“For example, should we buy twenty submarines or ten submarines? And why should we do this? … We are changing the decision-making process. We’re not comparing different options, we’re coming up with the best option to meet a given objective.”

An innovative new approach to simulating the future has the potential to revolutionise the way decision-makers think about the possibilities of acquiring new defence assets.

Dr Sondoss El Sawah from UNSW Canberra’s Capability Systems Centre leads a team that is developing an app that uses sophisticated computer simulations to re-think the decision-making process from the ground up.

The kinds of decisions Dr El Sawah’s app will help make are around defence acquisitions—what makes these decisions challenging is that they are dealing with expensive, high-value assets.

“For example, should we buy twenty submarines or ten submarines, and why should we do this?” she said.

“All of these questions about how you use your resources will determine your strategic position in the future… you might buy ten subs to achieve your objectives now, but is this going to be the best investment down the line?”

Previous approaches to assessing decision making for defence acquisitions involved comparing the pros and cons of different, distinct options. Each option would be assessed based on the likely outcomes that would come from choosing that option.

Using the analogy of buying a car, Dr El Sawah said it would be like comparing the decision to buy a Honda with the decision to buy a Mercedes. What would the cost-benefit be if the fuel price changes?

In this new approach, however, what happens instead is that Dr El Sawah’s team doesn’t have any particular option in mind at the beginning of the process.

“We are changing the decision-making process—we’re not comparing different options, we’re coming up with the best option to meet a given objective,” she said.

To extend the car analogy, decision makers can instead start with an objective in mind—for example, lowest carbon emissions over time, or cheapest overall cost—rather than a set of possible cars to assess. The app will assess a whole range of parameters, like fuel prices, maintenance required, interest rates, and then determine the best car to buy to meet a particular objective.

“If these are your objectives, how many subs should you have to meet your objectives?” said Dr El Sawah.

“We give decision makers a trade-off—this option might be better for price, whereas this one might be better for carbon emissions. There isn’t just one best option for each objective.”

This approach is revolutionary because usually, decision-makers’ options are limited to what they can conceive of as a possible scenario—things like a given range of fuel prices. However, if fuel prices skyrocket far beyond what was previously thought possible, old approaches to modelling the future fall apart.