Unshackling technology in Defence

Head of Pre-Sales, Defence, BAE Systems Applied Intelligence Read time: 3 mins
Technology is very often seen as the be all and end all in Defence, says Paul Spedding. But actually, digital advances are one thing, achieving true advantage is quite another
Unshackling technology in Defence Like many people I spend time in workshops, giving speeches and listening to speeches, trying to avoid the sessions that are blatant sales pitches disguised as furthering thought leadership.
 
Some are really good with some excellent contributions. But one thing struck me recently. I realised just how much we associate achieving advantage with achieving technical superiority. We just cannot shake it off. It’s that silver bullet thing we are desperate to depend upon. It’s like we are shackled to it and also shackled by it.
 

Turning towards technology

Throughout history advantage has come to those who innovate. The spear, the Gatling gun, and on to more modern examples such as precision strike weapons or drones. And it isn’t just that technology solutions have provided a tangible edge, they are also easy to justify, easy to budget for and easy to approve.
 
The Return on Investment (ROI) seems obvious and the business case robust. The enemy develops a faster aircraft so we develop an even faster aircraft. The enemy develops a longer range radar so we develop an even longer range radar. How can we not – otherwise we will be chased down, we will be seen before we can see and we will be shot out of the air.
 
Perhaps this ease of quantifying advantage vs cost, has contributed to a dependence on technology. We have always innovated and our technology has always enabled us to overmatch our adversaries. At least it has when the fight is what we call “fair”. Well, we are in a different fight and we need to win it. 
 

An eroding advantage

What have our adversaries done then? If they haven’t been able to achieve technical superiority, did they simply resign themselves to just not being as good, to losing. “It’s a fair cop guv, you’re better than us”. Clearly not. In fact, the innovation needed by the underdog may now have provided them an advantage. They have had to develop different ways of “playing the game”. Making it far more complex, more strategic, more nuanced, less obvious.
 
The thing is, technology is increasingly being commoditised and the game is becoming increasingly complex. Our ability to technologically differentiate is eroding and the differentiator that is technology itself, is eroding. We aren’t the only wealthy nation any more. We may still have the best education systems, but for how long and anyone can attend them anyway.
 
The US still dwarfs other countries’ investments in Defence, maintaining the traditional power superiority of NATO, but what metrics should we use in considering total warfare? We talk about Quantum, we talk about blockchain, we talk about 6G and we talk and talk and talk about artificial intelligence. These are not panaceas, they are also haves. It’s global technology. A normal evolution of common global tools. A diminishing differentiator.
 
Let’s recognise it for what it really is; Business As Usual. Let’s loosen those technology shackles and focus on different conversations. Let’s talk instead about the difficult stuff. The stuff the benefits of which are difficult to quantify. The “How” questions; how do we use technology, how do we fight, and how do we play the game? This, I suggest, is by far where our greatest gains will be made. And it is by far the most difficult change to make.
 

Let’s learn how to play the game

We aren’t perhaps optimally structured for sub threshold competition – or “constant battling” as I prefer to call it. We are structured for peace and war. We are structured by home and away.
 
Perhaps it’s not fair, our adversaries experiment on us.
 
We are their Red Teams in their war gaming. Throw some rocks in our pond, prod us with a pointy stick and see what happens. It’s a powerful continuous war gaming experiment, enabling our adversaries to continuously learn and adapt. To become smarter. To be strategic. To be pro-active.
 
Now we have ethics and values to abide by and we must do so. They are, after all, what we are striving to protect. So we must build our synthetic environments in which to bring together our rainbow teams, conduct our exercises and fail and adapt and repeat.
 
We must play by the rules and show that we do. That means embedding the legal and evidential governance processes within our systems and in such a way as to allow operational freedom of manoeuvre, to adapt as our appetite for what is acceptable changes.
 
And we must create structures that enable us to play the game at an international level. 
Winning for us is about maintaining peace and a degree of the status quo, so our structures need to support activities that constrain conflict sub threshold. If it gets to war we’ve already failed.
 
All of this is incredibly complex and difficult of course, but that’s a good reason to put our collective energies to the problem. I’m sure it will prove to be far more valuable in the long run, even if the ROI is rather foggy.
 

About the author
Paul Spedding is Head of Pre-Sales, Defence, at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence
paul.spedding@baesystems.com
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Paul Spedding Head of Pre-Sales, Defence, BAE Systems Applied Intelligence 6 April 2021