The Challenge of Change: Acquiring Technologies for Defence in the UK

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Main Image Credit HMS Queen Elizabeth entering Portsmouth Naval Base for the first time on her delivery voyage, 16 August 2017. Courtesy of Brian Burnell/Wikimedia

The UK needs a speedier defence procurement process that recognises the long-term value of failure.

Executive Summary

The support of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for enhanced innovation in military affairs is well-established. This paper explores the significant implications of this for the management of defence. Specifically, it uses the wider literature on innovation to articulate the environmental conditions, the features of an ecosystem, that encourage widespread innovation to take root and flourish.

It considers specifically:

  • Demand and the perceived need for and urgency of significant improvement.
  • Technology trajectories and the rate of technological change.
  • Money and the availability of funding to enable scientific and technological advances to be transformed into usable military capability.
  • Risk appetite, addressing the readiness of decision-makers to embrace the financial and technological risks usually associated with significant innovation.
  • The scope of procurement and decision-making speeds.
  • The availability of capable suppliers and the operation in networks.
  • The presence of an intelligent customer that is ready to countenance the organisational and even cultural disruption that can be associated with major innovation.

One overall emerging theme is the need for government and the private sector to work together to optimise the overall impact of their respective areas of expertise and capability. Innovation seems unlikely to flourish in an adversarial context given the need for in-depth knowledge in four key areas:

  • The condition and trajectory of core enabling technologies.
  • How such technologies can be made to work in a system (and linked to other systems).
  • The time and cost to manufacture a product with a known and acceptable degree of reliability.
  • Insight as to what the market will bear.

The MoD has clear expertise in what the UK military market is seeking and has some understanding of core enabling technologies, whereas industry is clearly more expert in the middle two areas. The chances of successful innovation seem poor if the two parties see themselves as on opposite sides.

The paper offers a range of suggestions for change, not least regarding risk appetite, the urgency of timely decisions, the attraction of new suppliers, and the reinforcement of internal MoD expertise, while inevitably the availability of finance to support innovative opportunities is a major question mark.


Trevor Taylor

Professorial Research Fellow

Defence, Industries and Society

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