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Capabilities and Spending Concepts and Doctrine Opinion

Looking to the Future: Modernising Defence

The Ministry of Defence is almost into month nine of self-reflection attempting to balance the trinity of political perspective, modernisation and affordability.  Unlike the National Security Capability Review (NSCR) it would appear the Defence Secretary, and the broader ‘defence commentariat’ are building a compelling narrative for additional investment beyond a base of 2% of GDP and 20% spend on new equipment. Critics, myself included, point out the frailty of asking the for more money, when you consistently appear overdrawn.

The opportunity of the Modernising Defence Programme (MDP) is deeper and more far reaching than just capability and affordability.  We must grasp the opportunity for transformation of our business practices and our everyday working environment.  One goal should be for Defence, and by extension the Army, to close the gap with the commercial sector to create a digitally articulate and confident Army, able to meet the expectations of the first ‘digitally native’ generation from 2025 onwards.

We must seek out more divergent thinking that makes the best of our talent, recognising transformational innovation probably lies beyond the bastions of the Ministry of Defence and the Army Headquarters.  The MDP represents a unique opportunity to engage a younger generation in conceptualising a future they will inherit as junior commanders, construct on the staff, in our training establishments and lead as Commanding Officers and Warrant Officers of the future.

The Modernisation Imperative

The assessment of the strategic environment in SDSR 15 has been proven to be accurate highlighting the friction of revisionist states, alliances and international organisations, converging to challenge our national security and the  erode the rules based international order.

The current strategic environment is characterised by four major competitions: NATO-Russia, US-China, Saudi Arabia-Iran and the UN-Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  These revisionist powers are accelerating modernisation of their armed forces in hi-tech capabilities, such as Anti-Access Area Denial (A2AD) systems, but also conventional capability, particularly in their land and maritime domains.  This, alongside the exploitation of the less well understood and regulated cyber and information domains, has significantly eroded western technological and military advantage.

Concurrent to the resurgence of state-based competition is the increased diffusion and mobility of non-state actors who are building operational footholds in Libya, the Sahel, Yemen and Afghanistan.  Online activity is the oxygen of these groups to recruit, radicalise and finance their operations both at home and abroad – flattening the space of home-away-and online.  Proliferation of advanced military and commercial technology is enabling low cost, high lethality capability to magnify these threats, ranging from anti-shipping missiles to commercial drones.  We are losing the technological edge that delivers operational advantage, and it shows.

Therefore we can confidently state the competitive space, widened into new domains and expanded into all operations short of war, are the imperatives to adjust Joint Force 2025 and by extension the Army.  The Modernised Army needs to adapt and orientate to the threats of today and innovate to regain our technological advantage.  This also requires us to responsibly dis-invest in capabilities unsuited or ‘unsurvivable’ in an A2AD environment, or, outmoded by commercial technology.

The Ministry of Defence will need to close with affordability which has evaded us for a generation.  This is where a digital acceleration in our culture, working environment and service delivery could have profound effect.  Our warehouses need to be more amazon and less archaic, our receipting, issuing and accounting needs to be more DPD than deeply painful, our assurance processes need to be more algorithmic than laborious.  We know the future of business, administration and service delivery is more online, more flexible and less human.  We need to get on board.

Mega Trends: Defence Capability and Land Power

The Modernised Army needs to grasp emerging trends that we can predict, and to a certain confidence evidence, are altering the character of conflict and operations short of war.

  • Artificial Intelligence. Accelerate and underpin the decision action cycle at all levels.
  • To reduce human cost of the mundane, difficult and dangerous.
  • Human-Machine Teaming meshing autonomous and human manned platforms making teams more numerous but smaller in human headcount to produce mass effect.
  • Appropriate tools optimised to create, generate and spread information and disinformation.
  • Commercial technology has accelerated to the point where adapting it for military capability could field capability more quickly: sensors, drones, cyber resilience, information operations.

Increasingly we need to communicate the capability of our force and not its capacity.  Headmark numbers of 83,000 and 50,000 are meaningless compared to articulating the utility of land power to provide credible combat forces to deliver deterrent effect.

Getting Beyond ‘Match Fit’ – Defence and the Digital Disruption.

We must not underestimate the challenge of dragging our bloated, conservative, organisational self towards a modernised, digitally articulate, confident Army. We are not early adopters of innovation. We are the company that took ten years to issue smart devices to executives and still struggle to resource mobile working at any sense of scale.  We have much to learn from the commercial world, other leading countries in NATO and beyond, facing similar challenges also seeking to innovate.

We must, once again, revisit linear and protracted procurement, and the staff structure that sustains it, in preference for spiral development, segmented incremental acquisition and new partnerships with industry for automation, artificial intelligence and online services.  We should re-look with vigour our own internal structures and question how much of the ‘generate’ apparatus needs to be military manpower and be bolder in civilianising and contracting some elements to bring a genuine potency to being ‘whole force by design’.

What Does This Mean for Us?

There is plenty of literature in the ‘adapt or die’ chain of thought and a quick search in amazon will deliver thousands of results for strategy, innovation and business transformation.  Change is never easy, or simple, but the incentives and imperative to do so have perhaps never been so acute.  Innovation is unlikely without disruption, otherwise we run the risk of remaining trapped in an evolving paradigmatic approach that stifles the possibility of re-establishing our technological advantage.  Personally, extrinsic change always feels uncomfortable and seldom becomes self-sustaining.  What I hope we can generate is broader engagement and divergent thinking about what modernisation might mean for the Army and how we might take it forward.  That, to me, feels a more intrinsic way for the younger generation to wrestle with its own future and become invested in it.  For classification purposes we are not at liberty to discuss what the Joint Force and by extension the Army should ‘do’ but I hope this might act as a starting point for lively debate, from a broader cohort than rumour and speculation.

Disclaimer.  The content and themes of this piece are all drawn from open source material.  The positions and arguments in this paper are my own thoughts and do not represent policy. 


The views expressed within individual posts and media are those of the author and do not reflect any official position or that of the author’s employees or employer. Concerns regarding content should be addressed to the wavellroom through the contact form

British Army

Rob has 17 years’ experience leading soldiers and on the staff in operational and strategic contexts at home and on operations.

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