The transformation of the Royal Australian Air Force isn’t just about technology. It’s also about innovation and a new way of thinking.
As businesses confront ‘disruption' and fight to stay ahead of new competitors, the Royal Australian Air Force, too, is turning to tools such as design thinking to combat adaptive and sophisticated adversaries.
"We need an Air Force with the greatest ‘capability advantages' to protect our freedom in an increasingly unpredictable and complex environment," says Wing Commander Jerome Reid, a member of the RAAF's Plan Jericho transformation project.
That's why the RAAF needs to spread design thinking throughout the Air Force, from the top brass down.
Plan Jericho has been described as the most significant transformation program in the RAAF's history. The goal is to ensure the huge technological upgrade now under way – to the tune of billions of dollars – can be exploited to its full potential.
The Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Leo Davies, has said this transformation will be "the difference between being an Air Force with fifth-generation aircraft and being a fifth-generation Air Force".
What lies behind?
The Plan Jericho team and the Design Innovation Research Centre (DI:rc) at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) have been working together to develop a design thinking mindset among Air Force specialists used to taking a very different approach.
Design thinking, or design-led innovation, draws on the practices of designers – such as prototyping and iterating – but applies them to different types of problems, including business models and organisational change.
"Military officers are generally trained to be action men and women – if something breaks, we fix it," says Wing Commander Reid. "That puts us in the traditional engineering paradigm. Design thinking allows us to go beyond the obvious answer to consider: What's our deeper problem, what lies behind this, what are the complexities?"
Professor Sam Bucolo, co-founder of DI:rc and Professor of Design and Innovation at UTS, says the RAAF project "is probably the most complex problem I've worked on".
"It's an example of what we are trying to do now in terms of design being part of organisational transformation, and it shows the potential for design to be at the centre of a national competitive strategy for Australia," he says.
Plan Jericho has three themes: enhance the combat potential of a more integrated Air Force; develop an innovative and empowered workforce; and consider a new approach to acquiring and sustaining capability.
It's in that third theme that DI:rc and the Plan Jericho team have begun prototyping a new, design thinking-based innovation model.
"We decided that, if we are going to do things differently, let's start by attacking one of our biggest problems, being how we acquire capability," Wing Commander Reid says.
The RAAF's acquisition cycle typically takes years and sometimes decades, he explains. "But if we are to have access to the best capability through the best emerging technology when and where we need it, we need to do this faster, much faster. So we used design thinking to design a new strategy."
What DI:rc and the Plan Jericho group came up with was a process that begins with an innovation ‘scrum'.
"We start with design thinking to try to understand what the problem is," says Wing Commander Reid. "Having done that we envision a future and start to prototype different ways in which we can get there. Only then do we get to contracting and acquisition. And we want to do the whole thing in 12 months."
With the backing of RAAF leadership, the team decided to apply this new approach to the challenge of retrofitting the Hawk 127 Lead-in-fighter jet with the technology needed for it to operate under a new airspace management system in Australia. OneSKY requires all civilian and military aircraft to be fitted with an automatic dependent surveillance broadcast (ADS-B) system that digitally shares their precise location.
It will be significant investment in time and money to have ADS-B on all military aircraft.
But the Hawk 127 posed a problem. "There's very little real estate in which to put anything and the plane's original manufacturer told us the solution was going to be very costly and take considerable time to develop," Wing Commander Reid says.
"So we partnered with BAE Australia and invited all the aerospace sector players – some 20-odd players, including the primes such as Airbus, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon as well as small Australian players such as Enigma Aviation – into DI:rc. There were over 40 people there from around the world, and we locked them in a room and said, ‘Let's understand the complexities and then solve this problem."
There was a lot of resistance initially as the DI:rc team pushed the group outside their comfort zone of a traditional engineering approach, Professor Bucolo says.
"One of the really crucial things we did was we brought the stakeholders, the end users, into the room," says Wing Commander Reid. "We had an air traffic controller who told us about what it's like on a dark and stormy night, with zero visibility and a plane coming in with no ADS-B.
"We had a pilot who had a near-miss incident of less than 50 feet. He told us what went through his mind at that particular time – including his three young children.
"We had the Chief Engineer talk to us about the complexities involved in trying to fit this capability into an aircraft with little or no room to fit anything.
"Suddenly all of these tough engineers started to empathise and become design thinkers – and the solutions they came up with were just incredible."
On the last day of their week with the DI:rc, the group helped write the requirements for the Hawk 127 project – Wing Commander Reid says such early, comprehensive and open supplier involvement in the requirement definition phase of an acquisition is unheard of in Defence. The tender went out the following week, with 10 days to respond.
"We had 16 responses but, more importantly, four of the companies said they wouldn't respond because it was not for them and that we had saved them over $2 million in bid costs," he says.
On the face of it, this project was about building a ‘thing' for an aircraft, he says. "But what I really care about is the shift in thinking that's happening."
The Hawk 127 was an example of design thinking applied to a specific problem, Professor Bucolo says, but design thinking is also being applied to big-picture strategy within the RAAF, showing the way for others.
Wing Commander Reid says defence forces around the world – like many businesses – realise that they can't sustain an advantage for long, that ‘transient' advantage is the new normal.
"Our potential adversaries are moving at a pace that is unpredictable, with threats and capabilities increasing rapidly," he says.
"We develop a capability advantage, and it will last as long as we don't deploy it. As soon as we deploy it the advantage will be gone – which means we have to have the next capability advantage ready to go, and the next one and the next one.
"To do that we need a system of systems, not just one thing. We need speed and capacity. And design thinking is going to be at the forefront of that."
Professor Bucolo is giving a presentation on the project at the NSW Collaboration for Defence symposium being held at UTS on Wednesday (15 February). Introduced by NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer Professor Mary O'Kane, the symposium is bringing together NSW universities, government and industry to network and coordinate collective capabilities to address critical national defence priorities.
This story is from the latest edition of #think, the official magazine of UTS Business School.
Learn more about the Design Innovation Research Centre. Read more about Professor Sam Bucolo