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In times of conflict, innovation moves at a faster pace. However, in UK Defence Acquisition a linear and whole-life approach does not keep up with fast-paced technological advancements. Instead of focusing on outcomes, the current acquisition process emphasises meeting exhaustive requirements, which can leave us vulnerable to constantly being behind the curve. This article explores how the need for faster development has been highlighted in the Russo-Ukrainian war and how our procurement system needs to be revised when responding to emerging threats. With calls for a major rework of procurement, the article delves into how commercial partnerships and more stringent time-bound gate reviews could help address the issue.
The Russo-Ukraine war has brought into stark focus the pace at which innovation is driven in times of conflict. ‘Cutting edge’ technology, of which there is often limited volume, is being defeated by innovation and volume daily. There are clear lessons to be learned from a UK perspective here.
In the UK Defence Acquisition process, the focus is on defining the capability needed for the future rather than simply procuring something that already exists. This aspect of determining the requirement dominates the process, while procurement, support, and disposal are also integral parts of the process but not given equal weight.
Theoretically, the Smart Procurement Initiative, introduced in 1998 with a through-life approach, was intended to improve the speed and cost of procurement and to meet the capabilities required by Defence. It was brought in to address the accelerating rate of technological change of the time as civil research outpaced the military. This approach has been repeated in subsequent reviews with little change in a developing industrial environment. Outside of Defence this linear acquisition process, with exhaustive requirements, is now seen less commonly and not in projects that are likely to endure over multiple generations of technology.
Flaws in UK Defence Acquisition Process
Technology makes it even more apparent that a focus on outputs over outcomes is flawed due to capability becoming quickly out of date. Technology is advancing and iterating at a pace that far outstrips Defence’s approach to acquisition. Focusing on achieving the requirements set within a project, rather than realising the outcomes or effects that are sought, leaves Defence vulnerable to being constantly behind the curve. Project deliverables should not be seen as finite, nor should the development of a capability cease when the support stage or project closure is reached.
Valuing certainty in the outputs of programmes and projects is entirely at odds with the Defence Command Plan of 2021 as it does not allow Defence to remain competitive if there are significant changes required to address emerging threats. The House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee report on UK defence policy, published in January, called for the Government to articulate their priorities through its refresh of the Integrated Review and Defence Command Paper. The Committee called for a major rework of procurement of capabilities reliant upon high-end, disruptive, and emerging technologies. It described the MoD as “one of the worst customers in the world”.
Calls for Major Rework of Procurement
The House of Commons Defence Select Committee has also begun a review of DE&S and its approach to Defence acquisition. One view is that specialists with wide experience across the sector are important to change the focus from budget management to focusing on outcomes and effects-based procurement. This will require greater acceptance of risk within the project that outcomes might not be reached after one iteration and indeed better understanding of those risks that could affect the realisation of a programme’s benefits. This is a cornerstone of effective programme management and is already understood in other sectors as well as being taught in qualifications such as Managing Successful Programmes and the APM Project Management Qualification – both taught on the Battlespace Technology Course at Shrivenham.
The problems with outdated procurement processes are being widely acknowledged by both DE&S and the minister for Defence procurement, Alex Chalk. During the ConservativeHome’s Defence & Security Conference, the minister said: “Don’t say to me you’ll come back in three years’ time with something world-beating and fantastic. I want stuff now, I want you to iterate it and develop it”. There are areas within Defence where rapid development has and is being done, such as the Rapid Capability Office within the RAF, but these are still not delivering at the pace required.
In Ukraine the use of uncrewed aerial systems (UAS), both military and commercial off-the-shelf (COTS), is a great example of iterative development – the pace of technological change and how a threat can develop. The pace of development in UAS vastly outstrips those systems that are being procured under the conventional process to address them.
What are corporations doing?
Focusing just on the COTS UAS to begin, let us consider the iteration and progress made by Da-Jiang Innovations (DJI) from their first consumer drone in 2013 to now. The Phantom 1 released in January 2013 and had an endurance of circa 10 minutes, a speed of 10 m/s and a range of 1000m. The Phantom 4, released three years later, has an endurance of 30 minutes, a speed of 20 m/s and a range of 4000m. This is a small snapshot of the developments in this space, with DJI also having drones used for industrial purposes such as the Matrice 600 capable of lifting 6kg and travelling at 18 m/s for the sum of circa $5,000 at its time of release in 2016. In the military space, speeds have increased, resistance to jamming has improved and the cost of production has reduced.
Compare this instead to Counter-UAS systems in the Ministry of Defence, which are fractured across the services with no clear cohesion. The Royal Navy only contracted Kirintec in 2021 to defeat Class 1 UAS and relies on other systems to defeat anything larger. The Army has no C-UAS capability in wide fielding, with only the Lightweight Multi-role Missile suitable to defeat aerial assets, at significant unit cost versus these threats. The Royal Air Force, the lead for C-UAS, fielded ORCUS under Project Synergia in 2012 for the London Olympics. Consisting of sensors and effectors that can counter Class 1/2 drones, it lacks the complexity required to operate against a swarm or in a congested urban environment.
C-UAS is having to iterate at a pace that exceeds the conventional procurement system and also those considered to be ‘rapid’ on present timelines. It has taken the input of the jHub, UK Strategic Command’s innovation team, to progress the programme at the rate required. Innovation-orientated procurement goes some way to address the issues with a through-life approach but has the issue of addressing a current problem set but not always securing a path to future iteration.
Fundamentally, a radical change in Defence’s approach to acquisition is required to address emerging threats and opportunities that are present due to rapid technological advances. The present linear process, with an exhaustive listing of project requirements, is not suitable. One way to address this is a change to Defence’s approach to commercial partnership and how investing in a long-term relationship has benefits for both parties.
A commercial partnership, where a single supplier is chosen as the provider to collaborate or lead with a project, allows for adjusting specifications whilst continually focusing on an end effect. Take Anduril, awarded a $1bn contract by the U.S. Special Operations Command as the Systems Integration partner to deliver C-UAS capability. This will provide traditional sensors and effectors but also approaches C-UAS as a service through rapid adaptation of both software and integration of new third-party sensors and effectors. This ‘as a service’ approach means that out-of-date technology does not have to be kept and the innovation comes at no additional cost due to it being within the contract. Furthermore, gate reviews can be set to ensure that the contract still provides the desired effect to the end user.
There will always be a need for a whole-life approach for certain projects, but Defence procurement must embrace innovation more readily and accept there is not a one size fits all approach. I am glad to see this has been recognised in the last six months by both the Minister for Defence procurement and also in the DE&S contract with Lockheed Martin as a systems integrator for sUAS. However, the cultural and structural shift required is widely spoken about, but little movement has been made. Defence procurement needs to change, and soon, to address its outdated practices. Or risk falling behind.
Josh is an Army Officer with experience across Europe and the Middle East. Forever trying to remain sceptical over cynical, he has great interest in technology and how it can be used to improve Defence.