It’s an unusually quiet day in the outer office of Major General JJ Cole. His visitors are normally greeted by the hustle and bustle of his immediate colleagues, a testament not only to his seniority but also the vast scope of his responsibilities.
Today, though, his office in the army headquarters in Andover is a little more peaceful than usual. But don’t be fooled, there remains a productive hum. It’s busy, yes, but focused – which I suspect is exactly how Cole likes it.
As the army’s Chief Information Officer (CIO) all information-related roads lead to Cole – and by ‘information’ I mean future capabilities, systems and services, data and digital, cyber and electromagnetic activity, and much else besides.
“In addition to the Defence-wide CIO in the MOD, I believe I am the only other ‘proper’ CIO in Defence,” he says. “The reason I can make this slightly contentious claim is because I have a budget to deliver digital transformation, I have a seat at the board for the army, and I have a staff to deliver the policy and the delivery of our programmes of work, which are focused on information-facing programmes. These are our communications information systems, our ISTAR programme – Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance – which is about integrating data sets and automation, and our future cyber and electromagnetic capabilities.”
It’s quite the array, but the Major General remains calm in the eye of this digital-infused storm. If anything, he seems to welcome the spotlight.
A soldier’s story
While he speaks with the digital fluency of a tech entrepreneur from Silicon Valley, Cole remains very much a soldier’s soldier. Having been commissioned into the Royal Signals in 1987, his army career has taken him to postings around the world, including leading soldiers on operations in Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a range of roles in policy and programme delivery and transformation.
The tech entrepreneur comparison seems apt, however, given his hot pursuit of a technological revolution within the British army. His approach, while rooted in the ever fluctuating needs and demands of the military, has also been shaped by a secondment to BT. It was there, where he was responsible for transforming the digital workplace for over 100,000 staff, that he was struck by the many similarities which exist between both organisations. “It’s a similar size, it’s got the same international dispersal, it’s trying to modernise and transform itself for the information age,” he reflects.
Another benefit of his time at BT was how to juggle myriad priorities, a challenge which is particularly acute when it comes to digital technology. How does he strike the balance between things like governance versus the glamour of new advances such as artificial intelligence (AI)?
“We have to recognise that we work within government and what comes with that is a very onerous demand for rigour before any significant investment decisions can be made,” he points out. “What this does is that it drives us to gather a lot of evidence and operational analysis, market testing and cost assurance.”
This evidence enables him and his colleagues to “sell the story” as to why such investment is necessary and also inevitably slows the pace of change. “This process automatically places us in a less revolutionary and more evolutionary position for some of our big programmes,” he says. “This is for understandable reasons given government’s record on IT – and frankly IT in any sector – as well as the increased level of scrutiny from the likes of the National Audit Office and House of Commons select committees.”
The slower pace does not lead to a downsizing of Cole’s plans. On the contrary, his remains an ambitious programme, one which is focusing on the better exploitation of data and future capabilities as part of a sweeping modernisation and digital transformation that is enveloping Defence in the UK as a whole.
“We need to build a platform in the broadest sense,” he explains. “Our core programmes have significant investment requirements to integrate onto the digital network because we don’t operate in a land environment at the end of fibre optic cables. We need to invest in technology which is predominately passing data around the electromagnetic spectrum, onto which we must build applications to provide opportunities for the battlefield Internet of Things and application services which allow human beings to interpret the data.”
“I’m slowly but surely learning that I’ve got to be a bit of a salesperson internally to get people in the army to adopt technologies and not expect them to always be enthusiastic about it”
Major General JJ Cole OBE, Chief Information Officer, The British Army
If this sounds complicated to the layperson, it is, and Cole says that he has come to realise that he needs to communicate better in order to sell the benefits. “People in the army don’t always know what information capabilities are available to them,” he admits.
“I’m slowly but surely learning that I’ve got to be a bit of a salesperson internally to get people in the army to adopt technologies and not expect them to always be enthusiastic about it. This is because they might see it as yet another thing to be added to their list of things to do. So internal communication is really important as this drives the cultural change.”
An artificial future?
Transforming the use of data within the army will inevitably mean that AI will increasingly come to the fore – both on the battlefield itself and at headquarters. Cole is clear that the role of AI and machine learning will increase, but is equally keen to stress that humans will also benefit. It’s not about taking their jobs, but helping them do their jobs better.
He cites the example of the next generation of armoured vehicles to illustrate his point. “Onto these you can place virtualised applications on an electronic architecture and we should then be able to drop the next generation of technology on top of it,” he says. “This requires systems which operate faster than a human brain in making sense of all the data being pulled onto that platform. At the moment, human beings are trying to do this and are frankly being overwhelmed.”
He also says that AI and machine learning will help troops aggregate and understand the data – something that is currently being held back by an array of “closed loops” which dominate systems and circuits.
“Take a radar system, for example, which is looking for a threat to our troops on the ground,” he continues, visibly warming to his theme. “This type of defensive radar looks for fast flying things coming towards you, such as jets or drones. What they don’t do is draw in the data from that radar picture and share it with other people – it is only used for missile systems which can be fired when the rules of engagement allow – so it is a closed loop.”
He goes on to say that they are now using the expression ‘any sensor should be connected with any effector via the appropriate decision maker’ as a way of shaping future operations. A ‘sensor’ could be radar or electro-optic devices, an ‘effector’ could be a weapons system or electronic jamming or the delivery of software malware code.
“Between the sensor and the effector you need some kind of authority which we should try and automate and, if possible, we should use some form of AI within the right ethical, legal and policy constraints,” he explains. “These limits will probably vary depending on the scenario with which you are deployed. So if you are in high intensity warfighting it would be different to patrolling the NATO border in Estonia, for example, so there would be different thresholds into which the decision maker would be a human. But, at the moment, we just have individual sensors generally connected to individual effectors, rather than networks.”
“The sheer amount of data out there now is just too much for a human being to manage, so we have to recognise there is going to be lateral information exchanged and not always vertical”
Major General JJ Cole OBE, Chief Information Officer, The British Army
But of course it’s not just legal and ethical issues to navigate. Another challenge is the army’s ethos, where decisions have long been sent up the chain of command rather than to an algorithm or computer network to decipher. Cole admits this is a fact of military life.
“The reason this happens is that we have built procedures to get around the silos we have so you can share information by pushing it up the chain – which makes us very vertical and very hierarchical, and there is also this human desire to control,” he says. “But the sheer amount of data out there now is just too much for a human being to manage, so we have to recognise there is going to be lateral information exchanged and not always vertical.”
An ongoing journey
Digital transformation is something that will always be unending. The pace of technological advances means that no organisation – military or otherwise – can afford to rest on its laurels. It is a constant battle.
Cole points out that for the military this transformation journey is pockmarked by challenges that are not always as prevalent in some parts of the private sector – such as safety, for example. “We have to be really careful about our software,” he says. “It has to be good enough to be safe because otherwise there will be aircraft dropping out of the sky and weapons systems delivering effects where they shouldn’t be.”
He cites the army’s work during the COVID-19 Pandemic as an example of moving fast and taking on extra risk when needed. “We have created an analytics tool called ‘Project Hydra’ which we built as a concept demonstrator,” he explains.
“When the pandemic came into the UK, we deployed this tool to help make sense of the multiple data sets which were becoming available – things like infection rates, geographic and demographics data, and so on. By multi-layering those data sets, running analytics based on some specified queries – such as where to locate the Nightingale Hospitals or where mobile testing centres might be needed to cater for future demand – we were able to get something from concept to live within weeks.”
He believes that the lessons from this experience will be useful in shaping their approach to rapid delivery elsewhere across the military, such as the importance of open technology and having an architectural control framework, as well as a data governance routine which can authorise the ingestion of new data sets and be confident in its quality.
“A big bang programme where you go to a private contractor, hand over a big load of money and come back in five years just won’t work in this space”
Major General JJ Cole OBE, Chief Information Officer, The British Army
Finance, too, has a key role to play. “A big bang programme where you go to a private contractor, hand over a big load of money and come back in five years just won’t work in this space,” he points out. “You need to be seeding money within an agile commercial framework in order to scale up when you need to in response to fresh demand, and scale down if your resource situation demands it.”
This shift from a waterfall approach to delivering projects to a wider use of agile is something that Cole is increasingly pivoting towards, for example in something like the Defence Learning and Management Capability, a new digital way to do remote working and content management for people doing individual educational courses.
“We’re pretty much completely compliant with Government Digital Service standards and agile software development rather than using an MOD-driven CADMID cycle,” he says. “I don’t think the CADMID cycle works particularly well for digital technology. It assumes you will bring something into service, do a mid-life upgrade and then retire it 20 years later. But what we need to do is not to close programmes down but to keep them alive and keep changing them.”
This also involves a closer relationship with end users – another priority of Cole and his team. “This is something we have taken from agile and it means that deliver things to the field incrementally – this way we can get feedback from the users before we finally sign something off,” he explains.
Towards the digital horizon
Cole has been in his role for a little over two and a half years. It’s been a period of huge change but there remains much to do. A current priority is multi domain integration, which is about ensuring that digital capabilities are available across all five domains – army, navy and air force, but also space and cyber and electromagnetic. “Data runs across all five of these domains and an information architecture binds all five of these domains together,” he points out.
In other words, his ultimate aim is to help create an army fit for the demands of the technological age, one that is supported by a digital backbone, and is as equally comfortable with automation, robotics and virtual platforms as it is with boots on the ground.
“It’s about a combination of people, processes and technology, with data running across it all,” he concludes. The result will be a single information environment which can help deliver advantage in the ever-evolving arena of modern warfare.
It’s quite the ambition but one that appears increasingly within reach.
About the author
Mivy James is Head of Consulting for National Security, BAE Systems Applied Intelligence
- Defence’s Digital Disruptor. Major General Tom Copinger-Symes CBE may lack a digital background but his has been a career steeped in military achievements, professional ascent and ongoing drive and curiosity. So how did this “knuckle-dragging infantryman” find himself spearheading the British military’s embrace of all things digital?
- Meet Defence’s ‘digital ninja’. Exploiting the potential of new technologies requires the best and brightest at decision-making tables – such as the team who make up the Defence Digital Service at the UK’s Ministry of Defence. Here, Mivy James sits down with its leader, Rich Crowther, to hear about life as a start-up in the heart of government
- How to stay ahead in the cyber arms race. With many countries moving significant funding towards developing offensive cyber capability, Dr Mary Haigh examines what needs to be done to stay ahead of adversaries
- The appliance of science in Defence. Dr Paul Kealey’s has been a life spent pushing boundaries. He tells Mike Stratford about exploiting cutting edge science and technology to strengthen the UK’s defences
- Making the Ministry of Defence more Agile. Agile working is by no means limited to the private sector. Continuing our series examining transformation, Mivy James sits down with the MoD’s Adrian Bailey to talk process, product and pace
- Building an Artificial Defence. Although the potential for Artificial Intelligence in Defence is clear, it’s important not to get ahead of ourselves. David Henstock explains why it’s more marathon than sprint