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Capabilities and Spending Concepts and Doctrine Domains Land Multi-Domain Operations Opinion

The Integrated Review and the Bet on Tech

Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version

Editor’s note: This is the transcript of a speech delivered at Defence and Security Equipment International by Lieutenant General Christopher Tickell, the British Army Deputy Chief of the General Staff, on 14 September 2021.

Good afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen.  It is wonderful to see so many familiar faces here and I am delighted that we are physically back here at DSEI in person.  I would like to publicly thank all those that have dedicated so much time and effort to enable this event to take place, especially Clarion.

I am very aware that world events over the last few weeks provide a key backdrop to my remarks today.  And they, of course, contribute to the context on which the Defence Command Paper and IR were built.  Therefore, upfront it is worth dwelling briefly on the strategic context within which we will operate in the future to set the scene.

Strategic Context

Firstly, and as you know, Geography dictates that Russia must remain both our pacing and our proximate threat, and one which through our commitment to NATO Article V drives investment in a warfighting capability and deterrent posture designed for NATO’s eastern boundaries.

But the Russian threat manifests itself not just in invasions or incursions such as those in the Ukraine and the Crimea, but also through proxies such as the Wagner Group in Syria, Libya and sub-Saharan Africa, its information operations in Eastern Europe, and through its sales of high-end military technology to sow division in our alliances and arm our adversaries.

Whenever it happens, the world’s largest economy will be that of a country run by a Communist, autocratic regime

Secondly, the rising power of China is by far the most significant geopolitical factor in the world today.  Its economy is a close second to that of the US, but poised to leap ahead by harnessing the short term gains which can be delivered by authoritarianism.  China is therefore determined to expand its global influence and is increasingly forcing the UK and our allies into a direct competition for influence and prosperity opportunities in regions including Africa and the Indo-Pacific.

Pictured are four Challenger II’s of D Sqn, The Queen’s Royal Hussars (QRH) conducting a readiness exercise in order to test their reaction times whilst deployed on Operation CABRIT as part of NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence in Estonia. Image:MOD.

And thirdly, the Middle East and wider region continues to spawn a range of crises, exacerbated by residual Al-Qaida/Daesh presence, the legacy of Western interventions over the last 30 years, the Syrian civil war, and the Yemeni humanitarian disaster.  Today the net beneficiary of much of this seems to be Iran.

Thus, we now have a series of increasingly assertive authoritarian states and other actors, less deterred by Western conventional superiority and seeking their own independent spheres of influence separate and distinct from a US-backed global order.

And I don’t need to remind you that our adversaries will have watched the recent events that took place in Afghanistan and come to their own conclusions which, I strongly suspect, will reinforce the challenges that I have laid out.

Thus, we now have a series of increasingly assertive authoritarian states and other actors, less deterred by Western conventional superiority

But underpinning all of these challenges is the fact that we are also in the midst of a 4th Industrial Revolution.  Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning are perhaps the most transformative and disruptive of these new technologies.  They will power the 4th Industrial Revolution and impact every aspect of our lives.  Rapid advances in AI are disrupting manufacturing, healthcare, transport, finance, retail and more.  This revolution will have an enormous effect on how we fight and where we fight.  Ubiquitous Defence AI applications will transform the strategic environment in which we operate and perhaps, perhaps even the nature of conflict itself.  Future conflicts may be won or lost on the speed and efficacy of the AI solutions employed, with data becoming the ‘vital ground’ of the modern commander.

Thus against, this backdrop, the IR offered us an enormous opportunity.  It allowed us to leave the legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan behind – without forgetting the hard won lessons from those theatres – and to move away from the single organising principle of a Warfighting division designed for an analogue fight which, frankly, was no longer fit for purpose.  So we have created a blueprint for a British Army that will be fit for the information age and the strategic context which we now face.

This blueprint includes the need to meet three specific challenges; firstly the requirement to compete in multiple domains, including cyber; secondly the re-imagining of modern conventional deterrence to offer a more layered and responsive answer to current and emerging threats; and thirdly a broadening of our organisational design from pure warfighting to include – by design – ‘operating’ – i.e. competing constantly – forming a central pillar in Britain’s contribution to the renewed competition for international influence.

Fighting Divisions

So we must modernise our close-combat capability which has suffered from under-investment – whilst also recognising the need to privilege the Deep Battle – in order to make the close battle as anti-climactic as possible.  We must generate additional capabilities to compete in the grey-zone. And we must transform our ability to fight and contribute to a multi-domain battle.

So within our fighting divisions, our Armoured Brigade Combat Teams will operate the new Challenger 3 Main Battle Tank, medium armour and reconnaissance in AJAX and mechanised infantry mounted in BOXER, and will be complemented by the full range of enablers and MDI capabilities, integrated to the lowest appropriate level.

A signature part of our new Army is the Deep Recce Strike Brigade Combat Team, based on AJAX and deep fires artillery regiments fielding modernised MLRS able to fire the US PRISM Missile, supported by EWSI and offensive cyber to ensure we have the necessary balance between kinetic and non-kinetic effect.  Our 1st Aviation Attack brigade combat team will field the AH Echo and provide further punch to our deep battle.

Global hubs

In order to deliver on a more global posture, we will build on our existing training hubs around the world; Kenya, Germany, Brunei, Belize and the Oman, integrated with wider Defence and partners across government.

Pictured are personnel from 2RGR leading a STTT (Short Term Training Team) mission in Kenyan School of Infantry, Isiolo, Kenya. Image: MOD

 Special Operations Brigade

But the vanguard of our global posture will be based around our newly formed Army Special Operations Brigade and its ranger battalions.  These forces will act as the British Army’s nerve endings, persistently forward.  They will be supported by a Security Force Assistance Brigade designed to reinforce our capacity for overseas training tasks.  And both will be backed up by our Global Response Force which will include a reinforced 16 Air Assault Brigade – who will continue to maintain their strong bond with the ‘All Americans’ of the 82nd, of course, both who deployed alongside each other in Kabul a few weeks ago.

Beyond the organisational changes, we have a series of transformative change programmes.

Programme THEIA

Firstly, Programme THEIA will deliver a digitalised Army: to enable us to out-compete our adversaries, and to improve markedly our ability to integrate across domains and with our partners.  For the true benefits of digital transformation to be realised we must break down silos and democratise the opportunity to leverage our data.   This is why trusted partner access to the US JADC2 and the so-called Combat Cloud is so critical for us.  We are also expanding our Digital Foundry or Software Factory in parallel to that of the US Army.  Digital interoperability must be at the heart of everything we do.

A Reservist soldier demonstrating a virtual reality headset. Image: MOD.
Using Oculus Rift technology, wrap-around virtual reality headsets allow new recruits to experience the sensations of being on training exercises and operations in the UK and abroad without leaving the room.

Our Collective Training Transformation Programme will transform the training experience;  it will put data exploitation and digitisation at the heart of training design; and, critically, employ fully immersive training environments that replicate both the pacing threat and the complexities of current and future operating environments.

Programme CASTLE

Of course, we must not forget that our most important asset is our people. CASTLE is a radical and far-reaching overhaul of the Army’s People System, fundamentally offering more choice to the individual and more flexibility to the Army.  Over the next five years, the British Army will rid itself of the dominance of supply and structure in favour of demand and talent,   placing the right person from across the Whole Force, into the right role today, and by better developing them for their next steps tomorrow.

Over the next five years, the British Army will rid itself of the dominance of supply and structure in favour of demand and talent, 

And to continue to attract the necessary talent and be a responsible employer, we must focus on environmental sustainability, noting that this will also become a source of significant global insecurity in coming years.

Experimentation

Underpinning all this is experimentation, experimentation focussed on both near and longer-term allows us to take advantage of novel ideas and concepts, and rapid changes in technology, and to respond to threats.  The Army Warfighting Experiment is now well established and we recently welcomed the Army Battlelab, the first dedicated innovation, experimentation and exploitation centre of its kind in the UK.  Of course as part of our experimentation work, the need to remain in lock step, pan domain, and with our Allies is ever-present.  And that is why our involvement in Project CONVERGENCE in the US is so important; the goal, like The UK’s MDI Change Programme; our collective ability to employ all sensors, the best shooters, and the right C2 nodes, with the appropriate authorities, in near real-time in order to converge effects against a common adversary.

Land industrial strategy

And we will shortly launch the Land Industry Strategy which will enable us to work more closely with OMEs and SMEs to mutual advantage.  It aims to develop, further, our innovative, productive and globally competitive land industrial sector.  The LIS coupled with experimentation will breathe life into Team MERCURY – an initiative designed to harness new capabilities. All of this designed to bridge the co called ‘valley of death’, driven by the newly created Director Futures in AHQ.

So we are in the foothills of fundamental change, but the Army cannot ignore the fact of the last and far reaching great evolution – the great interwar leap from horse to tank – was not without friction and parochialism.  We must never be ‘out-thought’ as a result of institutional paralysis again.  But we should also not be blind to the risks and indeed the “bet on tech” that underpins much of this transformation.

Technology

New technologies are generating massive volumes of data, unlocking new attack surfaces and expanding the reach of potential attacks through advanced next-generation capabilities.  These technologies – and the operational tempo that they enable – are likely to compress decision times, taxing the limits of human understanding and often requiring responses at machine speed.

Earlier in the year, the UK deployed an AI Concept Demonstrator to the Baltics to trial dramatically reduced planning cycles amongst key battle staffs.  The early results were impressive and the reduction of time and cognitive burden on the staff was eye-catching.

But we must remain clear-eyed on the associated risks and requirements.  Retaining the human-in-the loop remains our approach, not only to manage and navigate ethical and legal pathways, but also to ensure that staffs are still able to work in reversionary mode and operate when all decision-support systems are found wanting – or are simply absent as the EMS/Cyber/space contest plays out.

Pictured is a remotely piloted unmanned aerial vehicle (RPAS) being tested as part of the UK Governments Project MINERVA. Image: MOD.

An exploration of some of the risks of premature over-reliance on these technologies is critical and we are seduced by poorly evidenced quick wins at our peril.  In the last decade we have experienced the real meaning of contest in EMS and wider Cyber space.  We cannot afford not to challenge every assumption around our freedom of manoeuvre in this respect.  Degradation of our use of the spectrum means that a key element of human-machine teaming starts to falter.

We must be clear about our capacity (or otherwise) to host, assure, protect, provide and manage the full digital architecture required of these technologies.  And there is an urgent need to first get our data in order, including detailed work to codify our data architecture as a set of standards, patterns and guardrails.  Advancing our efforts to digitalise ahead of this foundational activity risks incoherence which will undoubtedly see us fail in all our digitalisation endeavours; we won’t make better, faster decisions and will likely be outcompeted by more nimble adversaries, state and non-state.

Internet of Things

There is also the requirement for a robust, ubiquitous and resilient digital backbone.  The critical shift from a military ‘internet of people’ to a military ‘internet of things’ will underpin success.  By extension, our headmark is switching from ‘bolting on comms’ to our platforms, to the new paradigm of platforms and effects being seamlessly enabled by our constantly evolving digital backbone.

Data Poisoning

In parallel, because AI relies so much on access to accurate, assured data, the potential for ‘data poisoning’ is substantial.  A critical area we are investigating is how we can remain alert to the notion of AI ‘drift’, putting in place the mechanisms to identify when key data sources may be deliberately manipulated by an adversary to deny us a course of action or to put in place the very course the adversary ultimately seeks.

We must also take a progressive approach in delivering an innovative mix of crewed, non-crewed (including optionally crewed) and autonomous platforms, including swarming drones

And underpinning our ability to deliver on the opportunities provided by these technological advances, is the need to be able to access, inspire and reward the best minds of academia, industry, allies and our own people.  This in itself challenges the nature of our workforce, and the orthodoxy of personnel management and through career management.  An ambitious and novel approach to harnessing this talent is required by all of us.

We must also take a progressive approach in delivering an innovative mix of crewed, non-crewed (including optionally crewed) and autonomous platforms, including swarming drones. This effort places a heavy premium on increasing lethality, while also protecting our people from harm by automating classic ‘dull, dirty and dangerous’ and high-risk military tasks.

The combined risk in using these technologies is therefore substantial – what is designed to alleviate the burden on the human mind and speed up our decision making, may ultimately introduce a greater range of vulnerabilities and lines of attack.  That which can be programmed can be exploited.

Soldiers from The 2nd Battalion Yorkshire Regiment, or 2 YORKS, were deployed to Kabul, Afghanistan in 2018, in support of the NATO Resolute Support Mission. Image: MOD.

And of course, we must lose sight of the fact that our recent history in Afghanistan and Iraq shows us that even the most technologically capable forces will still struggle – the asymmetric battle will always demonstrate that technology is not a panacea.  And, whilst technological developments will offer the opportunity to buy out physical numbers, there is an inherent risk in that calculation – if the benefits are not realised, there is a risk that the force will just become smaller and less capable.

So what lies ahead of us remains unpredictable; despite the importance of technology, and the ‘fuel cans to hard drives’ moment we currently face, war is a people business and success requires human ingenuity and willpower.   We must never forget the importance of human relationships, and the necessity for allies and partners.

And therefore getting the correct balance in all of this is challenging.  To press ahead with insufficient thought to the consequences may seem reckless, but to be too timid and limited in our aspirations conversely sets the wrong narrative and confers advantage to our adversaries.  That is not to say that the gains from such technology are not to be had – their ability to offer battle-winning advantages is clear – but we must plan properly, less we negate the full range of their potential benefits.

Christopher Tickell

Lieutenant General Sir Christopher Tickell KBE was commissioned into the Royal Engineers in 1983 and spent 6 years as a troop commander in Germany, Northern Ireland, UK, Botswana and Norway. After Staff College and a tour in the MOD, he took command of 9 Parachute Squadron RE. This included tours in Bosnia and Kosovo.

As a Lieutenant Colonel he worked in the Operations Branch of the Army HQ, before taking command of 23 Engineer Regiment (Air Assault) as it deployed to Kuwait/Iraq for the Second Gulf War in January 2003. On promotion in 2005 he moved to the Directorate of Training. He then attended the Higher Command and Staff Course.

He was promoted to Brigadier in 2007 and commanded 8 Force Engineer Brigade for 2 years; he deployed with his Headquarters to Afghanistan for the final 6 months. After 2 years running the Army Staff Course, he returned to the MOD working for the Chief of Defence Personnel for 9 months.

He was promoted in 2013 and commanded the Army Recruiting and Training Division until October 2016. He was the Army’s Director of Capability from then until Summer 2019. He was promoted to Lieutenant General and became Deputy Chief of the General Staff in August 2019.

He was appointed MBE in 2000, OBE in 2003, CBE in 2010 and a KBE in 2021. He is married and has 2 daughters.

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