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Digitalisation in defence

This article first appeared in Defence IQ

Digitisation is not a new concept in Defence. Back in the days of Network-Centric Warfare and Network-Enabled Capability, armed forces started to explore how digitising our systems could provide operational advantage. This delivered some successes, but 25 years on many of the original aspirations have not been met. Yet the need for them is greater, as highlighted in numerous speeches this year by the Chief of the Defence Staff and Chief of the General Staff, the character of conflict is changing dramatically with battles being fought more in the virtual domain than the physical domain.

We had hoped that technology would address most of the blockers. However, it is often culture, leadership, organisational structure and process that has caused digitisation to stumble. In PA Consulting’s recent survey, less than a third of business leaders felt their workforce and culture was adapted for the digital age. It is these areas that need focus to bring about not just digitisation but digital transformation.

Build from the top down…

Technology has always been the poster-child of digitisation. It is tangible and attracts attention. However, decisions on technologies must be driven by an understanding of the value they add to an organisation. A clear view of the services an organisation delivers to its customers (in the case of the British Army, this is frequently the deployed user) is essential. This includes knowing who relies on data and the implications of not having it at the right time to the right quality.

This approach is being used to develop the Army’s Information Manoeuvre capability which is putting information from cyber and electromagnetic environments in the hands of commanders so they can plan and operate more effectively in both physical and the virtual domains.

But don’t forget the bottom up…

The foundation of any successful digital organisation is generating and maintaining meaningful data. Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and Data Analytics are only as good as the data they have access to; this is not just about establishing data lakes and APIs but empowering those who own the data. That is the best way to ensure the data is not kept in silos, duplicated or inaccurate or subject to inappropriate security classification.

This is not just being addressed by the Army’s Data Sub-Strategy but also by MOD’s Digital and IT Transformation initiative which is looking to nominate owners for key datasets throughout Defence. The initiative is also proposing Centres of Excellence for specific technologies which will harmonise technical approaches to data hosting, security and exploitation.

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Take an enterprise approach

Since data and digitisation spans programme, function and organisational boundaries, it is essential that teams think about the context in which they operate. Often requirements are quickly devolved to individual programmes and projects who naturally focus on minimising their own uncertainty and risk. This makes them less inclined to look at the dependencies across programmes and future growth requirements.

Strong leadership is key to ensuring that all those involved do not lose sight of the end goal. This includes understanding how individual activities fit together, how capability is more than equipment and how projects should deliver an immediate output but also provide a platform for future growth and evolution.

An example of this is how the Army is driving a pan-project approach to the exploitation of vehicle Health and Usage Monitoring System (HUMS) data. By defining a common approach to the capture, sharing, analysis and quality-assurance of data, the Army can better exploit technologies such as Digital Twins, reduce whole-life maintenance costs and enhance commander situational awareness.

An agile and ingenious culture is vital

In order to maintain a competitive edge, organisations must constantly be prepared to adapt to new digital technologies and threats. This requires a change mindset that moves away from sticking to ‘the way we always do things’ to encouraging innovation and constructive challenges. An example of this is the Architecture Alignment Investigation (AAI) being conducted by Army HQ. This is introducing a new approach to digital integration for vehicle platforms and their communications, sensing and protection systems in order to deliver the Single Information Environment.

By ensuring all systems share data using common, future-proofed electronic architectures it can rapidly – and automatically – amass and exploit data, both centrally and at the edge, to realise insight and operational advantage, even when disconnected.

It is clear that digitisation only works when we consider all angles (top and bottom) and all dimensions (people, process and technology). With less than a third of leaders saying they’re comfortable using digital technologies to disrupt their business models, the Army must focus not on how digitising processes can improve capability but on how digital transformation can fundamentally change what we do.

The requirements of the modern battlespace make it more vital than ever that we do this effectively and deal with the obstacles that have held digitisation back in the past.

Greg Moore is a defence and security expert at PA Consulting

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  • Greg Moore

    Greg Moore

    defence and security expert

    Greg is a systems thinker who specialises in solving complex problems which span programmes, organisations and ecosystems. He is currently helping the British Army develop it’s Enterprise Architecture capability; improving capability management, systems integration and digital transformation.

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