Delivering digital change in Defence

Engineering Director, BAE Systems Read time: 4 mins
Continuing our examination of Agile working, Kevin McLeod spotlights the technological whirlwind reshaping the UK’s Defence sector. But with change comes challenges...
Delivering digital change in Defence - image If I had a fiver for every time I’ve seen the word “Transformation” on a PowerPoint deck I certainly wouldn’t have had to work for a living. But the fact it pops up with such regularity is a testament to the fact that any industry – Defence or otherwise – can’t afford to stay still. 
Certainly, the business of warship building, which has underpinned virtually my entire career, is very different today to when I started out as an apprentice technician with the Ministry of Defence. Although the fundamentals of naval architecture have remained constant – the hull form is the hull form, after all – technologies such as integrated electric propulsion, LNG-fuelled engines and shipbuilding robotics have rendered many old processes obsolete. 
Such advances have myriad benefits. Not only do they promise greater effectiveness but they also have clear budgetary advantages – a particularly important priority in an era where squeezed military budgets have become the norm. Take fuel efficiency, for example. We’ve taken technologies that have worked on army bases in Afghanistan and we’re piloting them on warships to try and get up to 15 per cent of fuel savings. 

The Civilian Circle

In recent years, however, Defence has been undergoing something of a deeper shift. No longer can it be relied on to spearhead critical technological breakthroughs. In significant areas it is now lagging behind the commercial and civilian world, so much so that Defence procurement teams are increasingly challenging their suppliers to use more civilian-based technologies because they tend to offer greater capability and flexibility – particularly when it comes to upgrades. 
But it’s not just about identifying the technologies – it’s also about ensuring they can be deployed to the front line as quickly as possible. 
In an ideal scenario, the technology would be given to a soldier early in the process for them to test it and hand back to the developer for improvement, before being returned to the soldier again. In other words, you create a virtuous circle whereby soldiers get kit much earlier and developers are able to tap into technologies that were originally developed for civilians. Unfortunately, this has proven easier said than done. 

A Question of Agility 

With cumbersome commercial processes – in both the supply chain and government – looming large across the sector, many have turned to Agile methodologies as a potential remedy to the roadblocks which currently adorn the horizon. Perhaps this was inevitable. After all, this way of working has penetrated organisations around the world and it would be surprising if Defence was to prove immune to its apparent attractions. 
It’s important, though, to ensure that this approach is not seen as a panacea for all software and digital projects. Although I haven’t worked on Agile methodologies extensively, I’ve seen enough to conclude that where you apply it to the right environment it has stellar results, but there are also wrong environments to apply it to. For example, it can be at odds with other techniques, or it may be inappropriate because of challenges associated with budgets. Funding cycles are particularly challenging because they are annualised in accordance with the budget constraints of an organisation and in Maritime and Navy there is little room for manoeuvre.
This means that the skill with Agile is not its execution per se, but rather the judgement as to whether or not to use it in the first place. The real challenge is when it’s evenly balanced – you can see there is a real opportunity to apply some of these fresh processes and techniques but the ecosystem where you want to apply it isn’t ready. 
A good example is safety critical and control systems. Historically, and for a variety of reasons, those accountable for regulatory parts of this particular ecosystem have not embraced Agile. This has placed them at loggerheads with Agile’s advocates but all too often, each side doesn’t understand the other’s perspective and this shows that, fundamentally, the ecosystem isn’t ready for it. 

Engineering an Agile future

Decades on from my time as a marine apprentice, I still see myself as a hands-on engineer. And from designing and deploying next generation warships and submarines to reaping the transformative potential of Artificial Intelligence via Project Nelson, there is much to do before the Royal Navy has fully adapted to challenge of Machine-Speed Warfare. 
Agile methodologies will form part of this process – there’s no doubt about that.  But knowing when, and when not to deploy it, will be crucial in turning vision into reality. 

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Kevin McLeod is Engineering Director at BAE Systems

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Kevin McLeod Engineering Director, BAE Systems 5 December 2019