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Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee
14/04/2015
Potential Australian Defence Force use of unmanned platforms

CROWE, Mr Ken, Director, Strategy and Business Development, Northrop Grumman Australia

[11:34]

CHAIR: I welcome Mr Crowe, the representative from Northrop Grumman. Would you like to make a brief opening statement before we go to questions?

Mr Crowe : Certainly. Firstly, I thank the chair and the esteemed members of the references committee for the opportunity to come and brief you on this topic. Northrop Grumman is a leader in global security. Primarily headquartered in the United States, it is one of the largest global defence companies, with 2014 revenue of over $24 billion and 64,000 personnel on the payroll. It is one of the leading US defence companies. It is headquartered in the United States but with a global footprint, as I said.

I joined the company 12 years ago after a long period, 23 years, in the Royal Australian Air Force. I was proud of our achievements in unmanned systems technology, which was the prime driver for entering into employment with Northrop Grumman. I am certainly looking forward to a future with the company, providing high-technology, high-capability unmanned systems to the Australian Department of Defence.

Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor to the United States navy for the Triton unmanned aerial system and to the United States air force for the Global Hawk UAS. We have been working with the United States government and the Australian government for many years on unmanned systems technology and I believe it is in Australia's interests to recognise the advantages of this new and emerging technology. With Australia's vast land and maritime areas of interest, combined with a relatively small but innovative and highly educated workforce, I think unmanned technology is a perfect fit for Australia.

We are passionate about unmanned solutions. We are passionate about the advantages that this technology delivers and we would love to see the Australian government take specific advantage of this technology. The Australian government could combine and capture the strength of our education system, nurture niche capabilities within our industry and use the former partnership between government and industry to harness the research and development opportunities to really take advantage of this. I am looking forward to discussing these issues with the committee and identifying strategies whereby Australian industry in particular can work with the Australian government on future development programs.

CHAIR: Thank you. Just to kick off, can you give us a bit of an understanding of your company's perspective on unmanned vehicles—which presumably means that there will be a pilot on the ground—versus intelligent autonomous platforms?

Mr Crowe : Certainly. I believe I understand the question in terms of the perspective on unmanned solutions—meaning not just air but including ground, maritime and air—and autonomy.

CHAIR: The ones that can recognise an airport and move on and that do not need to be controlled from the ground.

Mr Crowe : The issue of autonomy with respect to unmanned systems is a confusing area and difficult to identify. Some autonomous air systems, for instance, are best described as having a human in the loop and relying on an operator on the ground to effectively exert control over the platform at all times. In terms of true autonomy, I think unmanned systems still have a long way to go. The aircraft, the ground systems and the underwater systems follow various pre-programmed rules either to repatriate themselves to an area of safety and land or to avoid impacting adversely on their environment. So true autonomy I do not think has arrived in unmanned systems, but they exhibit elements of autonomy. To the untrained observer it may look as if the systems are thinking for themselves, but of course they are not. There are acting under pre-programmed rules and they are following the direction of their pilots or mission commanders back at base.

CHAIR: The application for defence is quite obvious in a lot of ways, but when these platforms are operating they gather information that would be valuable to all sorts of people.

Mr Crowe : Yes.

CHAIR: Does your company have any view on how that information can be sent to the right people even though it has no application for Defence, who bought the vehicle? Do you have any technology that looks at that, where you can capitalise on all the information that it is picking up and say, 'That's defence information. This here might be valuable to people counting camels,' or whatever?

Mr Crowe : You have struck upon a particular advantage of the unmanned system, particularly the unmanned aerial system.

CHAIR: What is the advantage?

Mr Crowe : That is that the ground environment is the recipient of all of the deluge of data that comes from these high-capacity platforms. I look to the Triton platform, which carries a number of sensors and continuously delivers that information to the ground. The sensor operators and the pilot work in conjunction to control the aircraft and control to sensors, gather information and then assess which recipient that information should go to. There are multilevel security systems and federated command and control and intelligence exploitation systems that allow a mission commander to deliver the information to whomever is required to receive it.

In an Australian context, I believe the concept of operations is that the unmanned system—which is an unmanned aerial system, for instance, which is aloft for beyond 24 hours—has a number of objectives. It is not simply to conduct reconnaissance or surveillance on one particular target. It will respond to a number of customers, a number of missions and a number of requirements and then it will receive ad hoc tasking in the midst of its mission. The Australian Department of Defence has a highly federated, highly secure command and control system and intelligence exploitation dissemination system. It's able to process, exploit and disseminate that information quickly and efficiently to all Australian government customers.

CHAIR: Very clearly, the platforms are currently designed that way to take advantage of every scrap of information they get. It is up to the purchaser or user to then disseminate the information.

Mr Crowe : That is correct.

Senator FAWCETT: Everybody wants to have a piece of the action with the Triton. We have had a lot of people present today about where it should be based and where Australia industry should be involved, et cetera. You are obviously aware of the decision to pull out of a BAMS formal commitment to that industry partnership commitment in 2009. Where do you see that opportunities exist now, should Australia sign up formally to the program? We have obviously indicated an intent; but we have not yet inked a contract, which everybody is expecting to be under an FMS program. I have a few questions. Do you think it will be an FMS? Do you think it will be commercial? Where are the opportunities for the Australian government to mandate, if they can as part of that deal, Australian industry involvement?

Mr Crowe : Certainly. You are absolutely right. The decision in 2009 to not pursue what was called the SDD—the system design and development program—with BAMS as a partner with the US Navy meant that a significant number of the industry opportunities went by the wayside. We are working very closely with the Australian Department of Defence, a wide variety of Australian industry players and academia as well to identify those niche capabilities that exist at the top end and also the bread-and-butter work that goes into manufacturing, developing and sustaining the capability.

I heard from one of the previous participants here a statement about the high end of technology being really the crown jewels with these unmanned systems. I agree with that sentiment that the work directed towards software, command and control, sensors, payload and the utility—the way these systems are used—are the prime areas of contribution by Australian industry. We are working with a number of Australian companies, including Sentient Vision Systems in Victoria, to identify applications for their sensor processing technology to make more sense of the information coming off the aircraft itself to provide ways to direct the information more efficiently and correctly to the right party at the right time.

The Australian government is following the right path in terms of identifying the major acquisition strategies for this type of system—be it FMS, direct commercial sale or some hybrid, whereby there is continued cooperation between the two parties, very much like the P-8 program. So there are a number of acquisition strategies, and the Australian industry opportunities are being investigated and maximised within each of those arrangements.

Senator FAWCETT: You are describing a market-driven approach, where you, as the OEM, are looking for opportunities to value-add to the product that you are selling to the USN and other people. Are there any areas where you think the Australian government should actively make it a condition of contract to engage Australian entities to sustain a viable opportunity for young graduates for work—so that they take their qualifications and turn them into competence—so that we remain a smart customer and a smart operator of platforms?

Mr Crowe : I believe that there are ample opportunities prior to commitment to communicate the desire by the Australian government to embed production, development and future sustainment capabilities here in Australia. I believe that the primary time of leverage is as the Australian government is making these major acquisition decisions. It is important to quantify those opportunities well in advance of those decisions and have an open and frank discussion—not just with the US government, but with the OEM—to make it clear that Australia's take-up of the technology would be contingent upon a reasonable return to the industry.

I would like to make a couple of comments on our engagement with local industry and academia. We have recognised that unmanned-systems technology is a way of the future—it is one of the megatrends. Australia has the opportunity to contribute in niche areas—maybe not in the wholesale production of the systems, but in those smarter, top-end-of-town areas of technology. We have started at the school end, setting up a strategic partnership with Dickson College in the northern suburbs of Canberra to nurture and to educate grades 11 and 12 schoolkids on how to manufacture, design and operate these unmanned systems. We have been a proud sponsor of the UAV Outback Challenge and over a number of years we have engaged with Sydney university in setting up a strategic partnership and providing PhD placement positions in this type of technology. We have also continued our outreach into other schools to ensure that the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics—the STEM initiatives—are well understood and promoted within the academic community.

We have also gone to great lengths to engage directly with local companies, small companies generally—SMEs that are niche technology deliverers—and we have tried to embed that technology into the global supply chain. We are members of the Australian Department of Defence Global Supply Chain Deed and have looked at a number of companies across all states for their potential to contribute to not just unmanned technology but cyber C4SI and logistics. In closing my response, I think there is an enormous opportunity for Australian industry. It has to be targeted; it has to be prioritised. A partnership with the OEMs and a strategic partnership with the US government, as they develop these programs and as we enter these programs, are fundamentally critical.

Senator FAWCETT: For Defence to be an informed customer it is important for their DTGA, their engineers and their people who look after the certification aspects to get a better understanding of these systems. In your view, is there merit in Australia offering, or seeking to make it a condition of the purchase, the embedding of people, whether uniformed or industry subcontractors, into places like Patuxent River and taking part in the developmental tests, acceptance, operational test and evaluation or even their design assurance for the platform on an ongoing basis or at least as part of the acquisition?

Mr Crowe : I believe that it is very important for Australia to be a very informed customer, and to ensure that it has the technical capacity to make decisions relating to the suitability of the platform, its technical readiness state, its airworthiness and the other systems and capabilities that it has. I believe the Australian Department of Defence is undertaking that dialogue with the US department of defence, and has recently signed an FMS planning case to provide opportunities for exchange of information and to provide opportunities to engage with the US Navy at Pax River and other locations.

As to the decision on whether it should be a pre-condition, I feel unqualified to answer that. The technology for, say, Triton, is primarily a low-risk solution that, if bought under an FMS arrangement, would be provided as a stock standard package similar to that which is operated by the United States government. But what you are saying is: should Australia become better informed and have a lot more embedded personnel? I am uncertain whether the Australian Department of Defence is going down that path, and I would have to defer to the Department of Defence on how they would achieve that level of knowledge.

CHAIR: Who are your competitors?

Mr Crowe : In the broader unmanned space, the unmanned technology space consists of all domains—air, land and maritime, of course. We pride ourselves as a leader in unmanned technology with clear systems for ground, air and land. All of the major defence companies around the world, to my knowledge, are our competitors. All of them field systems which either directly or indirectly compete in our areas. The Triton system, though, occupies a relatively single position in terms of its being the flagship United States air force and navy high-altitude, long-endurance UAS, and it has no US competitors in that trade space itself. Certainly in the unmanned technology side, especially at the lower end—what I call the 'cheap and cheerful' unmanned systems—is a very crowded marketplace. Very crowded. Most developed countries and most companies have a number of unmanned solutions in that space.

Senator BACK: You mentioned 64,000 employees worldwide, Mr Crowe. How many employees do you have in Australia?

Mr Crowe : Approximately 400.

Senator BACK: Based where?

Mr Crowe : Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.

Senator BACK: Very impressive. You mentioned the associated programs—I think you said there was one with school children at a college here in Canberra.

Mr Crowe : Dickson College, in the suburb of Dickson.

Senator BACK: And then in Sydney you have uni PhD placements et cetera. Going to your comments regarding airworthiness, you say airworthiness is still a work-in-progress likely to be impacted by new and emerging technologies. Is there scope for young people to be trained the maintenance of these unmanned aircraft? Is that an area that we can be focussing on, as well as the in overall operations and driving the units and then the interpreting of data? Is there scope here in Australia for young people to be trained at the technical level in terms of maintenance?

Mr Crowe : Yes, there is. The strength of the Australian workforce, I believe, it in its innovation. I do not make those statements glibly—over many years of working in the Royal Australian Air Force and in industry, I have long admired the spirit of Australians to be able to take an existing system that is delivered from elsewhere and use it in an innovative way. Australia's small population and its huge maritime and land areas of interest demand of us more from our systems. We cannot afford to use them in the same way that other countries will use them.

I think that the primary opportunities for Australia's students, technical resources, engineers and scientists is by investigating the innovative use of this technology, not just to meet Australia's requirements for situation awareness, for surveillance, for long-range mission missions but to then feed them back perhaps through OEMs to the rest of the world. I have seen this happen with the innovative use of surveillance technology. I have seen it used in unmanned ground systems as well, where Australians can take a piece of technology and think about it differently and use it differently, write software differently and develop tactics, doctrine technics and procedures differently that can in turn can be turned into our own intellectual property and marketed overseas. So I think there are enormous opportunities still. Despite all the work going on overseas, I think there is ample opportunity here. We need to leverage our set of problems, our enormous area of interest combined with our very small workforce, with our highly educated people to come up with innovative ways of using that information to get it to the right people at the right time to make just the right decisions.

Senator BACK: Is it because, as you say, we have mastered remoteness in so many areas? Australians tend to be very blase about this, don't we? Even when you talk about, for example, our Royal Flying Doctor Service, internationally, people are blown away by it. The school of the air, which is unrelated to what we are talking about now, is taken for granted. I learnt this morning of a circumstance, I believe, in the emergency services in the United States now whereby they are deploying an unmanned vehicle to supply a defibrillator to a site where a person obviously needs the services of a defibrillator while an ambulance is being deployed to the location. Effectively it is a defibrillator with wings. That is happening in the United States and I understand is happening now. A person at the site can be shown how to put the equipment onto the person, stand back and it can be interpreted remotely. When you think about the range of services that we require in Australia remotely, it seems to me the sky is the limit when we have an understanding, which other countries do not, of the value of remote services. Are you working in this next-generation space at all internationally?

Mr Crowe : That is a very difficult question. We are very conscious of the need to innovate. We are very conscious that it is not in Australia's interest nor in Australian industry's interests simply to take these systems off the shelf and operate them in the same way as the United States operates them. Australia has a unique position in terms of the enormous land area, and I would point at the Asia-Pacific region itself being a remarkable focus of worldwide attention lately. It is also an area where, unfortunately, almost annually we get terrible humanitarian disasters be they cyclones, be they tsunamis, be they earthquakes, be they Fukushima nuclear meltdowns—all sorts of events are happening. Those events, those disasters can be aided by the application of unmanned technology. We look at situations where this type of unmanned technology can proceed down to the Antarctic and surveil the majority of the Antarctic land mass in a single mission. We look at the opportunity for this type of technology to be perched over Heard Island, Macquarie Island, Cocos Island, Christmas Island and provide surveillance to monitor our fishing stocks, the environmental health of our oceans.

Senator BACK: Illegal fishing.

Mr Crowe : Illegal fishing. There are enormous opportunities that the other countries may not be necessarily taking. I think it is enormously important for us to think outside the box, not simply to take the solutions that are being handed to us on a plate but work out how to use that information better, work out how to use the persistence, the endurance, the range and the altitude of these types of systems to our advantage. I think it is enormously important to leverage that innovation and apply it to these major capital investments that the Australian government is making and learn how to use these systems a lot smarter.

Senator McEWEN: One of the terms of reference of this inquiry is to consider the legal, ethical and policy considerations of unmanned platforms. I am curious to what extent Northrop Grumman would take into account aspects of international law in the development of the systems that you provide?

Mr Crowe : The policy legal issues associated with the application or use of these systems are a matter for the Australian government and the Department of Defence. We build the systems and design them according to a set of requirements passed down to us by a government customer. The primary policy and legal issues that drive us in the United States are the international traffic in arms regulations and, of course, the Missile Technology Control Regime of which Australia is a signatory. We as a company try to steer clear of those policy and legal issues that relate primarily—

Senator McEWEN: They must influence your pre-manufacture? If you come up with an idea, somebody must say, 'This is going to fall foul of the Geneva convention,' or something like that.

Mr Crowe : The application of those policies and legal issues primarily impact the specification of the article and the functional requirements. So before we see those functional requirements or the contract to manufacture or develop an unmanned system, it has been through those gates—the United States government or the foreign government has accommodated all those issues and has dealt with them and provided us with specifications. We will produce a system as close to those specifications as possible and then offer it to the government to utilise as it sees fit.

Senator McEWEN: You mention in your submission the naval use of unmanned systems. You mentioned the development of Collins of course. I am curious whether you have any knowledge in the development of the replacement submarines whether the use of unmanned systems platforms are going to be a part of that. Are you having any involvement at all?

Mr Crowe : We have no involvement in Australia but Northrop Grumman is at the forefront of technology in unmanned underwater systems. The utilisation or the marriage of unmanned underwater technology and submarines is a well-established area of technological research. In general—and I would echo one of the comments or statements from one of the previous exhibitors—the unmanned technology complements the manned technology so: unmanned underwater complements the submarine; unmanned helicopters would complement, say, the MH60 Romeo helicopter that the Australian Navy is buying; an unmanned triton system would complement the P-8 Poseidon. So whenever we look at a problem, we tend to break it down to a manned component and an unmanned component. Undoubtedly, I believe that unmanned underwater vehicles would naturally complement and multiply the effectiveness of a manned submarine.

Senator McEWEN: Do you know whether the backend skills are transferable between naval systems operators, say, on ship to the unmanned system? Have they applied one? Are we going to have to retrain everybody?

Mr Crowe : That is a good question. We manufacture an unmanned helicopter based on the Bell 407. We took a manned helicopter, took the human out of it, filled it with fuel and we got a very long endurance, heavy-lift helicopter that perfectly complements the 60 Romeo helicopter that operates off US ships. Those two aircraft operate in unison. The unmanned helicopter goes out and does the dull, dirty boring missions at three am—the comms relay missions, the ISR missions that nobody wants to do—in dangerous or boring situations. And that leaves and preserves the manned helicopter to respond and to keep to its core war fighting mission. By complementing the manned and the unmanned together, you extend the life of the manned helicopter, you reduce its utilisation down to its core functions and you off-load a lot of the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance onto the platform that is best suited for it. The skill sets are complementary. The same skill sets relating to interpretation of the battlefield and the interpretation of the sensor data that exist on the helicopter exist back in the ship, looking at the screens from the unmanned helicopter. The maintenance activities are more or less the same—they are both helicopters, they both have transmissions, engines et cetera. In fact, I believe the conversion course for the manned and the unmanned helicopter is in a matter of a couple of weeks. I agree entirely—there is a strong overlap between the skill sets on a ship between manned and unmanned aerial systems at least and logically, by extension, for the unmanned underwater systems as well.

CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Crowe for your attendance.