Keeping our Armed Forces safe by reimagining the defence supply chain
In 2022, we formed a new defence and security consortia, Team Protect, alongside Leonardo UK, Leidos UK, and Marshall, agreeing a systems integrator contract with the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MOD) to deliver CRENIC.
Project CRENIC will develop new life-saving capabilities to keep soldiers safe from growing radio-controlled threats during times of conflict. Being part of a community with this purpose is so important to us and all our colleagues, many of whom are former service personnel themselves.
In a world where adversaries are exploiting emerging technologies, we need to respond with innovation. We need to move away from a transactional relationship between the MOD and industry, which is defined by a contract, to a collaborative relationship defined by trust. To do that, we’re helping to pioneer a new model in defence procurement to enable the MOD to access as broad a range of capabilities as possible at pace.
Since launch, Team Protect has helped establish an exciting ecosystem of UK organisations to drive bolder and faster innovation. To date, 110 businesses have joined, and nearly half (45 percent) can be classed as small or ‘micro’ businesses. Over half the companies also operate in the innovation space, which demonstrates not only the enthusiasm to be part of the mission, but the opportunity they see to break new ground and integrate new technologies into the defence supply chain.
To reflect on Team Protect’s one year anniversary, we interviewed Steve Westwood, DE&S’ Force Protection Electronic Countermeasures team leader; Kristina Evans, Head of Cyber Security and SRO Land Cyber Electromagnetic Activities (CEMA) programme; Air Commodore, Paul Rose, UK Strategic Command’s Head of Capability Special Projects; and Johnny Pinney, Defence & Security Lead at Mind Foundry to discuss why partnerships and innovation are crucial to improving defence in an increasingly complex world.
Why was there imperative to do things differently?
KE: Historically SMEs and start-ups have raised the difficulties accessing and engaging with both top tier suppliers and the MOD. This has made it harder for us to attract non-traditional suppliers, limiting opportunities for innovation or plugging skills gaps.
Electronic warfare has been recognised as a greater priority and has been met with greater investment more recently. At the outset of CRENIC, we were always clear that we wanted to break the cycle of the traditional kind of ‘all or nothing’ procurement approach that we've seen so many times in defence.
SW: Without the constraints of urgent operational requirements, it was a really great opportunity to look at a delivery model that could take some of the best parts of the MoD’s ability to control architectural requirements, have a hand in supply chain selection, but with blended expertise from industry who could be better at solving some of our usual integration challenges.
How has creating an ecosystem brought new energy to the defence supply chain?
KE: We want to have the flexibility to evolve with the threat and technology. We can learn a great deal; by having a diverse market to engage with the programme. Our industry partners have not been afraid to propose different ways of doing things or identify problems before they arise.
JP: Mind Foundry elected to work in defence because it's the right thing to do given the capabilities we have in AI and machine learning, and our experience across other sectors.
Our instinct as a company is to partner first because we know what we're good at, but we're honest enough to know that we can't do it alone. No single hardware manufacturer, end customer, consultancy, data engineer, or, indeed, AI company alone is likely to possess the full range of answers.
SW: I think what's compelling is that the big defence primes are all still here with us in the ecosystem, sat alongside a whole new range of companies that we didn't even know existed or that would have possibly only been a second or third tier supplier, or maybe even never considered in defence at all.
Can this approach support economic growth?
SW: Some of the feedback I've received from the smaller organisations is that it does feel like a level playing field.
KE: We have good regional geographic spread when you start looking at the manufacturing base. Over two-thirds of the companies who have joined the ecosystem so far are based outside of London and the South East.
There's so much value and opportunity in bringing those companies together. We've already seen members of the ecosystem explore how they can combine their specialisms to bring the capabilities we need to the programme.
JP: Some of the greatest challenges aren't necessarily the technical ones, they're the business ones.
And unfortunately, we've seen it go wrong. There are some fantastic defence technology companies that have entered the UK market and have not found it sustainable. The CRENIC model is a solution to making the market more attractive.
Is this the new model for collaboration in defence?
SW: We have an ecosystem that's already mature, and it's a compelling model that has drawn the attention of wider defence.
We must switch our minds out of competitive mode into partnering mode and being able to share information and try to break down some of the traditional ‘us and them’ barriers.
PR: What CRENIC is showcasing is a more trusted relationship with industry than I’ve seen in a number of decades.
KE: We are putting the building blocks in place for a truly transformed capability where we have enough of the right suppliers with different specialisms and flexibility in contracts. We want this ecosystem approach for Land Cyber Electromagnetic Activities (CEMA) to be evergreen, we don’t want things to go back to the way they were before.
Moving forward, we’re on a path that probably everybody recognises is how we ought to be doing business, but very few people are doing it yet.
What will future success in the programme look like?
PR: When engineers, the user, and the science and technology community come together on a problem set, that’s when the magic happens.
The proof will be in the delivery, making sure all the experts we bring in feel part of something and putting the user at the centre, to make sure they feel part of something too. But, because there is an overarching agreement, we can now collectively operate with greater speed and innovation to get ahead of the curve.
That’s important because we all need to be able to take sufficient risk – financial, commercial, regulatory, and technical - to deliver at the pace of relevance. We need to deliver against the ‘minimum viable bureaucracy’.
Understanding the impact on the end user is also part of being the sponsor of a capability beyond the physical equipment. If the technology can do more than we anticipated, what will this mean for the end user? We can only adapt to that if we are working collaboratively as a team.
JP: When you think about current threats from a digital perspective, they are developing rapidly.
Therefore, you have to look at cutting-edge technologies to help solve them. But it's not a science project, we must think about how the Armed Forces can apply it in the real world to save lives.
SW: There are always unknown unknowns, and urgent capability requirements, but we now have the facility to rapidly engage the companies that are already on-boarded, vetted, and ready to go. There is a real hunger to be part of this.
What are the biggest lessons so far?
PR: It’s often difficult if you have a ‘drinking straw view’ of things – you don’t see where the opportunities arise. We won’t see the wider utility of technology as quickly as our industry partners do. My biggest three takeaways so far:
Firstly, that we need to think differently about the opportunities CRENIC provides – SMEs can help us shift the focus from legacy thinking to the art of the possible.
Second, we need to make sure that we can test, adjust, and upgrade at the pace of relevance. We cannot afford to wait. Our adversaries don’t – why should we? Let’s learn from our failures so that we can move on to success shortly after.
And finally, we collectively need to understand the opportunity of expanding this model into wider defence as soon as possible.