How technical innovation empowers mission success

Viasat UK’s Steve Beeching: We need to stop admiring the problem and start implementing a real and urgent change now to achieve defence solutions at the speed of relevance


The following post is adapted from a presentation by Steve Beeching, Managing Director at Viasat UK, at the Disruptive Technology for Defence Transformation conference on Feb. 10, 2021.

There is a generational shift amplifying the UK Ministry of Defence’s strategic challenge. It is provoking uncertainty and increasing demands on finite resources and government financials. It is widely acknowledged that our defence missions are now subject to threats which are global, wider, more invasive and increasing in frequency. But defence budgets and strategies are further impacted by:

  • Increasingly frequent disruptive events and black swans, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and recent political unrest;
  • Our governments facing deeper financial challenges to delivering prosperity agendas, including health, jobs and infrastructure;
  • An emerging economic superpower shift, where the West can no longer rely only on military development expenditure races to remain ahead of the adversarial threat curve, and with rapidly changing dynamics where foreign nations are producing staggering numbers of engineers and computer programmers; and
  • The continuing and pervasive growth and impact of technology and the digital environment.

In rising to such a generational shift, the words of UK MoD’s Chief of Defence Staff resonate strongly: “More of the same will not be enough ... we must fundamentally change our thinking if we are not to be overwhelmed.”

Meanwhile, MoD has openly stated that current approaches by the Defence community to joint integration and the acquisition and management of information networks and services are not fit for purpose. When such concerns are applied to new disruptive technologies, such as those related to space exploitation, the involved investment costs and speed of evolution offer a quantum-scale challenge to existing processes and real-time deployment. Defence has further acknowledged its needs to use the private sector more effectively, but the private sector must play its part in this required change, too. Industry must help change the engagement strategy where prior behaviours have often formed antagonistic relationships along with a lack of trust in the approach to contracting. Instead, industry’s unique technology leadership experience should help to accelerate Defence’s digitisation agenda.

In the past, governments and defence departments led the way in developing new information technologies. Once matured, these technologies then migrated into commercial products and services. Commercial technology companies have now taken the lead in this information technology sector. Just consider the extent of this transition, which includes satellites offering virtual private assured networks handling billions of events per day through machine learning and artificial intelligence. Think, too, of the shift to the private sector in space launch vehicles and rocket science. This technology and digital displacement gap continues to expand, driven by the demands of commercial markets, a globalised economy, the increasing flexibility in commercial models and the rich talent attracted to the private sector markets. This displacement gap and these talent movements are driving revolutions in the speed of innovation, agile development, experimentation and new acquisition models to accelerate time to market.

In the defence context, this digital displacement reveals a number of strategic impacts:

  • Adversaries are increasingly leveraging rapid advances in technology to pose new and evolving threats, particularly in space, cyberspace and computing;
  • Technological advances are enabling a wider range of actors to acquire sophisticated capabilities previously available only to well-resourced states; and
  • Many technological developments are coming from the commercial sector.

This means an increasingly complex security environment is now being defined by rapid technological change, as well as the changing nature of war.

With organisations tending to hide in their maze of hierarchy, processes and operational environments and use these as excuses not to improve, we can consider the current complexities and acquisition model within Defence, where:

  • Extensive and detailed technical deliverables are defined with Defence acting as the technology design authority. These aspire to design and implementation of near-perfect solutions in a rapidly changing technology environment, often resulting in buying yesterday’s technology for tomorrow.
  • As these designs are delayed due to change, then existing solutions are used beyond their economic and effective mission life; and
  • Acquisition teams follow disparate contract and evaluation models focused on technology and cost, rather than an evaluation biased to the needed outcomes and full life cost.

From the private sector’s technological proliferation experience and lessons learnt, there are four principles to apply to achieve mission-centric solutions at the speed of relevance:

  • Simplicity of goal outcome;
  • Agile experimentation;
  • Risk sharing; and
  • Measuring what matters.

Collectively, these provide the framework for hybrid acquisition, if underpinned by joint co-operation. They offer opportunities to deliver sustainable mission outcomes faster and more economically. Let’s explore each in turn:

1. Enhanced speed of complex digital technology starts with the simplification of processes and behaviours that allow room to innovate and deliver, so that users can:

  • Dispense with 10,000+ page design documents;
  • Use frontline command and mission outcomes to align and agree on priorities;
  • Transform solution requests to become mission outcome delivery statements tagged with simple “system design principles”;
  • Keep the requirements broad enough to allow freedom for technical innovation and sustainability; and
  • Bring industry in at the inception of the process to collaborate on defining the problems to solve.

2. Experimentation and bite-sized innovation focused on proving true outcomes allows users to:

  • Use outcome sandboxes rather than paper assessments of future promises;
  • Perform multiple and continual assessments in an agile value-test environment to ratify design and prove capability;
  • Shift focus from writing specifications to assessing applications to deliver the required mission requirements;
  • Include commanders and users to help reveal different operandi not previously considered;
  • Empower deeper complementary ownership with industry at the heart of the design;
  • Incentivise industry to form ecosystems and maximise best available skills; and
  • Share lessons learnt, as well as solutions, to advance real-time improvement.

3. Whilst architecture and outcome control are left with Defence, risk and ownership is spread out, meaning:

  • Outcome capability moves design, integration and configuration challenges to industry expertise (also reducing future changes);
  • Freedom in the design allows technical solutions to reduce vulnerabilities;
  • The convergence of industry and military goals increases learning by all parties;
  • It speeds to time into operational use and theatre;
  • It empowers the younger generation, revealing new and innovative requirements and uses when implementing and operating experiments.

4. Effort and evaluation are focused where they really matter for success, because:

  • The solutions need “scoring” and “evaluating” against mission capability outcomes;
  • Price and technology become irrelevant to our troops if such required mission outcomes cannot be achieved;
  • Mission effects in lethality and reduction of fratricide become measures alongside new items such as cyber resilience and information assurance;
  • Emphasis is placed on control rather than ownership; and
  • Evaluation of solutions moves to total-life costs.

Collectively, assessments run in multiple bite-sized phases across programme life, encouraging solutions to be deployed into operations. This will drive the confidence of private sector investments in support of defence outcomes, ultimately leading to solutions (and thus innovation) as a service.

Achieving and accelerating such simplified outcome-based experimentation requires a number of more symbiotic relationships:

  • The siloes across front-line commands — and between command and commercial — must be dispelled into an integrated team delivering mission outcomes;
  • People investments must be restructured so that in-house design teams, users and support functions are re-assigned into hyper-user communities; and
  • More structured industry engagement sessions must be established to foresee (and understand) new and emerging technology.
  • Defence and industry must embed in each other’s organisations in a meaningful way. Industry needs to see and support issues at the tactical edge, and Defence must experience delivering commercial and military solutions within private sector buildings and networks.
  • Advisory boards should be created within the “New Industrial Defence Base,” starting with a focus on strategic exploitation of technology and perhaps also the market drivers that chief technology officers are focused upon.

An integrated command and acquisition team will drive integrated demands. Symbiosis will deliver better awareness, with each accelerating goals for agile assessments and better conversations of control vs. ownership.

With the investment budgets under pressure and the challenge of the new digital age, we need to move into using this New Industrial Defence Base to accelerate outcome possibilities. The traditional platform-centric nature of warfare was the exclusive domain of the Traditional Defence Industrial Base, but the digitisation revolution is shifting the sands to commercial technology companies willing to invest in and support defence technology.

Many current technology visions were possible years ago; for example, modern private sector communications networks provide substantially greater performance, resilience, security, scalability and economy than their government counterparts (which include mobile networking, SATCOM and cybersecurity). We thus need to recalibrate expectations and outcomes to demand immediate improvements and drive investment in support of defence needs. It’s no longer about expanding a network by adding additional boxes or products to fill gaps; it’s a dynamic shift to:

  • Open architecture networking solutions enabling adoption of new and emerging tech and applications;
  • Self-forming and self-healing networks that enable rapid network adaptability;
  • Secure and resilient connectivity as a service across the battlespace to bring assurance to the tactical edge;
  • A data analytics approach to smart networking that promotes threat intelligence sharing and agile response; and
  • Solution and innovation as a service in the operations and kill chain.

Ultimately, data and digital networking are weapons systems across a merging of the five domains of land, sea, air, space, cyber. Acquisition must focus on mission outcomes, simplifying the process to allow room for innovation and utilisation at the speed of relevance. Commands and commercial functions must form a single collaborative integrated team, responsible for delivering new capability to war fighters through bite-sized innovation.

The New Industrial Defence Base is in operational execution as a service, and this is going to expand at pace. Behaviours must change to allow dialogues to solve each other’s vulnerabilities, not contract models or industrial abuse. We need to move beyond admiring the problem statement. The digitisation revolution is the fulcrum for real and specific action now if we are to address the capabilities for the battles of tomorrow.