In Sydney, Australia, there is a radical plan to build robotoc submarines that can kill people.
People are saying that these high-tech "killer robots" are the answer to what went wrong with Australia's French submarine. They are being called the "iPhone" of AI.
The defense of Australia is in a bad spot. The political and business failures of the replacement submarine project will leave our sea lanes open to attack. But a controversial tech entrepreneur has a radical and risky plan to change all of that.
Anduril is the name of a magic sword in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, which is also the name of the company. Palmer Luckey, who created the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset and was fired from Facebook, is in charge of it.
He wants to make Australia the "iPhone" of killer robots that are controlled by artificial intelligence.
Luckey said on Thursday at a recruiting event in Sydney that the defense industry can't get things done because people are lazy, bureaucratic, and thinking in the wrong way.
"So many of these projects are just being done in weird ways that go on forever, and ever, and ever, and ever, and ever," he said. "And people who work on projects for a long time make a lot of money. They are paid to do work, not to make things that work."
Luckey says that he can only get around the military-industrial way of thinking because he has a lot of money.
"You can use your own money to start a defense company where you decide what to build and how to build it. Once you have a technology that works, you can sell it to the government," he says.
In March of this year, the Australian Defense Force's Next Generation Technologies Fund made a deal with Anduril worth $140 million over three years.
It needs to make three working models of underwater drones that can carry sensors and weapons over long distances and dive to depths of up to 6 km.
The submarines will be up to 30 meters long and will be called XL-AUVs, which stands for Extra Large Autonomous Undersea Vehicles. Early next year, the project's systems will be put to the test.
Luckey says that the goal is to make a big army of these killer robots to keep an eye on and protect Australia's strategic waterways. And deterrence.
"There's a huge chance of asymmetric disruption, where a small country could make a lot of big changes that make it a big power," he says. "I expect a small country to say, 'Hey, we're going to put a lot of money into self-driving and self-driving technology, and all of a sudden we'll be way, way stronger than all of our nearby rivals.'"
Taking the front seat for Collins
The Collins-class submarines won't be around for much longer.
Their tech is getting old. And the constant big changes in pressure and temperature that come with working underwater are putting stress on their hulls.
You can make them live longer. but not completely fresh.
And because a contract to build 12 new submarines was canceled, any new ones could be built up to 20 years late.
So Australia's navy may need to connect small groups of killer robots to crewed Collins-class "motherships."
Dr. Shane Arnott, Anduril's Australian Chief Engineer, told a Sydney forum that the XL-AUV will be the size of a school bus and will be able to travel long distances, stay in one place for a long time, "and pack a whole heap of surprises."
He says that the technology will "sort of flip the script on the denial tactics that they've been using against us by planning some surprises in our own backyard."
But their AI brains won't be able to do everything on their own.
"There are a lot of jobs that can only be done by crewed submarines that can't be done by unmanned systems," says Dr. Arnott. "But, even with that in mind, the Australian Defense Force has to protect a very large coastline. It is very helpful to have uncrewed capabilities in addition to crewed capabilities, especially when the mission is boring, dirty, or dangerous.
Crew is not needed for the XL-AUV. That means that all the equipment needed to keep life going is not needed.
It is possible to flood the boat. Only equipment that needs to be protected from water and pressure needs a shield, not the whole hull. And the basic carrying hull can be made to fit different mission modules that can be switched out.
Rear Admiral Peter Quinn, who is in charge of Navy Capabilities, said that the program would focus on giving the Navy the capabilities it needs most.
Rear Admiral Quinn told the media earlier this year, "We will build a little, test a little, and learn a lot."
After canceling the deal with France, Canberra is now 12 months into an 18-month review of its submarine options. It's becoming more and more clear that the US can't design and build them for us. And making smaller British designs work for Australia may end up being just as messy as the French project that was given up on.
But each new Australian Defense White Paper has stressed the need to make arms and ammunition on Australian soil to make sure there is always enough. Disruptions to the international supply chain caused by the Covi-19 pandemic, the Ukraine war, and Chinese market manipulation have only made this need more important.
The Collins class submarine was made in Adelaide, but the first XL-AUV prototype is not being made there. It's not being put together in Perth or Brisbane shipyards.
Instead, it's being made on Sydney Harbor using 3D printing.
Dr. Arnott says it shows the Australian Defense Force is no longer just a buyer and not a builder like it has been for decades.
"Things are pretty cool right now. A number of Loyal Wingman drones are flying around Woomera. We have plans for making hypersonic weapons. We have rockets made by Gilmore and Black Sky, both of which are based in Queensland. Then came the XLl program. So it's kind of nice to have helped get Australia's mojo back in a small way."
The plan is to set up a production line in Australia, but only if they can make three prototypes that work in three years.
Luckey says that Anduril isn't just making the XL-AUV for Australia.
"We're also making it from the start so that we can sell it to other countries."
Thinking in the 21st century
"The point of high-tech defense is not to win a war that has already started. "It's to make sure that war doesn't happen," says Luckey. "It's to make it so expensive to fight that war that it won't happen."
But he says that what happened in Ukraine shows that the West is no longer able to do this kind of deterrence on time.
"I'm proud to be an American. Most of the time, we're right. "But one thing we don't do well is get things to other countries quickly enough before conflicts happen," says Luckey.
Instead, defense contracting gives companies a reason to propose systems that are too complicated and to spend as much time as possible making them work.
"Can you guess what I really think about the Joint Strike Fighter program, which has been going on for decades and has cost more than a trillion dollars?" he asked the crowd in Sydney. "By the way, "affordable" was one of the three main ideas behind the program. It is still there on the patch."
So, he says, he tried to find a solution in science fiction.
"Many science fiction ideas aren't just for fun. They are logical. And it makes a lot of sense to make a lot of robotics systems that can be mass-produced and used in the air, on land, at sea, under the sea, and in space. These systems should use artificial intelligence to combine data from all of these different systems into a full picture that can be shared in real time. We started the company because of this, but we didn't know exactly what the products would be.
He also says that it's all about the software.
Anduril is using "big-tech" ideas that are similar to those behind the iPhone, in which the product gets better by getting software updates instead of hardware upgrades.
"The first core product we made was Lattice, our AI sensor fusion platform that connects all of our different hardware," he says. "And we've put in more hardware made by other people than our own. And every product we've made is based on the same software platform."