‘Joint Expeditionary Force Digital’: A Better Way to Deliver Defence Tech

All joined up: a signaller checks the satellite connection back to the UK during JEF Exercise JOINT PROTECTOR 21. Image: Defence Imagery / MOD Crown Copyright News/Editorial Licence

The first article in this series argued that the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) should be stretched beyond routine joint military cooperation, with the second article promoting the creation of a ‘JEF Bank’ as an innovative funding mechanism for rapid capability development. This article argues that the JEF should leverage its collective world-leading civilian technology sector to accelerate defence innovation with a modernised partnership with industry.

In October 2023, the JEF adopted its 10-year vision – ‘Working Together as One’ – which includes investing in capabilities to ‘plan, exercise, and operate together’; bringing together the military with ‘broader levers of national power to respond to hybrid security challenges’; and enhancing ‘shared situational awareness with greater interconnectivity, enabling common solutions to common challenges’.

The JEF is a blank canvas, unconstrained by legacy processes or large and unwieldy staffs. It can create bespoke rules and regulations to rapidly exploit its organic and sophisticated digital technology industry, allowing it to overcome long-established peacetime procurement processes which are optimised for platform-focused equipment programmes, not delivering agile software and technology enhancements.

Last month, the UK defence secretary issued this rallying cry:

‘There’s a huge opportunity here for British industry. The UK has long been a by-word for pioneering technologies. We gave the world radar, the jet-engine and the world wide web. We’ve not lost that spark of creativity. On the contrary, today the UK is one of only three $1 trillion tech economies. But just imagine what we could do if we managed to better harness that latent inspiration, ingenuity and invention for the Defence of our nation?’

Inspired by British pragmatism and creativity, the JEF could become a powerful mechanism to deliver this ambition through a ‘JEF Digital’ initiative, which brings member countries’ research, innovation and industries together for the purpose of building and defending more resilient military-civilian systems of cooperation, driving standardisation, and furthering interoperability across NATO’s northern flank and the Alliance as a whole.

Why the JEF?

There are several benefits of pursuing these ambitions through the JEF.

First, JEF members collectively have among the most creative and advanced technology companies in the world, complemented by a significant and growing defence industrial sector. Moreover, JEF defence budgets are collectively increasing at the same time as Environmental, Social and Governance considerations are making defence a more appealing target for venture capital and private sector investment, rendering true partnerships more attractive and profitable.

Second, technological innovation has shifted from the defence to the civilian sector, with many ‘dual-use’ technologies now originating from civilian products. Moreover, most innovation funds, particularly across the EU, demand ‘dual-use’ justification for military capability development. The JEF organic technology sector includes behemoths such as Ericsson, Nokia, Siemens and Saab, who are dedicated to developing user-friendly products for the technologically literate soldiers of the future. These companies dominate the manufacturing base, but are not necessarily the main innovators, with more startups entering the market. With Swedish NATO membership imminent, the JEF can partner with NATO’s Defence Accelerator for the North Atlantic to identify and protect northern European startups and realise the benefits to defence of a ‘software-first approach’.

A fully digitised headquarters that can exploit available emerging and disruptive technologies would be a step change in capability across the whole spectrum of military missions

Third, adversaries are demonstrating the ability to field technology more quickly and at scale. Russia has increased military spending by 68% this year to over 6% of GDP, with defence spending exceeding social spending. By contrast, NATO’s primary mechanism for warfighting development is through Allied Command Transformation’s Warfighting Capstone Concept, which looks out to a 12-year-plus horizon. Requirements and technologies that exist now must be brought into service more quickly, and the JEF can act as a bridge between current research and future Alliance requirements.

The Standing Joint Force Headquarters – A Start Point for JEF Digital

The Standing Joint Force Headquarters (SJFHQ), where JEF command sits, has the potential to become the first truly multi-domain operations headquarters. A fully digitised headquarters that can exploit available emerging and disruptive technologies (EDTs) would be a step change in capability across the whole spectrum of military missions. A simple Protect–Simplify–Complicate set of principles can guide priorities for headquarters development and provide a test against which creative military visions for AI use can be pitched.

But first, resilient and secure data access, transfer and storage must be the priority. It provides the foundation for EDTs and is the chief enabler for multi-domain operations. Without accessible, physically and digitally protected data, EDTs are merely aspirations. The like-mindedness of JEF members can make this straightforward and drive common practices and culture around data management and intelligence sharing. Thus, the SJFHQ could start by building a scaled and secured ‘JEF Net’ – enabling full data transfer up to SECRET for JEF operations and defence engagement, which would also provide redundancy if NATO’s systems are compromised, significantly disrupted or destroyed in the early stages of a war.

Once protected, this vast amount of information can simplify decision-making, using AI triage to prioritise critical information and intelligence requirements to accelerate observation, orientation, decision and action loops, mitigating against the ‘digital fog of war’. The widespread adoption of AI and machine learning could significantly enhance plans, allowing commanders and staffs to focus their efforts on what matters, rather than slavishly succumbing to process. Moreover, the JEF was designed with civilian input in mind, and it can bring in other government departments by collectively adopting a comprehensive security approach. As an example, private companies own and maintain situational awareness on most of the critical underwater infrastructure network, and are therefore critical for detection, deterrence and response activities.

The technology already exists within JEF organic commercial companies to automate intelligence preparation of the battlefield – the first stage of planning that assesses the ground, the enemy, and their combined effect on military operations. Live weather effects and current classified and open sources on enemy intent, capabilities and dispositions would provide continually refined situational awareness. Therefore, intelligence officers could simply draw their operational boundaries on a virtual map, instantly producing the enemy’s most likely and most dangerous courses of action – the two products that all military plans are developed against – which would enable planners to develop and test plans as soon as orders are received. AI and digital twin technologies can rapidly assess courses of action from almost every angle and score them simply, allowing a commander to make more informed choices. Moreover, final plans can be wargamed extensively, identifying and triaging all the risks alongside suggested mitigations.

A simpler understanding of the population could be provided through physical and digital sentiment analysis, assessing how effective hybrid operations are and identifying whether they might be shaping operations for more decisive military aggression, which would provide a tripwire for a more muscular response.

A fully digitised and networked HQ would allow all JEF members to conduct almost continuous virtual tabletop and mission rehearsal exercises on live data, rather than placing significant staff effort on singular physical large-scale exercises each year centred on standardised hypothetical scenarios. Militaries rarely have the luxury of being able to plan exactly where they might fight.

In 2024, the JEF should experiment hard to the point of failure, carrying out more frequent exercises and ruthlessly encouraging industry to compete to create the best, quickest and cheapest solutions

The aggregation of these enhancements will have a simplifying effect, creating smaller, more mobile headquarters and command posts that can more easily disperse, are harder to target and are more resilient. SJFHQ could rapidly deploy command nodes and liaison officers throughout the JEF’s member countries, allowing them to operate seamlessly with the HQ in a SJFHQ metaverse. Seamless changes of command could take place between JEF locations or between JEF and NATO commands. The SJFHQ could train the staff more quickly. Pooling more JEF resources into the UK Doctrine Concepts and Development Centre (DCDC), JEF countries could be the first to launch a new AI roadmap with industry to interrogate all JEF and NATO doctrine, build rapid first drafts of new doctrine, and select reading material and prepare those selected for SJFHQ staff with pushed short role specific exercises months in advance of their postings. A gift from the JEF, DCDC could even become a new NATO Centre of Excellence for AI-inspired doctrine, futures, vision creation and education – a UK strength.

Finally, complicating adversaries’ decision-making with increased use of EDTs requires fusing new tech with electronic warfare (EW). The JEF can reinvigorate EW as a way of thinking across NATO in contested domains, learning from Ukraine and building back the ability to generate freedom of action across the whole EW spectrum, from agile and secure C2 to information management, more effective frequency spectrum management, offensive EW and defensive EW. This would allow for wider applications including the protection of critical national infrastructure and battlefield damage assessment, becoming integrated with low-cost space technology to provide electronic intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance over the whole JEF area of operations. With a more mature EW mindset, the SJFHQ could pioneer headquarters survivability techniques like using AI to generate EW deception, replicating itself in thousands of locations at the same time.

Bringing a New Defence Industrial Partnership to Life

Fielding such technology will require healthier military–industry partnerships, which have been a consistent feature of defence and security strategies over the last decade but, thus far, have not delivered the required step change. Engagement between industry and Allied Chiefs of Information must be accelerated to make maximum use of JEF comparative advantages such as Estonian cyber expertise and Finnish secure communication, which is a founding principle of the NATO Framework Nations Concept and JEF. Grand and glitzy joint industry forums are not enough, and are too large to deliver meaningful change.

There is a real opportunity to learn from the new experts in Ukraine who already have the backing of tech giants on AI warfare development. The JEF has already invited Ukraine to observe JEF exercises in 2024–2025, but this is of little real benefit to either side. What would truly add value is a knowledge transfer programme on mechanisms to rapidly adopt technology and integrate it into planning and operations. As an example, Ukraine has rapidly developed multiple open source intelligence products which have enabled civilians to become intelligence collection assets, reporting on Russian hybrid activity, troop locations and direction of travel. Ukraine is rapidly adopting AI technology for the benefit of security and society through its AI roadmap, and is developing capabilities in real time. Moreover, the JEF would greatly benefit from understanding how drones – especially their low-cost and plentiful use – can best be deployed against Russia, from providing situational awareness to direct kinetic operations on land, sea and air.

Elsewhere, NATO has been trialling co-creation dynamic sourcing methods to reduce sourcing timeframes for technology, aspiring one day to hit private-sector targets of 90 days from concept to contract. This could immediately be the norm in the JEF as it has no acquisition process. Long-established ‘fair and transparent’ public finance requirements can mean that it still takes up to four years to field technology. Speed is now the most important factor for technology capability fielding; extant long-term, platform-centric and rigid capability funding mechanisms are completely insufficient for the challenges ahead. The JEF can provide a solution by integrating fully independent research companies with marketplace intelligence early into the acquisition process to help select and drive industry co-creation, before holding industry to account through informed quality assurance during project delivery.

JEF Digital

A ‘JEF Digital’ initiative would need little direct investment to make it work, as it could leverage existing technology and tested financial mechanisms. Moreover, the SJFHQ is ready to become a first in its field. Pragmatism, creativity, collaboration and ambition are needed. The JEF has its vision, and it must deliver. In 2024, it should experiment hard to the point of failure, carrying out more frequent exercises and ruthlessly encouraging industry to compete to create the best, quickest and cheapest solutions to what it wants from EDTs. The JEF can deliver what the UK used to alone, but even better.

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

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Ed Arnold

Senior Research Fellow, European Security

International Security

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Brigadier (Ret’d) Robbie Boyd OBE

Associate Fellow

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Air Chief Marshal Lord Peach of Grantham GBE KCB DL

Distinguished Fellow

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