity conflict in the Indo-Pacific, while still unlikely, is less remote than in the past'.

Australasia Intro
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Photo: Commonwealth of Australia Department of Defence

There are most apparent concerns over China's rise, said Dr Malcolm Davis, senior analyst in defence strategy and capability at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra.

Davis noted that Beijing aims to become the dominant power in the region at the US's expense.  

From Australia's perspective, Davis said it must adapt its defence posture and capability to match this challenge.  

While one example is the country's acquisition of Long-Range Anti-Ship missiles (LRASM) in this context, he also highlighted the growing focus on resilient C4ISR, which would be a key target for adversaries in any future major power conflict.  

This changing technology dynamic has informed a new approach to technology development and acquisition in many sectors.  

Ron Fisher, a consultant for the Australian Department of Defence (DoD) and an industry advocate, highlighted the initiatives pioneered by the country's Defence Innovation Hub, which seeks to encourage innovation in a range of critical technologies through a funding scheme. 

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Similarly, the DoD's Defence Science and Technology (DST) Group has launched eight Science, Technology and Research (STaR) Shots to encourage innovation across several categories.  

Fisher highlighted the Quantum-Assured Position, Navigation And Timing (PNT) hub, which aims to generate an alternative to the US Global Positioning System (GPS) for communications, navigation and other areas. He also pointed to the Resilient Multi-Mission Space STaR Shot, which is developing smart satellite networks to support the Australian Defence Force (ADF). 

Photo: Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defence


Congestion issues

The Australian government, he said, is concerned about the ways the country addresses space as the domain becomes congested, 'and how you provide resilient communications and networking to the warfighter'.  

Professor Tanya Monro, the chief defence scientist at DST, noted in a May 2020 address at the National Press Club that while space provides a vital capability for defence – providing essential communications, PNT and surveillance capabilities – the sector is changing quickly.

The space STaR Shot would develop resilient, smart satellite networks, enabling the ADF to receive data wherever it is globally. DST already has its own embryonic space capability, she noted, having built satellites and launching one successfully.  

Monro also highlighted the millions of Australian dollars in investment supported by DST's Next Generation Technology Fund and the impact that such smart satellites could have in areas beyond defence.  

The STaR Shot is partnering with the Australian Space Agency, she added.  

'This will help us build some of the new space infrastructure we need to support the nation's space requirements and aspirations,' Monro said. 

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Photo: Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defence​​

Another primary focus for the Australian Defence Force is the development of multi-domain networks, a goal that is fuelled by the evolution of MDO warfare, also known as joint all domain operations (JADO) or joint all-domain command and control (JADC2).  

In 2019, Australia's Defence Science and Technology Group released a call for proposals in distributed multi-domain networks, aiming to exploit better the masses of data collected by defence operators, using automation, artificial intelligence, and more.  

Such technologies would provide the digital fabric to underpin integrated ISR missions, said Duncan Fletcher, group leader adaptive information architectures, in a recent presentation on the topic.

'We want to make sure that we've got the right digital systems to move the information around the battlespace, particularly out at the tactical edge. We want to make sure we're able to process it right at the front and get it to the commanders and the warfighters just in time for them to make the right decisions and survive.'

Australia and New Zealand take somewhat differing approaches to acquisition, with Australia often keen to support its domestic industry.  

Davis pointed to the Loyal Wingman unmanned aircraft, being developed by Boeing Australia, which has achieved an impressively speedy development schedule.  

'If they can maintain that pace, and they can evolve that vehicle into something that's more operationally useful in terms of carrying a significant combat payload and having perhaps improved performance, then you've got something that really is quite transformational if we can keep the cost down and build it in significant numbers,' he said. 


Military off the shelf

New Zealand is a firm proponent of 'military off the shelf' acquisition, said Jim Rolfe, a senior fellow at the New Zealand Centre for Strategic Studies, preferring 'to take something that's fairly well-proven in use by one of the allies'.  

He said this approach has its advantages, potentially reducing costs, while allowing it to maintain its sovereign goals, such as maintaining maritime surveillance over its large exclusive economic zone (EEZ).  

The Network Enabled Army (NEA) programme is a significant project to improve the New Zealand Defence Force's (NZDF) connectivity.  

In written responses to Studio, Deputy Chief of Army Brigadier Matthew Weston said it represents a transformational change for the NZ Army, facilitating the service's evolution from an analogue to a digitised force through the delivery of a networked land combat capability.  

The country has a wide range of acquisition goals. In C4ISR, for instance, Rolfe highlighted requirements surrounding synthetic and immersive environments for military operations and training, next-generation assured communications and networks, and cybersecurity technologies  

All of these, crucially, are 'being done by New Zealand in cooperation with the other Five Eyes countries … that's how small countries are able to keep up'.

Such cooperation takes place through the Five Eyes' Technical Cooperation Program, or TTCP, which benefits both Australia and New Zealand, along with their partners.  

According to Australia's DST, it provides a forum for sharing ideas and harmonising programmes, giving member nations 'the potential to extend their research and development (R&D) capabilities at minimal cost, to avoid duplication and to improve interoperability'. It involves about 1,000 defence scientists from across the nations.  

While some countries will work in every aspect of such research, New Zealand is heavily involved in some areas, said Rolfe, as it must specialise and focus.  

The benefits of cooperation are exhibited in the cyber domain, noted Paul Buchanan, director and principal of the New Zealand-based 36th Parallel geopolitical risk and strategic assessment consultancy.   

Although countries like China and Russia are major powers in cyberspace, they lack the alliance structure 'that would allow them to enhance their intelligence-gathering capabilities in the way that Five Eyes does', he explained.

'The ability to get skilled people across continents to work for a common cause: that's a unique advantage that New Zealand and Australia are exposed to as the junior partners of this alliance structure,' Buchanan said.  

'And so I doubt very much that military and intelligence officials in either of those countries will do anything to jeopardise the ongoing relationship they have on all dimensions of not only the war space but of the broader geopolitical context in which they operate.'

Interoperability more broadly – not just in cyber – is a central theme across the Five Eyes nations and their allies worldwide, with Australia and New Zealand, in particular, being almost interchangeable.  

There are several layers to this, noted Rolfe. For example, there is a technical level, covering the need for equipment like radios and computers to talk to each other.  

There is also a tactical level, where procedures are the same: allowing an American artillery controller to control Australia or New Zealand assets. Such processes have been built over decades and extend to other countries.  

However, both nations face the same challenge as the other Five Eyes members and Western states more broadly: ensuring their acquisition processes and technological priorities are fit for purpose in a rapidly changing world, said Fisher. 

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Photo: Crown Copyright 2020, New Zealand Defence Force


With technology developing so quickly, and the threat changing rapidly because of that evolving technology, acquisition specialists must manage change and ensure systems are best suited for younger generations, who have been brought up with smart devices.  

'How do we translate that into the mission system on the field for the soldier, the sailor or the airman that they can continually be assured that they get the best all the time?'

The ongoing challenge for Australian and New Zealand defence planners will be adapting quickly enough to stay abreast of both emerging threats and their Five Eyes military partners' transformational changes.

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