February 24th 2022

A More Digital Defence

Defence has seen its world change as all areas have over the last two years, but it is fair to say that as a sector we were fairly badly prepared for a world of work that was fully remote. DDAT teams were working overtime to ensure that people could now do their jobs in a way not previously attempted and certainly on a scale that would have taken years to reach. I think this en-masse sheep-dip into remote and hybrid working will have huge benefits, diversifying the workforce and improving resilience.

Decoration Element

Whilst 2020 into 2021 were tough years for projects and programmes outside of the kinetic space but big years for policy, I think 2022 will see something of a renaissance on the project and programmes front, particularly in technology and data. Whilst there is always a danger of an excess of policy not least for those of us who have to read it, some real steps have been taken not least in strategy for Data, AI and the overall defence operating model. Thinking about not only those themes raised there but also the world as it stands and the feel on the street I think the areas we are really going to see development this year in defence are:

Cyber & Information Warfare
We face an ever-growing level of cyber and information aggression, not only from individual bad actors but in addition from nation states and groups they tacitly sponsor. Cyber is frankly one of the most accessible arenas of modern warfare, in what other sphere is a teenager in their bedroom a threat to a developed nation’s military infrastructure? Similarly we have seen an extraordinary growth in the use of information as a weapon of disruption, with claim and counter claim designed to slow decision-making and unity.

Both of these aspects target the non-sovereignty and ubiquity of the internet and seek to use it against its purpose, but the internet is not a road network or a port, it is critical national infrastructure that is internationally based and more held by companies than nations. We will need all of our ingenuity to develop more and more effective techniques to defend ourselves and our interests in cyberspace. I expect efforts and investments to be redoubled in this area in 2022 especially if we are unfortunate enough to see a kinetic conflict emerge between countries with a heavy investment in cyber capabilities.

Data Science & AI
Whilst this as a topic is undoubtedly heavily linked to the one above and automated defences will continue to develop as a key part of our cyber arsenal, it is worthy of its own mention. Data Science and AI are already used to some extent across defence but like automation and robotics, to a mere fraction of their capability. The commitment to a national Defence AI Centre (DAIC) in 2021 run out of Defence Digital, extensive investment in R&D through DSTL and partners as well as the efforts to make clear the UK position on AI’s place in warfare provide foundations from which to fully realise the huge benefits that can be attained in this area. Whilst the battlespace conversations are complex for an extraordinary number of reasons, the coherence and driving of pan-defence ambition in developments outside of this will derive benefit that we cannot even foresee at this point. This is the year I think this will really start to bear fruit after the delays to last year’s budget settlements and the complexity of starting such ambitious programmes.

Digital & Data Services
So what is remotely new about digital and data services you might ask? I see a strangely comforting trend within defence starting to emerge, the language and principles of user-orientated service design as championed across government by GDS are becoming part of the vernacular. Similarly, the wide-ranging Defence Data Strategy published in 2021 finally codifies some of the key ambitions for the use of data in defence. Getting to here has been a long process and yes, whilst there are exemplars, defence really isn’t that digital compared to many other areas. There are an extraordinary number of reasons for this, some of them extremely good such as the fact that defence equipment and corresponding services are designed to last 3-4 decades and so legacy for other departments is current and best available practice in Defence. To return to my opening remarks however, we aren’t going back from this pandemic to everyone back in the office and a newer, more digital defence is going to emerge from this, enabled by concepts such as the digital backbone and user-orientated service design.

I think this will be most seen specifically in data-centric services, defence has a huge advantage over many areas here, defence is one of the few sectors in which decision-making is taught. Adding or augmenting those existing processes with additional data inputs is a relatively easy win, if only we can get the data out of those silos and provide it to those who need it.

By Richard Oakley, Director of Data Science and AI


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