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An opportunity to enact long-lasting change to UK Defence and National Security

Even before the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK’s defence and national security enterprise was experiencing the biggest shift in the external threat space for more than a century. Widespread technological disruption and the convergence of the physical, cyber and digital realms have irrevocably altered the new mission space.

Keeping pace with new threats – let alone getting ahead of them – requires the ability to pool resources and use data, information and knowledge more effectively. It calls for new ways of working to make the best use of scarce skills and build trust amongst colleagues across defence, intelligence, counter-terrorism, organised crime, ‘blue light’ services, cyber-security, national resilience, diplomacy, international development and aid.

To build this new normal and establish the trust and shared capabilities to make this an enduring posture, defence and security leaders should take the opportunity to enact long-lasting change to organisational structures and capabilities. This new posture calls for three actions:

Use the Integrated Review to reimagine the future

The government’s Integrated Review of Foreign Policy, Defence, Security and International Development will shape the UK’s national security policy now and into the 2030s. This review, although delayed due to COVID-19, is an opportunity to dramatically reshape the way this community pools its information assets and orchestrates resource deployments. It will also be able to respond to the lessons of COVID-19 as the biggest global shock in most of our lifetimes.

Recent reviews haven’t gone far enough in recognising the changing environment or implementing the integrated digital and cyber capabilities needed to enable our national security objectives. This review is a once in a generation opportunity to enact changes that refocus efforts on the new information mission space, and to redress the balance of investment between physical and information assets.

The review also presents an opportunity to place far greater emphasis on the first three steps in the observe, orientate, decide, act (OODA) loop – the idea being that the actor who completes the loop fastest will gain the advantage. Currently, too many of the UK’s national security resources are focused on providing the physical power to act rather than gaining strategic advantage through greater common situational awareness.

In the information age we need to prioritise cyber, space and modern technologies – including artificial intelligence, data science and analytics. Pooling these high-cost, high-tech resources, when combined with agile organisational design, offers a fresh path to operational success through information superiority. This path will address emerging threats, save money, better deploy resources and reinforce the nation’s reputation as a world leader in intelligence.

Establish a single strategic body to orchestrate effective implementation and deployment

Across the defence, security and policing sector, the UK has over 100 independent organisations attempting to replicate equivalent capabilities, from the recruitment and training of digital and cyber experts through to data collection, analysis and the management of digital information and intelligence. This is a waste of time, money, people power and valuable planetary resource. It’s no longer okay to fund competing approaches to the same problem and multiple large infrastructure programmes with spiralling costs and delays, and which are often out of date by the time they are complete.

Instead of competing for scarce resources and human talent, the UK should establish a single strategic body that will orchestrate their effective implementation and deployment. We know from the success of the military’s Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) – formed to address similar defence challenges at the end of the Cold War – that it’s possible to operate a lean and efficient decision-making and coordinating body without the need to own the people or platforms.

A pan-security ‘PJHQ’ type organisation would provide central coordination and better sharing of data and information assets across the entire national security landscape. Each organisation would retain its own assets and could respond more effectively and efficiently using shared situational awareness developed from common platforms and skills. It would orchestrate the optimum deployments of each organisation’s physical assets.

In addition, this single strategic body should be willing to find greater cost efficiencies by embracing the advanced technical capabilities of private sector data-led organisations such as Google, Amazon and Microsoft. These organisations already invest more in advanced technologies – from cloud computing to data analytics – than the world’s leading intelligence agencies, so states no longer have the innate information advantage.

Prepare for internal resistance

The changes outlined above won’t be easy. While central government may well support the establishment of a single coordinating body, independent organisations may feel they have more to lose than win. Each is culturally programmed to champion change and capability enhancements that at most reshape, rather than radically alter, how they operate. In some instances, the case against ‘centralised command’ may be compelling – different missions, bad past experiences, or distance from the end user and greater bureaucracy – but centralising the information assets and preserving local control of physical assets would address this challenge.

We’re calling for a shift not seen since the introduction of the aeroplane responded to the ‘new dimension’ of warfare just over a century ago. Just as this change led to the creation of the Royal Air Force (RAF) from the Army’s Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service, our reaction to this new ‘information mission space’ should be equally radical. While the creation of the RAF may not have met with universal approval initially, it made logistical sense, reducing procurement and development costs, and standardising training and procedures. The single strategic body we propose would have the same impact.

Making the required leap will demand a level of trust and cooperation from national security leaders that comes naturally during times of crisis, but too often reverts to competition during business as usual. By creating opportunities for joint working earlier in their staff’s career trajectories, leaders will be able to create a mindset of ‘collaboration as usual’. It is only by training, working, and operating alongside colleagues from other organisations that organisations build deep trust in each other’s unique capabilities and expertise.  

At this time of reflection and concern about the UK’s security, public safety and its place in the world, these changes would be a bold assertion that the country is not only prepared for whatever the future may hold, but that it is willing to devote vigour, resources and time to create the new ‘information age’ structures that will be the gold standard for the rest of the world to learn from and emulate.

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