Three steps the UK’s Ministry of Defence can take to ensure it makes the most of artificial intelligence and automation

By Douglas Robertson

Advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation offer real opportunities for the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MOD). But, as is often the case, with opportunity comes challenges. With commercial spending on robotics forecast to be nearly six times that of global military robotics spending, adversaries will have access to potentially more sophisticated technologies available on the commercial market.

But it’s not the spending alone that is cause for concern amongst those charged with safeguarding the population against adversaries. It’s also the speed of change. Those who are first to deploy innovative and scalable uses of AI and automation will gain significant operational advantage. As our Chief Innovation Officer has said, “the winners in the automation race will be the fastest, nimblest and hungriest, not the big beasts”.

So how can the MOD achieve and maintain first-mover advantage? It starts with a fundamental shift in how AI and automation are viewed and treated. Instead of being seen as something confined solely to research labs and long, complex trials, the MOD must adopt a nimbler approach. That means being ambitious with its vision for how AI and automation will transform the defence enterprise, using experimentation to try, fail learn and succeed, and developing procurement processes that allow agile adoption through the enterprise.

Think big

Process improvements, cost reduction and the pursuit of differentiation are essential for the MOD to address its key challenges around manpower, budget and maintenance of operational advantage. When a “think big” approach is applied, it’s clear AI and automation offer real potential to alleviate or solve all three of these challenges:

Process improvements

The Royal Air Force (RAF) and Royal Navy are ten per cent short of their annual recruitment targets; the British Army more than 30 per cent short, with retention and skill gaps exacerbating this problem. The MOD needs an approach to automation which gives people space to think differently and empowers the Front Line Commands to take action now to secure the future.

Cost reduction

Like all central government departments, the MOD faces significant budgetary pressure. Breaking down single service silos to exploit the cost savings from Robotic Process Automation (RPA), machine learning and autonomy can help ensure the department makes the best use of its resources. An example could be establishing a Centre of Excellence to allow best practise methods to be shared across Defence.

Pursuing differentiation

The history of military innovation shows that operational advantage is secured more by understanding how best to use new technology than developing the technology itself. This will require transformation across people, process and policy. Strong, strategic leadership is critical to make this happen.

Start small

The path to transformational AI-enabled change is incremental and requires learning by doing. Gathering and analysing the results of multiple small or limited implementations will allow the MOD to learn by doing and build confidence through quick wins, such as automating low-risk processes like back-office functions as opposed to mission critical things.

However, at a time when AI and automation cover so many different applications, it can be difficult to know where to focus. We suggest the MOD start with the following:

Machine learning

The MOD should build a strong internal focus on machine learning and data analytics. This is the key to future success in implementing cognitive technologies and automation use cases. Initiatives like the Data Science Community of Practice should be a top priority and the MOD should utilise partnerships to ensure the in-house capability is grown.


Virtual Assistants such as Sally – the MODNET assistant – are already in use in the MOD and can be deployed quickly. However, chatbots and virtual agents have been at the peak of AI hype for a while, without strong results, leading to a certain degree of disillusionment. Complex use cases, such as explainable AI for decision making, require significantly more time and effort to development; all the more reason for Defence to establish trusted enterprise partnerships.

Robotic process automation

In the MOD, IT processes that enable the combination of security and operations are a good example of where RPA could work well; processes such as those for new accounts and passwords could see rapid results. Of equal importance though is identifying those processes which should not be automated. Our RPA value assessment methodology, which we use across the public and private sectors, helps identify the processes that can be automated securely.

Scale fast

Once the use of AI has been successful, the organisation needs to be able to scale fast across Defence. This means having the processes in place and people and commercial freedom to allow agile adoption.

Make the Chief Information Officer (CIO) accountable for enabling AI

The amount and quality of data, process maturity, architecture, organisation, and capabilities impact how well an organisation is positioned to fully utilize AI. Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) and Information Systems and Services (ISS) have all assessed MOD’s progress on Big Data and found that information management could be improved through greater coordination, coherence and leadership. The new MOD CIO should focus on these enablers.

Establish a centre of excellence

Any AI and automation strategy should be informed by the results of early trials, and the organisation should ensure the right resources are available to enact it. A Centre of Excellence would not control activity but provide the guidelines to scale automation. By developing best practice around procurement, accreditation and security, technology integration, business change, and the impact on people, the Centre could empower business units to start the automation journey.

To maintain first mover advantage in the AI and automation space, the MOD must ensure it has the people and processes in place to quickly and successfully make use of these latest technologies. Setting a clear direction, focussing on a few key pilots and building a Centre of Excellence are some of the steps that will enable the MOD to rapidly exploit AI developments in the commercial sector and lead the way for further military development.

About the authors

Douglas Robertson PA defence and security expert

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