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Digital transformation in the military – aspiration or substance?

By Rupert Jones CBE 
Published June 8, 2022
The days when military innovation led the way in technical progress are a distant memory. Today the most brilliant minds, the greatest unfettered entrepreneurial zeal and the big bucks to imagine and drive the pace of change generally lie elsewhere. In a time of relative (and I use the word advisedly) peace and stability, conservatism and bureaucracy take hold in western Defences. At times process, rather than output, appears to be the measure of success.

The challenge of riding the wave of technical possibilities and keeping pace with our most potent potential adversaries has only got harder in the digital era. The imperative to adapt is well recognised by senior Defence leaders in the UK, US, Australia, Canada and elsewhere. The aspirations are clear and bold, but what is the reality?

My final three years in uniform were spent commanding the Standing Joint Force HQ (SJFHQ) Group that collectively represents UK’s joint high readiness HQs ready to deploy anywhere in the world to deal with crises; there are few places in Defence more demanding of technical advantage. When not deployed the HQs act as Defence’s Command and Control innovation and experimentation testbed. All good so far; great people, highly motivated and operationally-focused, and with a clear mandate for change.

Sadly, the reality did not match the aspiration. Today’s HQs would largely be recognisable to our younger selves 20 years ago; highly trained analysts spend too much time on labour-intensive tasks and staff officers are fixed on Excel rather than applying their considerable military experience and intellect. Aside from being disempowering, this makes HQs slower, larger and less effective than they should be.

Of course there have been some advances that offer glimpses of what an Information Age HQ might look like, but these technologies are outliers and are not yet fundamentally changing how HQs operate. Collaboration with technology companies has improved, but is still not yet good enough.

There was a lack of a formal framework to dock into and so answering our most fundamental innovation requirements felt a constant struggle. The result was that tools I judged to be entry-level requirements of an Information Age HQ, such as a Joint Common Operating Picture, were really just aspirations.

The innovation agenda has not been sufficiently cutting-edge; more modernisation and catch up than breaking new ground. The SJFHQ Group rapidly adapted procedures to exploit any successful projects, often offering ‘risk to life’ benefits, but these swiftly bumped into obstacles, with no secure funding line to exploit innovation success into sustained funding.

The system tends to default to the negative. The culture, processes and incentivisation all encourage business as usual and are in stark contrast to the US where, for example, their Joint All Domain C2 connects sensors and shooters between all the Services via AI real-time analysis. It is too easy to point to the scale of American budgets to explain the different approach; of course money makes a big difference, but the real differentiator is mindset, ambition and attitude.

There is no doubt that UK Defence now talks a good innovation game and has a host of programmes that promise the future (Multi Domain Integration, Information Advantage etc), but there is a real danger of confusing activity and language with demonstrable progress that will help warfighters ‘tonight’ and ‘tomorrow’. Listening to senior leaders and project leads extol what lies ahead tends to feel depressingly reminiscent of what their predecessors said two, five, ten or fifteen years ago.

If we are serious in saying that we live in an era of constant competition then this isn’t good enough. The imperative of war is accelerating technical advances in Ukraine. The UK, together with our friends in Australia, Canada and elsewhere must keep pace. Long term programmatics and strategies are important, but organisations learn by doing. More ‘quick wins’ are required to build momentum and address the most pressing technical deficiencies among our highest readiness forces.

It is not all gloom. Innovation hubs and foundries are springing up across Defence. There is a thirst for change, particularly among the younger, digital-savvy generation. They must be empowered, leashes loosened, risks taken, and mistakes tolerated (or actually encouraged). As Matthew Syed wrote in Black Box Thinking, ‘innovation cannot happen without failure.’ Restless energy, dogged determination, and disruptive thinking are essential if UK Defence is to recover and establish a fresh cutting-edge after years of under-investment.

The British soldier, sailor and airman, and their wider national security colleagues, are among the best in the world in part because of their guile and ingenuity. This must be unleashed in a digital insurgency. Companies like the Australian digital skills company, WithYouWithMe, are already helping identify and upskill hidden potential within MOD, but the scale of the challenge should not be under-estimated. Partnership with tech companies is vital.

I have sought to be deliberately provocative here. I hope that readers might counter me and point to examples of progress, but my simple observation, borne of experience at the operational edge of this, is that UK must do more, better and faster if we are to keep pace with the changing character of war. In my next article I will reflect on what I have concluded talking to tech companies operating in the Defence and national security ecosystem over the last year or so.

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