AUS’ RPDE / Canada’s Project Accord
Nov 15, 2011

The Rapid Prototyping, Development and Evaluation (RPDE) program is a rare beast within Australia’s Department of Defence (DoD) – if a task is low risk and relatively straightforward, it’s unlikely to be of interest.

It’s precisely for this reason that Canada’s Department of National Defence (DND) continues to amass information on RPDE for a similar type of program to contribute to Project Accord, an initiative which DND says will enable key players within the defence industry, academia and government to directly feed into the conception, development and analysis of the country’s future military capabilities.

RPDE General Managers, past and present (from left) Mike Kalms; Pam Price; Minister for Defence Materiel, the Honourable Jason Clare; Heather Layton (current GM); and David Welch.

Now in its seventh year of operation in Australia, RPDE is in the process of implementing a strategic plan whose broadened scope reflects the success of the work it has undertaken to date.

When established in 2005 within the Capability Development Group (CDG) of the DoD, RPDE’s remit was to enhance Australian Defence Force (ADF) warfighting capacity though accelerated capability change in the Network Centric Warfare (NCW) environment – in essence, to support the NCW roadmap.

Over the past 18 months, however, the program’s problem-solving role has moved from a network centric focus to also addressing wider-ranging technical problems plus organizational and policy issues.

A new mission statement, “To accelerate and enhance ADF warfighting capability through innovation and collaboration”, emphasizes RPDE’s ability to expedite ­decision-making and bring about change through its unique blend of expertise from Defence, industry and academia.

For Heather Layton, RPDE’s General Manager since November 2010, the new strategy not only more effectively encompasses the Defence environment but also recognizes the increasing complexity of challenges the program is being asked to tackle.

Layton, on secondment for two years from BAE Systems Australia where she was national Head Information Systems, leads about 60 staff, of whom all but a half-dozen are on secondment from industry.

Core secondments, such as management and support roles, are for a two-year period, with the flexibility to extend if necessary. Secondments for specific projects, or ‘activities’, are tied to the schedule of the activity, and are usually shorter duration. Civilian staff from within the DoD manage the program’s financial and commercial activities.

Starting with an initial five companies in 2005, RPDE now boasts 220 participants, with more in the pipeline. These include the major defence contractors, a small number of professional service providers, universities, a small number of specialized academic research centres, and about 130 small to medium enterprises (SMEs).

Organizations taking part in an activity are paid for their involvement by way of a Standing Offer. The real benefits, however, are harder to quantify. Layton explains that participating companies “get access to Defence they wouldn’t otherwise have; they get information about how Defence operates, the opportunity to work in a ­collegiate environment, and they receive certain information about projects in which they’re involved.”

Importantly, participants who contribute to an activity are not excluded from participating in a later Request for Tender. The obvious sensitivities involved in this are dealt with in the Relationship Agreement, which is signed by all participants when they join RPDE. “There are some strict rules about it, so it’s a level playing field,” comments Layton.

The surge in military operational tempo has been matched by an increase in the number of activities. In the 2009-2010 financial year, RPDE had 26 activities in progress – the highest number in any 12-month period since inception. These ranged from support to the Counter-IED Task Force to themes relating to information architectures, system integration and command support systems.

RPDE’s strategic direction is guided by a 12-member Board comprised of two Defence representatives (including the Head Capability Systems who is the Board Chair), six rotating representatives from Member companies, and four elected representatives from Associate companies – generally niche SMEs, albeit with some R&D capability.

Activities, however, are selected from requests received across Defence by a 16-strong Steering Group of One-Star or equivalent members. The Steering Group also sets priorities for activities.

RPDE staff undertake the initial ­discovery phase of any agreed activity, defining the problem and the type and level of expertise needed to resolve it.

A service request is then issued to all Participants, articulating the labour and/or materiel resources required to work on the activity. A selection is then made by RPDE, with the commercial aspects already covered in the Relationship Agreement and the Standing Offer.

Activities may be either “Quicklooks” or “Tasks”. A Quicklook usually takes two to four months and produces a written report, with recommendations, and/or options, to the Defence entity sponsoring the activity. It could point out that the technology under consideration is not suitable or doesn’t exist. Greater flexibility has recently been built into the Quicklook process by way of additional specialist analysts, greater Participant engagement, and longer duration. This takes into account the broader and more complex range of areas being examined and provides greater certainty to a Defence customer on whether or not to move on to the establishment of a Task.

A Task delivers a prototype solution, whether as a written report, a proof-of-concept, or a physical prototype, and normally takes 12 to 18 months to complete. The value of this work is reflected in the increasing number of Tasks that are transitioning directly to implementation, either led by Defence or as a follow-on activity by RPDE.

Layton attributes heightened activity to the organization becoming better known within the Defence community. “The sponsors that use us tend to return. We’ve had some quite high-profile successes and we try to make those well-known, so success breeds success. I think also, the model has shown there is a level of trust within industry – it’s putting aside its commercial interests to find the best solutions for Defence.”

Layton acknowledges that not every Defence activity would benefit from broad industry engagement, which a key criterion in determining RPDE’s interest in accepting a brief. “If there’s just one industry player who knows how to fix the problem then that problem is not for [RPDE],” she explains.

Over the past six years, a majority of activities have been sponsored by the Capability Development Group and the Vice-Chief of the Defence Force Group. But this has gradually widened to the Defence Material Organisation – responsible for defence acquisitions and support – and its System Programme Offices, and Layton anticipates further interest from the Chief Information Officer Group.

One of the high profile successes that Layton refers to was a task to reduce the level of interference to satellite communications equipment aboard RAN ships from electronic support measures. “The ships were really restricted in their ability to transmit or receive data, in fact, the data rate was virtually zero. So we worked with Navy and DSTO (Defence Scientific and Technical Organisation) and ultimately provided a prototype physical barrier which is known as the “surfboard” (it looks like a surfboard attached to a mast), and it facilitated a data throughput of up to 8MB per second. The solution was simple but it had a very significant outcome – in fact, Navy didn’t want to give the prototype back.”

RPDE’s current workload involves around a dozen activities examining issues ranging from EW Information Management and Defence’s Integrated ISR backbone to warning and reporting systems for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) hazards.

 “One task we’ve completed asked whether a capability could be developed to enable a pattern-of-life analysis in support of the Counter IED Task Force,” says Layton. “We’ve also looked at whether it’s possible to build an information management system that permits submarines to act as effective nodes within the NCW (Network Centric Warfare) construct.”

A broader challenge emerged in late 2009 when the then Vice-Chief of the Defence Force, General David Hurley, asked whether information sourced from disparate systems could be collated and presented succinctly and in context to allow the Strategic Command Group to make more informed and effective decisions. In response, RPDE had produced, by May this year, a prototyped solution for a Strategic Common Picture (StratCP) which facilitates drilling down to very detailed information, allows presentation templates, and is dynamically updated. It also provides a strategic view of up to a year ahead.

The prototype involves interfaces with views from a multiplicity of organizations including the Defence Signals Directorate, Joint Health, Joint Logistics Command, Defence Intelligence Organisation, Military Strategic Commitments, CDG, Chief Information Officer Group, Defence Support Group, Joint Operations Command and the offices of the Chiefs of Navy, Army and Air Force.

RPDE is now helping to progress a production version of StratCP which could be running on the Defence Secret Network by the end of 2012.

With staff numbers nearly doubled in three years to accommodate activity demand, RPDE has taken additional office space in Canberra and broken new ground by basing staff in Adelaide.

“There’s now sufficient pressure on industry, and that’s a cyclical thing, for some companies find it difficult to release people with the appropriate skills to us in Canberra so we’ve had to look at other models,” says Layton.

“I’ve instituted a review of what skills we think we’ll need two to three years out and where those skills are located, and that includes greater participation by targeted academics in research centres. We’ll certainly remain in Canberra because that’s where Defence HQ is, probably expand to Adelaide, and set up a third presence, although right now we don’t know where that will be.”

RPDE is continuing its close working relationship with the UK Niteworks organi­zation, a collaboration between the UK Ministry of Defence and the British defence industry which is governed and funded by the MoD.

As with RPDE, Nitework’s emphasis has moved from network enabled capability and warfighting experimentation to providing decision support across the range of MOD unified customer needs.

“The UK people are our peers, our model was based on theirs but was adapted for our particular environment. We exchange ideas, processes, lessons learned; it’s a very useful interaction,” Layton comments. “They do have some very good documentation, they’re also very good at promoting what they do, so we’ve learned some lessons there.”

RPDE also continues to provide input to Canada’s DND. A Canadian team visited RPDE late in 2010 and Dr Ben Taylor, from the Joint Systems Analysis Section of DRDC (Defence Research and Development Canada), spent time at RPDE in early October this year, meeting with the program’s senior managers.

Layton says Dr Taylor was particularly interested in RPDE’s commercial framework, its interaction with DSTO, and Members’ level of participation.

“The Canadians are interested in proceeding with a model very similar to ours and the conversations went into some detail about stakeholder liaison, operational aspects and the strategic level. Dr Taylor has returned to Canada with a deal of information about our experience,” she adds.

More than six years’ worth of Quicklooks and Tasks means RPDE has amassed a considerable archive of technical data and lessons learned, and since November 2010 these have been available to its industry participants via the program’s internet-based Participant Portal.

This provides access to abstracts of RPDE activities, internal information, foreground intellectual property and allows ready identification of forthcoming opportunities.

“We’ve got 220 participants, more than we’d ever dreamed off, but we wanted to check on whether they were using RPDE, accessing RPDE, and how many were just sleepers. So we looked at the 12 months up to early 2011 and found that 85 percent of our members had participated in RPDE activities or events during that period – I can’t take the credit for that figure but I find it quite impressive,” says Layton.

This result also confirms what, in Layton’s view, is probably the major lesson learned by RPDE to date, and that is communication. “Early engagement with the sponsor, early engagement with all the key stakeholders and these include the DSTO, academic areas and industry” is the key to success, she asserts. “If we get that early engagement with the problem, the outcome is much better.”
Julian Kerr, a defence writer based in Australia, also writes for IHS Janes.
© FrontLine Defence 2011