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Innovate or suffocate: UK defence and its response to a disruptive world

By Stuart Mitchell, PA defence and innovation expert

UK defence needs to respond to an increasingly complex environment. The Ministry of Defence’s (MOD) 2014 Future Character of Conflict paper  confirmed UK forces today face a greater range of threats than ever before. Forces will operate across terrain ranging from urban environments to open deserts1, which means the nature of operations and military needs can change rapidly and with little warning.

The accelerated development and proliferation of technologies such as smartphones, GPS trackers and social media amplifies this ever-changing environment. They can support the creation of new capabilities almost overnight but the slower pace of defence procurement means the industry cannot rapidly exploit the latest technology to combat the evolving threat. The abundance of technology also increases its availability to hostile actors who can quickly take advantage of these developments.

Another challenge is that the MOD and UK defence industry’s combined investment on research and development (R&D) is, understandably, far less than that of the civilian sector. For instance, Microsoft spends almost three times more on R&D than the entire UK defence sector. This means it is increasingly impractical for UK defence to keep up with technology through independent and bespoke development.

R&D Graph

For UK defence to realise the capabilities and operational advantage it needs in this dynamic environment, it needs to address two key areas: change how it invests in and promotes innovation and alter the way it asks for equipment and services.

Target investment and supply chain interactions

The MOD, defence companies, the civilian sector and academia each have fundamentally different motives and constraints when delivering innovations. By recognising and exploiting these differences, investment can be optimised across the supply chain to maximise return on investment for defence. In practice, this means focusing government’s innovation investment in areas where other markets and industries would be unwilling or unable to deliver step changes. One example of where government has targeted investment is in kick-starting ‘quantum compass’ technology. This aims to create highly accurate location trackers that, unlike GPS, do not have to rely on satellite constellations – something the civilian sector is unlikely to progress with.

Widening defence’s innovation supply base to civilian and academic sectors can also help maximise return on investment and allow defence to fully exploit early stage commercial innovations. For example, the bespoke ruggedised tablets, which are designed for military use and currently used by the UK military, cost approximately five times more than the latest generation of commercial tablets. However, being able to efficiently ‘militarise’ commercial off-the-shelf products with developers is likely to be much more cost effective in the long term.

To achieve this, defence will need to engage with civilian equipment developers at an earlier stage, have a more open information exchange and be flexible on standards and functions. This could facilitate a step change in the capability-to-cost ratio of defence equipment. Challenges will emerge where commercial technology is not ready for the rigours of deployed operations but the thousands of functioning smartphones returning from Afghanistan and Iraq suggest this approach can be successful – particularly outside combat situations.

Change the way requests for equipment and services are made and prepare for change

To keep pace with the changing environment and technology, defence must buy equipment, services and capabilities knowing they will need to be adapted over time – and this flexibility has to be built in from the start. This will involve giving priority to flexible and modular platforms and architectures, potentially trading shorter-term needs for longer-term incremental development.

Providing this future flexibility requires more than just platforms and architectures however. Early communication of defence’s requirements to suppliers and collaboration with the supply chain to adapt requirements to the evolving technical and operational environment is essential. This means refocusing the funding profile, allowing for greater uncertainty at the outset and ensuring delivery can be supported by incremental approvals. Together this has the potential to reduce the cost and time of tailoring or replacing existing equipment to meet changing needs.

MOD teams charged with delivering capabilities, equipment, services and research must carefully target innovation investment and use the full supply chain to maximise the return from that investment. To do this, they need to be supported by more flexible mechanisms for market engagement, procurement, funding and approvals. It is only by targeting investment and providing this future flexibility that UK defence can innovate and succeed in a disruptive world.

To find out how we can help your organisation embrace innovation please contact us now.

1. Strategic Trends Programme, Future Character of Conflict, Ministry of Defence, 2014 

2. Source data and analysis notes:

  • All figures related to 2012 expenditure
  • UK defence is the combined expenditure from both UK Government and defence industry as a proportion of total expenditure and total revenue respectively
  • UK defence R&D expenditure data from Official of National Statistics (ONS). Statistical Bulletin, UK Gross Domestic Expenditure on Research and Development, 2012
  • Other listed organisations expenditure from 2012 Annual Reports or publicly available revenue statistics.
Nick Newman
Defence and security
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Ritu Sharma
Defence and security
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