In March, the UK government’s much-discussed Integrated Review outlined a total revamp of UK defence thinking and a £41.5bn budget to boot. Yet while the paper spans several industries, technology, science and foreign policy, media coverage seemed to reduce the review down to an overly simplistic choice between cutting troop numbers and upping cash spent on technological capabilities.
Yet the reality, as anyone working in the sector knows, is more nuanced than that. Warfare has changed, along with technology, social attitudes, and the overall threat landscape. While defence will always be a people-first world, the Integrated Review’s priority is to equip those people with the tools they need to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow – and making sure they have the skills to use those tools as effectively as possible.
The UK’s defence decision-makers have had to adapt, and this is radically changing how and where they spend money to meet the new demands of modern warfare.
A different kind of defence
Technology has always defined conflict. From castles, siege weapons and cannons to missiles and aircraft carriers, warfare has evolved to incorporate the latest innovations. Those who are slow to adjust have always found themselves at a significant strategic disadvantage.
Data-driven technologies are now some of the most important determinants of success on and off the battlefield. All levels of the MoD and other key UK defence organisations now rely on the likes of high-speed networks, surveillance assets, timely and accurate data, unmanned machines and, increasingly, AI and the internet of things (IoT).
Where this differs from the technology of old is how it’s procured and developed. Digital technology is a very different beast from traditional military hardware like tanks or aircraft, which are well reported long term procurements and investments that can take years to bear fruit.
Defence procurement 2.0
In the commercial sector, a new technology project can get up and running in a matter of months, depending on its complexity. With low barriers to entry, competition is furious.
The combination of pace, competition, and the potential for massive investment has supercharged innovation. Digital tools can also be upgraded more quickly, and cloud-hosted solutions can be tweaked without the user ever experiencing downtime.
Compare this to the process of overhauling Britain’s fleet of armour. There is no going back when you're three-quarters of the way through building a £5m, 64-tonne capability without serious financial and operational implications. This is why procurement processes have been more linear and rigidly defined, with trusted suppliers who know how to work in defence.
The difference between digital technology and traditional military hardware means UK defence decision-makers must adapt to an entirely new way of procuring what they need.
A platform for innovation
Today, all countries must compete on two fronts from a defence point of view, racing to keep up on the digital front not just with their adversaries, but also the private sector at home and abroad.
Take a relatively simple measure like R&D spend: the Integrated Review pledges some £6.6bn to advanced and next-generation technology over the next four years. This is a sizeable figure, but when the R&D budgets of Amazon, Alphabet or Microsoft can reach well into the tens of billions, it's clear that the UK military will have to be highly productive to be able to match Big Tech’s advancements in AI, autonomous vehicles or robotics. Greater and closer partnerships with industry will accelerate innovation investment into the end user’s hands in a timely manner.
As a result of this, the sector is already making more practical adjustments to the kinds of projects it invests in and how it procures technology. LELANTOS, a recently announced technology project at the NATO Allied Rapid Reaction Corps Headquarters in Gloucester, is an example of what can be done with more modern procurement. The two-year technical innovation contract is being implemented over a series of stages, at the end of which a review period will assess the successes and the failures of previous months. The lessons learnt will allow decision-makers to adapt at each stage, enabling a continuous cycle of innovation.
On the world stage
With technology and defence already two vital UK exports and areas of expertise, a closer relationship between the two is the logical next step from both a defence and an economic standpoint. Greater collaboration and integration between the two should lead to growth across the board, creating new high-skilled jobs and opportunities for Britain to excel on the world stage.
Whether the concerns over a reduction in the importance of individual personnel are warranted or not, people will always be at the centre of defence policy. But those people must have access to the best technology of the day – and this has been the case throughout military history. Today, many of those most important skills happen to be in digital technology.
The Integrated Review was most notable for its sheer scope. Far more than a mere defence review, this was a wholesale reassessment of how the UK presents itself on the world stage and will kick-start a new era of geopolitical strategy, diplomacy, foreign policy, and prosperity.…