What’s a typical weekend for you? Maybe some time with friends and family? A drink (or two) in the pub and perhaps a film or book?
Not so for Major General Robin Anderton-Brown.
“I’ve got some trees to chop down in the garden and a 30 mile run, which is basically some panic training for an endurance thing I’m doing next week,” he says with a wry grin. Clearly his idea of relaxation differs from mine but, then again, I’m a technologist by trade and he’s a senior military leader with more than 30 years’ experience.
It’s experience that he’s putting to good use in his current role as director of capability and multi domain Integration (MDI) at UK Strategic Command in the Ministry of Defence. It’s a job title which, admittedly, is not the catchiest, but one that merely reflects a burgeoning array of responsibilities right at the heart of UK Defence.
“MDI is the key transformation programme in Defence that is going to change how Defence is going to operate in the future,” he says. “It’s a huge remit – so part of the challenge is balancing and prioritising what to take forward in the most meaningful sense.”
And then, in March this year, he took over as Strategic Command’s director of capability, throwing yet another set of responsibilities his way. “I’m largely responsible for the equipment programme that Strategic Command is the lead command for,” he explains. “This involves bargaining and making the case for equipment investment and then overseeing the delivery of that new capability, ensuring we realise the outcomes and achieve the benefits.”
But what does MDI mean exactly? And where does Strategic Command come in?
Adapting to changing terrain
Strategic Command – which Anderton-Brown describes as “Defence’s integrator” – is responsible for making sure that joint capabilities such as medical services, training and education, intelligence and information systems are developed and managed across every military domain.
“I see it as enabling capabilities that are absolutely fundamental to the Information Age,” he adds. “It’s hugely broad, spanning from digital networks to data analytics platforms to information and surveillance reconnaissance platforms to space based communication systems and the next generation of satellites.”
The MDI programme, meanwhile, is so big that it is defined by different people in different ways. Someone with my background, for example, might see it as security-focused but others will have different perspectives. The Major General agrees that it is hard to summarise but focuses instead on its outputs.
“For me, I would say that MDI is about changing how Defence operates, thinks and meets the challenges posed to us by our adversaries in a much more sophisticated and integrated way than we have hitherto,” he says.
“The term ‘domain’ in a military sense reflects the fact we traditionally considered Defence in terms of the environmental domains of maritime, land and air, but now there is the growing importance of space – a domain in its own right – as well as the virtual domain of cyber, which affects not just Defence but the whole of society.”
The increasing number of domains is rooted in many factors, such as the ever-advancing pace of technological change as well as the fact that warfare, as we know it, no longer happens just on the battlefield. “In an increasingly complex world we’ve seen a blurring of activities where Defence is traditionally involved,” he says.
“In recent years, we have been challenged in ways which have not precipitated a response in terms of warfare, but nonetheless require us to understand where and how our adversaries are operating – such as incidents like the Salisbury poisonings and cyber attacks. At the same time, though, Defence also needs to remain configured for the hardest tasks of national security and warfighting, we can’t lose sight of that. The fact this is a very long answer when you asked me for it in a nutshell highlights the complexity involved!”
A question of agility
Taking a step back, I would describe the MDI programme as being all about adaptability and unified delivery. That’s because it is aiming to ensure that Defence is joined up, not only with its agencies and myriad public and private organisations, but also with other departments in government, as well as the UK’s allies and partners overseas.
Now this sounds like an admirable objective but it’s something that is far easier said than done. It’s also not exactly the only change programme underway in UK Defence right now – there are strategies and reports and plans all jostling for attention, all attempting to reshape Defence anew. With that in mind it seems pertinent to ask whether there is a danger that terms like “Agile” and “Transformation” are being overused and will only succeed in leaving Defence personnel drained and suffering from change fatigue.
“I agree there is a risk that ‘Agile’ is becoming a slightly overused word and therefore risks being misinterpreted or used in the wrong sense,” he says carefully. “We need to be quite clear going forward about what we mean. And for me it is about the ability to move more seamlessly between the strategic, the operational and the tactical as no activity will happen in a single domain in the future. Everything will be in two or more of the five domains.”
“There is a risk that ‘Agile’ is becoming a slightly overused word and therefore risks being misinterpreted or used in the wrong sense… For me it is about the ability to move more seamlessly between the strategic, the operational and the tactical as no activity will happen in a single domain in the future” Major General Robin Anderton-Brown, Director of Capability and Multi-Domain Integration at UK Strategic Command
He goes on to argue that greater agility is about making sure that Defence’s processes are set up to enable, not inhibit, and ensuring that there is greater acquisition flexibility in achieving the right equipment capabilities – something that is particularly important given the pace of technological change.
“There is a real danger, which I routinely discuss with industry, of our acquisition processes staying geared towards very large platform-centric approaches for ships, aircraft and so on, rather than Information Age capabilities such as software, which can lead to us getting yesterday’s technology tomorrow,” he says. “We need to make sure we can work with industry to deliver the cutting edge capabilities to keep the operational freedoms and agility which will give us advantage over our adversaries.”
Again, this is something easier said than done and no doubt Anderton-Brown will be calling on the knowledge accumulated from his three decades in the military to help light the way forward.
While professing not to come from a military family per se, something may be in the genes because while serving as a Royal Engineer during the Second World War, Anderton-Brown’s grandfather was involved in the creation of the Mulberry Harbours at D-Day. Nonetheless, his own military roots were laid at school.
“My entry into the military was born out of time within the cadet force – the escapism and enjoyment it gave me,” he recalls. “The Army sponsored me through university with the deal of serving five years and here I am 30 years later.”
His career has taken him through a variety of postings and deployments, including serving on UN and NATO led operations in Bosnia, as well as two tours of Afghanistan. Looking back at his career as a whole, he is quick to pay tribute to the wide-ranging experiences it has afforded him.
“The raft of opportunities I think have been unique – I don’t think I would have got them in any other sector,” he reflects. “Primarily it’s been vocational because I believe in what I do – I believe in national security and the role of the military in the UK is hugely important. The camaraderie – people look out for each other; the military doesn’t just look after the individual, it looks after families, which is really important. It provides skills and insights and trains people – all unique to the military.”
More than an equipment programme
Now, though, Anderton-Brown is fully focused on the eclectic responsibilities vying for space in his in-tray. This is particularly challenging when you understand that MDI is not like a classic programme where you’re building something and there is a milestone which can be ticked off. His achievements will be less tangible, yet just as significant.
I’ve written before about transformation programmes, and how culture is all important, along with each part of the business machine working in sympathetic cadence and with transparency – for both public and private sector organisation alike.
Anderton-Brown is more than aware of the steep ascent he and his team are facing. “When I was asked to set up the MDI programme I looked around and realised it was well referenced that some 70 per cent of transformation programmes fail, and there are some well documented reasons that I’m using as a reference point for our senior leadership to drive success,” he says.
While pinpointing the importance of a clear vision being applied consistently, he remains confident this is well within reach, while also stressing the pivotal role of building the right culture.
“I genuinely believe we have this because MDI is being led very clearly and firmly by the Chief of the Defence Staff, is being reflected across the services and captured in this year’s Integrated Review as well,” he says.
“But I do describe the programme as being more about the culture and behaviours. There is a risk it is seen in Defence terms as an ‘equipment programme’ – which it absolutely isn’t. Ultimately it’s about how Defence is operating differently, which is about cultures and behaviours, and this takes time. It requires senior level leadership as well as education and training, across Defence, and at a lower level than perhaps we have previously provided. So I see personnel and training as fundamental to what we’re trying to do.”
To do this, a set of different approaches will be deployed, including setting up a unified career management model to achieve greater consistency and coherence, as well as prioritising outreach across government as a whole.
“We will need to work and explain that what we are doing is for and on behalf of other government departments,” he says. “So we need to have the right interfaces at different levels. The good news is we already have some examples of where this is working but we need to build on these operational lessons and build on what we’re learning from our experimentation agenda.”
When asked how industry can help navigate these challenges, Anderton-Brown is quick to stress that private sector organisations, large and small alike, have big roles to play.
“Industry is really important on this journey,” he says. “Ultimately we need to be clear with industry about the enabling capabilities we need. We need industry to help us extract more from our current capabilities and what is required to do that – this would be a really good starting point.” He goes on to say that achieving greater technical interoperability – “how we can get system x talking to system y” – will be key.
“We need to work with industry around having the right architectures and standards to allow us to share information and data more seamlessly,” he continues. “From my personal perspective, I think this will require industry to operate in a different way – more flexibly within the contractual terms – and, as technology moves on at pace, to enable us to get the best industry offerings from a raft of vendors. This will require different contractual mechanisms and us working more seamlessly between larger primes and SMEs in a more dynamic way than our current processes allow us to.”
“Ultimately we need to be clear with industry about the enabling capabilities we need. We need industry to help us extract more from our current capabilities and what is required to do that – this would be a really good starting point” Major General Robin Anderton-Brown, Director of Capability and Multi-Domain Integration at UK Strategic Command
Going forward, he expects the Defence and Security Industrial Strategy (DSIS) to provide the necessary framework for examining how to operate differently with industry. “I’m now looking to conduct some work about how we implement DSIS and, as we mature this work, two way open and transparent dialogue about how we can work differently will be important,” he adds.
“Defence will need to be flexible and change some of its processes but it also requires industry to engage with us and to think how they can work in a broader ecosystem of suppliers to bring different specialisms to bear at pace, rather than a monolithic programme which soon results in legacy issues. So it’s a shared responsibility.”
Much to get on with, then, but also much work already underway. The business of Defence is changing and it’s incumbent on all of us to get on board. Staying with the status quo is not an option.
About the author
Mivy James is Digital Transformation Director at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence
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