This article was a submission to the 2022 Cove Competition.

The Army in Motion concept encourages all ranks to foster a culture of learning, experimentation, innovation, and adaption. In a regimental headquarters, the S8 Cell is generally tasked with exploring the gaps, risks, and opportunities inherent within a commanders’ material capability – particularly experimentation and innovation. Recently the Army has seen this function delegated to the sub-unit level through Innovation and Experiment Groups (IXG). Yet, whether you are posted to the RHQ S8 Cell or an IXG for 2023, how exactly does one ‘do’ innovation? Short of conducting the Capability and Technology Management Program, these are my reflections from seven years in a capability development function for Army.

As you have no doubt experienced, Defence is a broad church full of rumour, silos, and opinions. This is no more so when the topic of capability development is concerned.

"3RAR are evaluating this on behalf of Defence"
"SOCOMD are transferring the capability into wider Army"
"Once this trial is complete, CASG will roll it out for every combat brigade"

Are they? Who said? Who is the decision maker? Show me the approving minute. Don't believe anything until its written down, signed, scanned, and you have an Objective number. Six years later, I am still awaiting the promised organic vertical lift capability when a now long-since retired major general proudly boasted, “I will buy you Little Birds.”

Yet innovation and capability development is more than helicopters and physical ‘things’. Was the iPhone an innovation? Not terribly innovative to merge a phone, camera, and music into one device. Rather, one could argue the innovation was the Apple App Store which enabled completely new opportunities for anyone to develop and sell phone applications which were simple to distribute, access, and download. To this point, I encourage you to know and understand the Fundamental Inputs to Capability (FIC). The Apple App Store is to iPhone what FIC is to military capability. Your innovation may not be the ‘thing’ but rather the new tactic you develop, or the enhanced training value, or the reduced demand on logistical supply.

When engaging industry to understand the impacts of an innovation, the issue of probity is never far behind. There is a misconception that probity is about equity, when in fact it is summarised as having honest, ethical, transparent, and defendable decision making. The previous Minister for Defence Industry promised to update the Better Practice Guide for Early Industry Engagement, but unfortunately this did not materialise prior to the last federal election. Until a new guide is released, you will likely run into obstruction from well intentioned superiors around their interpretation of the word probity as opposed to the policy on probity. Challenge their assumptions and blockages. The Defence Procurement Policy Manual has some liberating guidance, explaining that it is "very important that Defence officials do not use probity as a reason or excuse not to engage appropriately with the market…" and that this "might include engagement before tender release around Defence's requirements or to understand the markets capacity or capability."

Which bring us to the infamous Commonwealth Procurement Rules (CPR). Infamous, because many boldly claim that CPRs are too restrictive. Wrong! Start by reading them. You will find the CPRs provide opportunity for sole source procurement (correctly termed, Limited Tender) if you can justify the procurement as an unsolicited innovative proposal, or if there is an absence of competition for technical reasons. Recent changes to the procurement rules also enable you to directly source from Australian-based small-medium enterprises for procurements of up to $500,000. So, the problem isn't the CPRs but rather educating the decision maker on the opportunities that the CPRs can provide.

All this assumes you have funding. You must be provided with funding and financial delegation. With all the good intentions and support from industry, the reality is Australian industry is not a charity and you will need to back up your discussions with a purchase order. For anything larger than a few widgets, its more than likely you will need to leverage an external funding line if you are to generate any meaningful impact. But whose?

  • $17.6 billion a year is spent on sustainment by the Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group (CASG). Chances are, if you are innovating it is because of a deficiency or dissatisfaction with your current issued equipment. Therefore, get good at writing Reports on Defective or Unsatisfactory Material (RODUMS). Leverage the original user requirement and specifications when articulating to CASG why the item no longer meets your needs. The RODUM process can be incredibly frustrating and what is self-evident to you as a professional soldier, may not be the perspective of the APS investigating officer. Although the process is frustrating, come at it with respect and humility and you'll be surprised by the support some project offices within CASG can provide.
  • Get friendly with your state's Australian Defence Science and University Network (ADSUN). The ADSUN support the Defence Transformation Strategy to leverage the civilian science and technology expertise which organically resides in each state and territory. Each ADSUN has a different name and different methods to collaborate, yet all provide outstanding opportunities to outsource capability development needs. For instance the Western Australian Defence Science Centre conducts 'Defence and Research Teaming Events'; a design thinking workshop organised, coordinated, advertised and – importantly – funded externally to Defence. All they need from you is a problem statement! A previous workshop on diver-to-diver underwater communication recently awarded a team $150,000 funding from the WA State Government to develop their innovative solution.
  • Get to know your own innovation ecosystem. Understand their priorities and what support they require. The Robotic and Autonomous Systems Implementation & Coordination Office (RICO) is doing amazing things on behalf of Future Land Warfare Branch – but the branch needs proactive soldiers reaching out to test assumptions, concepts, and technology. Likewise other agencies like Diggerworks, Makerspaces, and Warfare Innovation Navy are worth contacting to understand if and where your capability development objectives align.

Lastly, be honest and transparent, and communicate. This is particularly significant when engaging external parties as you are managing reputation on behalf of Defence. Capability development is far more complicated than many choose to believe, and you will be presented with a labyrinth of opportunities, knockbacks, and dead ends. Be honest with yourself and recognise that you have limited bandwidth. But don’t give up! To quote Lenin, “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” The Army’s culture of learning, experimentation, innovation, and adaption is unrecognisable to the army of just a few years ago, and we truly now are an Army in Motion.

Maybe one day, I'll get to see those Little Birds.