OPINION: Australian skies are being reconfigured to improve air-traffic control and better manage congestion at busy metropolitan airports.

It's a necessary endeavour, but there are worrying signs that Australia's reliance on importing offshore solutions from multinational companies with artificial investments in research and development in Australia will significantly threaten the future of our skies.

A massive infrastructure upgrade currently under way will see Airservices Australia and Defence integrate civilian and military air traffic management (ATM) systems.

It's the largest project in the modern history of Airservices Australia and the Australian economy will have to live with its consequences for decades to come - over the lifespan of the infrastructure.

So how do we get it right? And how do we guarantee a bright future for Australia's aviation and air transport industry?

The military has years of experience and existing processes to effectively manage multi-billion-dollar military projects and build capability.

But to design a hedging strategy for the future of our Australian civil-military sky, we need new mechanisms to foster collaboration throughout and across the entire aviation industry.

To properly design the future of our air transport economy, an upgraded civil-military system must be viewed through the lens of capability building, and not just as pieces of equipment or off-the-shelf solutions from a company.

After all, a Formula One car is nice to look at, but what's the point if you don't have a knowledgeable and loyal driver that can excel on the racetrack? There needs to be a focus on a culture of excellence and investments in people, training, education and research.

It means changing the conventional approach of placing the emphasis on the technology, machines and traditional training towards the goal of building the knowledge base required to operate these technologies and adapt them if we get something wrong.

One idea is to develop a centre of excellence that can unite the country's top researchers and scientists.

This would enable Australia to build a sustainable air transport capability rather than simply acquiring one pre-fab.

We know the unique problems in our sky and our experts are best placed on how to fix them.

We have seen this model deployed elsewhere: Europe has established the Single-European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) program, with alliances between nations, industry and academia. The US, through its Federal Aviation Authority, has established its NEXTGEN program, which includes several satellite centres of excellence. And Asia is also catching up. Singapore and China in particular have both launched major research centres focused on ATM.

Australia, meanwhile, has loads of expertise, but no cohesive strategy for bringing it together - and we seem to be favouring the simple yet short-sighted approach of buying a solution rather than building a capability.

If we keep focusing on equipment and machines and forget about people and research in the age of the knowledge economy, our existing expertise will evaporate.

Maybe we'll have the car, we'll even have the racetrack, but we won't have the knowledgeable and loyal driver to excel - and we certainly won't have a qualified pit crew to keep things running smoothly when road conditions change.

If Australia can establish a significant research capability and an ATM knowledge-base, the opportunities could be enormous to integrate into the Asia-Pacific region - and perhaps further afield.

It's unacceptable to pay multinational companies billions of dollars to acquire a system while all their "true" major R&D is happening overseas.

This is the largest project in Australia's modern aviation history and taxpayers' money should not be spent building knowledge overseas when we can benefit our society growing our local knowledge economy.

If our future civil-military ATM system is just a few radars, a couple of simulators, many wires, and an army of overseas experts flying business class to Australia, we are not building a capability.

In fact, we are destroying our capability and the future of our skies. Serious ATM research in Australia is our main hedging strategy towards a successful civil-military ATM integration that is seamless, safe and secure.

Hussein Abbass is a Professor in the School of Engineering and Information Technology at UNSW Canberra.

This opinion piece was first published in The Australian.