Connect or Retire: Digital Transformation and the Ministry of Defence

Technology Policy

Connect or Retire: Digital Transformation and the Ministry of Defence

Posted on: 16th November 2020
Alex Burton
Associate Fellow, Technology and Public Policy

    A transformative Integrated Review of foreign policy, defence, security and international development (IR) is of crucial importance to the future of our country’s place in the world – but it can only be successful if the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is reset to deliver it and the government puts the right measures in place to make sure it succeeds.

    This autumn will see a flurry of agreements and statements on Britain’s position in the world from 2021. Brexit and trade agreements will occupy the lion’s share of media commentary and there is a risk the IR is ignored, just as threats posed by China and Russia grow beyond the public view and without significant public discourse. We cannot afford another evolution of our existing force structure whose lineage is drawn from the Second World War; instead we must begin to regain superiority in the weapons of today and tomorrow: artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), directed energy, autonomy and swarming, and offensive cyberattacks, among others. Above all we must exploit the power of data.        

    I served through five reviews and numerous savings rounds and lived their consequences; the majority were seen as savings measures with little commensurate transformation. The early reviews (1990 and 1994) sought post-Cold War dividends and, while 1998’s was comprehensive, some question its affordability. But the MoD’s current position is shaped by the recent reviews of 2010 and 2015, and neither fully offered a strategic ambition or the capability to deliver it. While the 2010 review started the reconfiguration of the UK’s security and defence institutions for the post-Iraq and Afghanistan worlds, austerity drove a retrenchment in both capability and ambition. The 2015 review, meanwhile, was financially incoherent, assuming efficiency savings within the department, the sale of significant amounts of the defence estate, a further reduction in civil service numbers, and the MoD managing to maintain proper cost control of its equipment programme. All four assumptions had been adopted in previous reviews with only limited success, and 2015 was no exception. Five years on, the government is once again facing a significant shortfall even before new capabilities are considered.   

    Moreover, the strategic context has brought us to an even more perilous geopolitical position, with both China and Russia emboldened and increasing the depth and breadth of their capabilities across physical and cyber environments. My experience at sea and ashore never indicated that the great power competition prevalent in the Cold War had ended, rather it had been deprioritised in response to counter-terrorism and conflicts with lesser powers. There can be little doubt it has now returned with a vengeance and we need to raise our game. For us to deter China and Russia, we must be able to deliver credible retribution, requiring an ability to act with swiftness, clarity, severity and certainty. In many areas our reach and resources mean we cannot, yet the dangers to the nation and its interests are immediate – and growing. Some new capabilities offering credible retribution have been added (the Carrier Strike Group being a notable example – which has taken 24 years, and counting, of development) but the most transformative enablers (for example, autonomy and rapid data analytics for information advantage) remain boutique trials. Thus, the nation has entered what US nuclear strategists referred to in the late 1970s and early 1980s as a “window of vulnerability”.

    The Technological Threat Landscape

    The Technological Threat Landscape

    Today’s challenge has further complications. Our state and non-state adversaries no longer undertake overt actions against our interests; instead, they consciously defy the public’s expectation of an enemy’s behaviour. In the first instance they deliberately target domains that we consider global commons – environments governed by international norms shaped by those nations who share our beliefs. Actions like:

    • The aggressive but invisible behaviour of Russia’s submarine fleet investigating, undoubtedly for exploitation, the underwater cables that crisscross the oceans. This is truly dangerous given 99 per cent of all global digital traffic passes through these cables; these are rich sources of information, vehicles for misinformation and axes for degradation which impact on our wealth, our security and our well-being. But while there is a high risk, it is not new: In August 1914 Britain’s first physical act of war was to have a Post Office ship, covered by the Royal Navy, cut Germany’s undersea communications cables, forcing Germany onto less secure radio communications which were then exploited for strategic advantage.   
    • China steadily extending its influence over the international waters well beyond its own legal territories, not through the soft power of diplomacy but through military infrastructure, artificial islands and the bullying of neighbouring states. It is now replicating this approach in space, strengthening its anti-satellite weapons technology and advancing its space capabilities across the board, including in satellites, launch vehicles, sensors and lunar systems. These activities are all intended to help fulfill China’s long-term goal of becoming the world’s most dominant space power; keeping in mind that those who have the strategic advantage in a domain hold the pen on establishing the international norms.
    • In cyberspace, both China and Russia actively targeting our data, our critical infrastructure and our wealth-generation (financial institutions), while testing our democratic processes: Russian (GRU) cyberattacks against the Kyiv metro (2017), Ukraine’s financial and energy sectors (2017), the World Anti Doping Agency, or WADA (2016), the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, or OPCW (2018), and the US Democratic National Committee in 2016.

    Edward Beach wrote in Keepers of the Sea:1Edward Beach and Fred Maroon, 1983  “From time immemorial, the purpose of a navy has been to influence, and sometimes decide issues on land …. The sea has supplied mobility, capability, and support throughout Western history, and those failing in the sea-power test – notably Alexander, Napoleon and Hitler – also failed the longevity one.” Everything and nothing has changed, and this thesis remains true but no longer just restricted to the sea. In the 21st century, the supply of mobility, capability and support is across all the global commons: the sea, outer space, the atmosphere and the digital world. If our adversaries command these and we lose our influence, we will not be able to deter their actions and will fail Beach’s longevity test. 

    We cannot compromise our principles with our response; yet it is axiomatic that those who choose not to be bound by such frameworks and norms may gain the tactical or operational advantage on the battlefield. Instead of compromise we must seek to hedge against this advantage through two levers: one in policy, the other in capability. 

    • The policy hedge is our unwavering support for strong alliances; certainly this includes NATO, but also the regional friendships of aligned beliefs such as the Five Eyes community, the Five Power Defence Arrangement and a growing relationship with Japan. It gives us a legitimacy and a clout that is unachievable alone.
    • In terms of capability, technology must be the buttress against those with less ethical standards. It is counterintuitive that some of the technologies critical to maintaining our liberal democracy against the autocracies are those most criticised by the public. If we are properly to protect our interests and beliefs, we are going to require offensive cyber capabilities, autonomous systems, artificial intelligence and weaponry enabled by machine learning. The government must have a public debate on these systems with greater openness, moral seriousness and relevance to the realities we face. But it cannot wait for this debate to be concluded before acting. It must have the courage to develop and industrialise – beyond boutique trials – these capabilities now, despite the reservations within society.     


    It is hoped that science and data will provide the majority of the evidence to support the IR. The national security community generally has the data to gather the best information and evidence to support the best strategy; yet historically, it has not used its technological capabilities and know-how to process and organise this data to effectively inform decision-making. Too frequently, it relies on imperfect data sets that are the product of inefficient or biased processes. The inquiry following the 2017 terrorist attacks in Manchester provides a compelling example, citing “major challenges” with building up the “the data picture” relating to capabilities (particularly collection capabilities), technology (particularly around network connectivity), vision (particularly regarding strategic coordination with UK Intelligence Community), disparate and suboptimal systems, and an over-reliance on manual analysis of data and governance.

    Creating a Connected Joint Force

    Creating a Connected Joint Force

    It is too late for this review to develop the right technologies and data architecture to exploit fully the analytical observations possible. Nevertheless, conclusions must be based on the quantitative data that is available and priority must be given to these architectures in the 2025 review. The alternative to science and data – relying on emotion – is played out too frequently to the public, particularly for institutions with grand histories. Emotion is the bedrock upon which women and men serve the Armed Forces: They risk their lives for the tribes they join, from the Armoured Corps to the Royal Marines, from the Fleet Air Arm to 617 Squadron. But emotion-led decision-making can become habitual and process heavy; it is incremental and encourages like-for-like replacement or the extension of legacy capabilities.

    There is a compelling reason for optimism, though. The department’s senior leadership is uniquely set to respond to the challenges. Voices from across the political, civil and military leadership are united for the first time in my memory, demanding transformation in thinking and kit, acknowledging the need to accept risk including retiring so called “sunset” capabilities, even before their “sunrise” replacements are proven. But the MoD leadership will need both a disruptive executive and a stick to drive a conservative and resistant institutionalised department to make uncomfortable choices, take risks and slaughter “sacred cows”. This brings me to a fundamental lesson from the UK’s response to Covid-19: Rapid strategic transformation of institutions is possible, but it requires an existential forcing function. Much of the changes in working practices seen in 2020 might have been hidden in ten-year plans, but the shock induced by Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdowns drove their adoption and in some instances led to revolutionary change unimaginable less than a year ago.  

    History provides depressing lessons on the military’s ability to generate rapid change. This change is rarely self-induced; more frequently, the change is imposed in conflict with the concomitant loss of life and strategic or operational advantage. The review must create that function, and the government must set tough, measurable preconditions for the MoD to deliver against. These should be bold and take risks; I propose a few below, providing examples from the service I know best:

    • Retire immediately those capabilities that will be unable to connect, within five years, to the planned digital backbone. Capabilities considered useful today will be impotent without connectivity in the campaign posture the Chief of the Defence Staff described recently as “a continuous operating on our terms and in places of our choosing”. These will be the first of the sunset capabilities. How connected are the Royal Navy’s offshore and inshore patrol vessels, the Army and Navy’s Wildcat helicopters, the Army’s Warrior APC? Connect or retire!
    • Set a 75-25 requirement for the balance between crewed and uncrewed systems within five years. This will necessitate significant disinvestment in current crewed systems to reinvest in autonomy. The Navy has been particularly wedded to sustaining crewed systems at huge cost and programme overrun. The “new” Wildcat and Crowsnest helicopters resemble a digitally enabled refresh of legacy systems – though even that is disputable, given Wildcat lacks the connectivity to the digital backbone and Crowsnest will not be fully capable until 2023. Serious consideration should be given to “doing a Nimrod” and taking at least one out of service immediately and channeling resource into an autonomous, digitally connected replacement. The current crewed mine-countermeasures capability could also be included. These are the second of the sunset capabilities and could include more of the 40-odd fleets of aircraft.  
    • Reduce the in-school education burden from 20 per cent to 10 per cent within four years. The services’ current education and individual training system is Dickensian, placing a huge overhead on infrastructure, skilled trainers and the service personnel, while disheartening trainees who are keen to be doing the job. 
    • Shift unit and group training to 50 per cent simulated within five years. Live training no longer delivers effective training for the commander and their teams. Salisbury Plain, Canada, the North Sea and Western Isles do not offer the multi-domain environment described by each service chief and required to deliver integrated operating across all domains. Synthetics can today provide this realism. But live training has further limits. While it offers some lessons, it falls short of synthetics in providing learning, it is less rich in data collection for subsequent analytics (compromising tactical development as well as learning), and it does not allow pausing, replaying or sophisticated debriefing. Finally, it is expensive; in fuel, stores and logistics. It is fundamentally as old-fashioned as the classroom. 

    Our ability to deter major state adversaries is currently at risk. The implications at and under the sea, across the internet, in international airspace and in space are not widely understood but could be fatal to the nation and its interests. A slavish adherence to 20th-century capabilities will not rebalance the risk calculus in our favour, but the extraordinary growth of digital technologies offers credible mitigation. Such mitigation is possible because for the first time in generations there is a desire for technological risk-taking across the MoD’s leadership. But delivery of these technologies through a department very resistant to change requires the imposition of external forcing functions. The government needs to support such a technological transformation, forcing change with clear and demanding pre-conditions and delivery targets alongside adequate funding to prime a “productionised” technological revolution. We cannot afford to wait for conflict to provide this forcing function.


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