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Pathfinder #311

  • Release date: 28/06/2018

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Lessons From the World Game: We Won’t Know What We Don’t Know Unless We Try 

As a rule, software systems do not work well until they have been used, and have failed repeatedly, in real applications.

— Dave Parnas, Software Pioneer

Without doubt, the global focus on the 2018 FIFA World Cup clearly establishes football as the world game. This high level of interest has placed demands and challenges on various technology-enabled functions, which bring the games to the world population and requires innovation to solve. The requirement to adopt technological innovations to optimise performance is equally applicable to the ADF as it introduces new capabilities into operational service. So, what can the ADF learn from the 2018 FIFA World Cup regarding the introduction of cutting-edge systems in a cost-effective manner?  

What can be learned beyond the usual platitudes from commentators regarding teamwork, national pride and the inevitable debates regarding controversial refereeing decisions? At both the national and international levels, the organisation and conduct of the World Cup is a complex system of systems with multiple stakeholders ranging from national teams, fans, FIFA officials and global media companies. The world’s most watched sporting event requires legacy systems (the referee) and new technologies (Video Assisted Referee) to work seamlessly on the pitch when matches are in progress (operations). In addition, the games must be transmitted by multiple media outlets through traditional means and streamed using complex new technologies. Recent unexpected outcomes during the games, such as pitting the referees against their video assistants, and the well reported problems of streaming the games in Australia indicate that a realistic, comprehensive and exhaustive testing regime is mandatory to understand and anticipate the limitations of a complex system. 

The Air Force is in the process of introducing arguably the most complex system of systems ever commissioned by Defence, notably the Air Combat Capability (ACC) and the Joint Integrated Air and Missile Defence System (JIAMDS). These systems, jointly, will enhance the efficiency of the application of air power. Like the 2018 World Cup, the ACC and JIAMDS will need to operate seamlessly if the operators (players) and the military commanders and strategic decision makers (audience) are able to optimise the benefits that accrue from the combination. In order for the ACC and JIAMDS to extract the best from the new systems, both must trust the ability of the system to assist them and have confidence in the veracity of the information being presented by the automated sub-systems. 

This will only occur if participants have a thorough understanding of the system and can anticipate how the system will operate in realistic scenarios when under extreme pressure. If the automated decision aids (such as the Video Assistant Referee in the World Cup example) provide inconsistent advice to operators and decision makers there will be a rapid loss of confidence in the entire system. In addition, if the system is prone to unexpected catastrophic failures when under stress (World Cup streaming technology is an apt example) it is likely that the system will be operated at a sub-optimal level in order to mitigate the risk of an unexpected crash. Neither of these scenarios justify the investment being made to provide the Air Force with the best future warfighting technology, pertinent to the next generation. 

Middle power militaries like the ADF must, by virtue of economic necessity, make compromises between capability and resource expenditure when acquiring new systems. One compromise could be to buy cheaper, and in most cases, less capable systems; that can be equated to the 1998 World Cup, with no automated referee support and matches distributed by relatively few broadcasters on only radio and television. Australia has consciously decided not to pursue this option. Instead, Australia has decided to buy technically sophisticated, state-of-the-art ACC and JIAMDS systems with all the benefits and inherent risks associated with the new technologies; something similar to the 2018 World Cup with referee decision aids and multicasting on traditional and new platforms. 

The compromise that Australia had to make to induct state-of-the-art systems is in numbers—the resource availability simply could not afford large numbers of either the ACC or JIAMDS. There is another inherent challenge to middle power militaries: they do not have the critical mass to stress the sophisticated systems that have been acquired. However, if problems similar to the ones associated with the 2018 World Cup are to be avoided; if users and beneficiaries (players and audiences) are to understand the new systems and have faith in the results, the ACC and JIAMDS have to be tested to the point of failure. This is the only way that the Air Force will be able to operate new complex systems with confidence and be assured that quality information is being presented to decision makers as well as provide a commensurate return on the premium that the Commonwealth has paid for the best available ACC and JIAMDS.

Developing sufficient critical mass to place the ACC and JIAMDS under stress to the point that users clearly understand the characteristics of the systems and are able to anticipate likely outcomes is not impossible but cannot be achieved by relying on traditional exercises and testing means. Testing individual elements of the ACC and JIAMDS, whilst necessary, will not provide the necessary level of confidence that the system of systems will operate as expected. Emerging technologies, such as Live, Virtual Constructive simulations could help to place the whole system under pressure in such a way that real world exercises may not be able to do. Only a high stress, whole-of-system testing environment will provide the understanding of how to manage the ACC and JIAMDS under pressure, provide confidence in the results, and reduce the risk of unanticipated system failure.

Australia’s position is not unique, indeed the majority of nations acquiring similar ACC and JIAMDS systems are deemed to be middle powers and find themselves in a similar situation. This provides opportunities for collaborative testing and problem solving by utilising diverse approaches, which in turn may increase the understanding of the technologies being inducted. Returning to the World Cup analogy, although a great deal of testing had been carried out on the technologically enhanced systems prior to the 2018 World Cup, there were some reported failures of the video assistant referee system. This highlighted the need for enhanced and fully stressed testing of new technologies before they can be considered fully reliable. 

The 2018 World Cup has embraced new technologies for players and audiences but not without unintended consequences. Unexpected failures of streaming technology and inconsistent results from the Video Assistant Referee are examples of modern complex systems not operating as expected when placed under pressure. The result of these failures is a widely reported loss of confidence in the targeted audience coupled with increasing dissatisfaction in new technologies within players and officials. These technologies were intended to assist decision making and improve the level of accuracy in decision-making in the 2018 World Cup.  

Australia’s ACC and JIAMDS are also examples of modern complex systems that will require rigorous testing if the Air Force is to avoid similar pitfalls. Noting the limitations that are associated with middle power militaries acquiring and operating state-of-the-art systems, it is highly unlikely that traditional testing methodologies will provide operators the confidence needed to use the systems to their full capacity. Only by taking full advantage of every aspect of the ACC and JIAMDS can the Air Force justify the considerable investment that the Commonwealth has expended to ensure optimisation of decision-making for the next generation of warfighters. 

Key Points

  • Complex systems require comprehensive and exhaustive testing to prove their reliability and efficacy.

  • The ACC and JIAMDS will require non-traditional testing methodologies to ensure that unanticipated failures will not occur.

  • Without comprehensive testing, complex systems are likely to fail in unexpected and unanticipated ways.


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