With the publication of the Integrated Review of security and defence earlier this month, policy strategists have produced the most comprehensive and ambitious route map for transformation of the UK’s armed forces in over a generation. But the compelling context is becoming lost in the tragedies of Covid-19 and the politics of Brexit: there is an urgent need to buttress this country against assertive authoritarian states in our near and far abroad, alongside our allies, and to place a renewed focus on the rapid development and adoption of science and tech.
We have detail on the near term – a journey of vital importance but one that is scarily ambitious for those who know the Ministry of Defence (MOD). Over the next four years, the “Integrated Operating Concept 2025” demands that we “deepen integration of UK defence across the five operational domains and with other instruments of state power, and improve interoperability with allies”.
Moreover, the MOD has seemingly been a recipient of the Treasury’s largesse. So, with the money tanks full, the map in hand and destination clear, will the MOD hit the accelerator?
New ships, aircraft and vehicles, announced to sweeten the pill of cuts, will not achieve this alone. We must also see a comprehensive digital transformation of the institutions and structures of defence, not just in equipment and expertise but in culture too.
Success in emerging technologies has not been achieved through well-written strategy papers translating into change. Like so many stories of technological advance, it is courageous individuals who play a crucial role – officers and officials taking the initiative, taking risks and pushing change forward.
You can detect promising early flickers of this revolution by looking carefully at our military courses, academic collaborations and tech hubs: a nascent experimenting culture in each command and even attempts to integrate the approach of lean tech startups into military organisations. We need to fan these flames but the MOD is notoriously slow at changing its output. The institution as a whole needs to take more risk, deliver more quickly and, where necessary, fail more quickly. Collaboration and sharing information should be the default. Individuals must have the space and permission to disrupt the established way of doing things, with others given the opportunity to learn from them when they do.
Simply put, the MOD needs to learn how to move fast and break things.
As the levers of defence and security evolve, there is one immutable consideration: the crucial importance of alliances with nations that share our values. Far from being the option we take because we cannot go it alone, our alliances are our greatest strength. They are what our adversaries fear. But they too must now evolve to meet the threats we face and the technologies we need to embrace.
In the coming decade, technology must be the golden thread that binds our alliances. We will need alliances of data and algorithms to counter Chinese and Russian ambitions across all domains; the UK and even the US alone cannot expect to hold digital advantage.
In China and Russia, there is no distinction between state and government, the military and military industries. This brings strength and agility in the rapid deployment of investment and expertise. We see evidence of this in the brisk expansion of the Chinese navy, the speedy development of Russian tanks and hypersonic missiles, and both countries’ use of propaganda and disinformation. If we are to meet the Integrated Review’s ambition of “identifying, funding, developing and deploying new technologies and capabilities faster than our potential adversaries”, we must find a way to match and exceed those benefits they derive from the seamless relationship between state, military and national industries. We cannot and will not develop battle-winning algorithms without an open market. Engagement with the private sector must go beyond existing procurement processes and collaboration. And the culture must shift to embrace change and risk. Failure to collaborate on technological innovation will translate into failure on the battlefield.
There will be those who focus on the cuts and dismiss newly announced hardware as ‘jam tomorrow’. They are stuck in the past. The true risk is that transformation does not come fast enough; two more frigates will not make us a better ally or edge us from failure to success. Instead it will be the inability to network with our allies, particularly the US, the failure to exploit data, and the implications of the cloud and AI that will render us as irrelevant as sail in the age of steam. Irrelevant to our allies, and most crucially, to our adversaries.
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