The Integrated Review: A Technological Revolution at the Heart of UK Defence and National Security

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In a world where technology is fundamental to both threats and opportunities ahead, it must be at the core of UK security and defence capabilities.

The Integrated Review, expected imminently, will be delivered into a threat landscape for UK national security that continues to evolve at pace. The coronavirus pandemic has been used as an opportunity by threat actors, including states. Recent attacks highlight states’ determination and sophistication in targeting government and critical institutions. Civilians, too, have been unknowingly plunged into the grey zone of state or state-sponsored attacks on democracies, whether by receiving a vaccine scam email or health misinformation that undermines national resilience. The Chief of Defence Staff General Sir Nick Carter has warned there is a real risk that covert cyber warfare could escalate into an ‘uncontrollable state of all-out war’.

The future of national security and defence will increasingly be focused on the information domain. The armed forces will, for example, increasingly train in synthetic environments and defence and security personnel will continue to need ever more sophisticated methods, and ever more computing power, to make sense of the vast amounts of data that are features of the world they operate in. Ideally, they will want to exploit data in ways that get ahead of adversaries and create operational advantages. But this is a competitive landscape. Most prominently, analysts note the trajectory towards Chinese supremacy in key technologies, and the Chinese government has also published an ambitious plan for defence technology over the next five years.

Getting UK defence and national security fit for this challenge will require nothing short of a revolution. To be clear, this is not an argument that the conventional domains of warfare have gone away, or that old capabilities will no longer be required. But the tired false dichotomy of aircraft carriers or data centres risks creating a diversion, while technology and data continue to transform every aspect of our lives, and therefore the context for defence and national security. Aircraft carriers themselves operate in the world of information advantage.

The UK government’s announcement of a £16.5-billion uplift of Ministry of Defence (MoD) funding should be seen in this context. On an increasingly tumultuous international stage, the UK must be prepared to develop the technological capabilities needed in modern battlespaces. As new technologies are adopted by hostile actors across the world, it is imperative that the UK leads – with allies and partners – in a new approach to how technologies are understood and used in defence and national security. Failing to do so will leave the UK playing catch up, and managing the risks will become an exercise in high-stakes whack-a-mole, as the latest technology-enabled threat comes into view. 

These aspirations will not be straightforward, and funding is only the start. The UK has many of the ingredients to be world leading – a thriving tech sector, world-class academia, and heritage in national security and defence technologies. There have been brilliant applications of technology in government national security and defence for over a century (see, for example, the Government Code and Cypher School, formed in 1919). Yet, in some basic ways, the technology revolution we require is only in its infancy. Evolving the government’s approach to technology is critical.

Technology and Innovation Need To Be at the Core, Not on the Periphery

For several years, there has been a growing voice and momentum within national security and defence for recognition of the need to embrace technologies. In defence, initiatives such as the Defence and Security AcceleratorNavyX and jHub are examples. But such initiatives were symptomatic of a problem, since the core of government business remained largely unchanged. Debates around how to bring the great ideas developed in these initiatives into mainstream use have been going on for years, and still have not been satisfactorily solved. 

Much is said about the success of the US Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the intelligence community’s In-Q-Tel. However, their successes are not only in the technologies they create, but the model for how these can be transitioned into mainstream use. To achieve this, ministers, officials and senior military personnel will need to undertake a revolution in organisation, culture, rules and governance around the development and acquisition of defence and national security technologies. This must begin at the core, not the margins, using impetus from the Integrated Review as a starting point.

A New Approach to Strategy Is Required (or, Stop Buying Water and Learn To Surf)

Despite important strategies like the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review, the technology programmes they spawned have too often created compartmentalised outputs, rather than a holistic vision. Building on work such as the MoD’s Global Strategic Trends, future defence programmes will need to provide a much more radical strategic vision for the rapidly evolving technological landscape. Decisions must look insightful in 10–20 years’ time. This requires no longer thinking in terms of a prioritised list of outputs and capabilities.

In the past, a national defence sought to own, exploit and deploy as much capability as possible within budget. Today, the technology landscape is simply too big (consider the total UK defence budget of around £45 billion in the context of global technology) and complex for this model to make any sense. Instead, national defence will need to learn how to: co-exist in a world of technology and connectivity; virtualise capabilities; and keep small, move fast and allow for fast failure. 

As a former colleague put it rather eloquently, ‘we need to stop buying water and learn to surf’. Technology platforms, computation, what you do with it and the experience layer create a backbone for this. These approaches are standard in the tech sector. They must become the new standard in defence, and quickly. 

Officials Must Be Empowered and Tasked With Challenging the Status Quo…

Not only is the old approach to delivering outputs strategically problematic, officials also have to circumnavigate cumbersome procurement processes that were simply not built for today’s strategic landscape. Officials need to be able to challenge the status quo and learn from the private sector, where the competitive landscape requires pace and constant renewal, and does not allow for the inertia that is tolerated as part of the process in government. 

The recent ‘Transforming Public Procurement’ green paper appears to be a recognition of the challenge – but its focus on process neglects the human dimension. Change must prioritise people, culture and organisation over process.

… and Supported and Incentivised

Critically, this is about leadership – officials will only be able to think radically if they are supported and incentivised to do so. Basic areas of the national security and defence landscape are out of date and risk going backwards in terms of the curve of technological advancements. There is a cognitive dissonance between officials who live in a world of cloud, AI, biometrics, data analytics and augmented reality, yet return to their Whitehall desk to deliver programmes that are not able to fully embrace the latest technologies. This is beginning to change, but not nearly fast enough, and the reason for this frequently lies with incentives. 

Officials are tasked with delivering a specific policy or operational objective and, crucially, managing risk while doing so. This too often leads to a focus on assuring seniors that they are operating within a tolerable level of risk, rather than suggesting a rebuild of the old, but well-oiled, machine. 

More people are challenging this, but they need leadership to know that their innovative approaches will be supported and rewarded.

Government Needs To Better Understand the Link Between Defence Technology and the Wider Economy and Society

The predominant image of the defence sector’s impact on the economy is of aircraft carriers and jet fighters. As important as these industries are, in a world in which capabilities are moving to the cloud and software and data can be as ‘real’ as any physical assets for a modern military, this image is increasingly dated. 

As the government considers how best to use defence spending to help the economy recover from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, it is important to focus on the digital sector, which is growing 2.6 times faster than the wider economy. The Integrated Review provides the government with an opportunity to support thousands of new jobs in the defence technology sector. 

The military will increasingly need to work with, and help foster the creation of, companies like Improbable, originally a gaming company that now creates synthetic environments for a range of defence applications. The company was started at the home of its founder in 2012 and is now valued at over $2 billion. The market for military AI is projected to grow from £3.8 billion in 2016 to £6.6 billion in 2022. The new jobs created from investment in making the UK a leader in these emerging defence technologies can also drive a wave of upskilling. 

In a world where technology is so fundamental, it must be at the core of our security and defence capabilities. Through transformative technological advancement, the UK government will not only enhance national security, but it will also be investing in companies as yet unborn, employing people using new skills and working on technologies that have not yet been dreamt of. Achieving this will require a technological revolution in our defence and national security apparatus that is just beginning.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


Dr Simon Staffell

Associate Fellow

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