Major General John Collyer headshot So, where were you when you first heard about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

Major General John Collyer thankfully has no need of social media to tell him about the latest news. As the British Army’s Director of Information and Chief Information Officer, he operates at the very heart of a digital spider web of data, analytics, security and intelligence, all buttressing the information environment and cyber domain which form such a significant part of modern warfare.

But he’s still a human being. As a serving soldier with decades of experience behind him, what was his thought process when he first saw news of the attack in the early hours of February 24? A war in Europe – really?

“I think it’s fair to say that there are very few people who saw it as anything other than the starting point of a profound shift,” he says, after a moment’s pause. “It has ushered in a new era on that NATO and European flank and we are carefully and forensically looking at what conclusions we must draw, ranging from capabilities and interactions to tactics, concepts and doctrines. But is that one of those key strategic moments you can pick out over the last three or four decades? Absolutely. A big moment. A defining moment. For all of us.”
 
 
Up and running
The ongoing conflict began a little over two months into his Collyer’s role, a promotion which continued his decades’ long ascent into the most senior ranks. “I am career Defence – though this is my first posting to army headquarters and I’m thrilled to be here,” he says. “I think I’ll categorise most of my early career as a ‘signaller’ and most of my activities have been involved in a confluence of the intelligence, digital and cyber communities – and the intersection between all of those.”

Much like his predecessor, Major General JJ Cole, the role of CIO seems to be an ideal fit for someone of his skillset and perspectives. Certainly, his determination to drive through improvements to competitiveness and modernisation comes through loud and clear. So six months in, it feels like an opportune moment to take stock. How has he found it so far? Has it turned out as he expected? His answer comes quickly.

“It feels more relevant than ever and the stakes are high,” he says. “The good news is I’m surrounded by excellent people and a leadership that really understands the risk of not getting this right and not capitalising on the digital revolution, as well as the competitive reward of us getting it right and getting on the front foot.”
 
“I am a long way past any thinking that the Ministry of Defence or Army can somehow go this alone and still have best ideas and technologies. Defence is absolutely a team sport in every way that looks – with academia, with industry, across Government, other Services, with allies and with amongst ourselves.” Major General John Collyer, Director of Information and CIO of the British Army
The next awakening
Client Conversation: Delivering Defence’s digital awakening - next awakening icon The agenda is broad in scope, encompassing vast swathes of policy and delivery, including digital transformation, skills, data capabilities and the direction of the army’s cyber, digital and intelligence initiatives – to name but a few. “There are several prongs to all this,” he says, “but it’s all about driving modernisation, driving transformation, driving compliance and ultimately wrapping it all together to drive the competitiveness of the army.  The skills of our people across the whole force play a large part in this.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the wide-ranging nature of his responsibilities, the Major General is quick to say he can’t do it alone – anything but. “I am an absolute evangelist for partnerships,” he says firmly. “I am a long way past any thinking that the Ministry of Defence or Army can somehow go this alone and still have best ideas and technologies. Defence is absolutely a team sport in every way that looks – with academia, with industry, across Government, other Services, with allies and with amongst ourselves.”

He goes on to say that the timing of his arrival in the role was fortuitous, coming as it did after the publication of the Integrated Security and Defence Review, as well as the army’s Future Soldier programme and the government’s National Cyber Strategy. “Building on the brilliant work that has gone on before, it was a really good time to start as we had an updated and ambitious important narrative for a transformation programme for the army within Defence,” he says. “But was it how I expected it to be? I think broadly, yes.”

He does, however, make one important distinction, looking back 25 years to the narrative of Network Enabled Capability and Network Centric Warfare. “I still have copies of the literature from that period,” he recalls. “I’d describe it as ‘the first awakening’ – it was right and relevant and suitably ambitious. But today, I would say that it didn’t stand the test of time for all sorts of reasons – be they geopolitical, operational or tactical.”

Now, though, he believes the “second awakening” is well underway, one relating not just to cutting edge technologies, transformation and data driven assets, but something more profound and penetrative. “This is not just the business of a bunch of analysts or signallers or engineers – this is the business of everyone,” he says.

“It’s refreshing to find that the agenda we are on is ubiquitous at all levels – from both sides of the road in Whitehall all the way through to our field combat units. The good news is that we have a head of steam, as well as good people across all levels of the forces, who have their shoulder behind the wheel and are driving this agenda forwards – with the prize being competitiveness and advantage at all levels.”
 
“I am wondering how good we are across our digital surface? I mean, really? Are we as good as we need to be? Are we as good as we think we need to be? If the answer to any of these is demonstrably not then we need a really heavy drive to improve the robustness of our posture – particularly in the virtual and digital space – and especially in security.” Major General John Collyer, Director of Information and CIO of the British Army
Priority scanning
Client Conversation: Delivering Defence’s digital awakening - priority scanning icon Although our conversation is taking place via video call and not in person, Collyer’s sense of excitement and awe at the opportunity his role portends is palpable. Perhaps this is a reflection of his deep reservoir of experience as a soldier – no novice, he – but it also mirrors the sheer pace of the digital advances which are now on offer to the soldiers and units he commands. The potential for game-changing performance is clear.

“There is an awful lot that we are genuinely excited by – any number of technologies or concepts or ideas – which we think we absolutely have to get after,” he admits. But he goes on to pinpoint key aspects which he quickly identified as priorities, starting with security and resilience.

“I am wondering how good we are across our digital surface?” he asks. “I mean, really? Are we as good as we need to be? Are we as good as we think we need to be? If the answer to any of these is demonstrably not then we need a really heavy drive to improve the robustness of our posture – particularly in the virtual and digital space – and especially in security. This precedes the excitement around all we are driving into in terms of modernised capabilities.”

His second priority area is about looking at the overall environment – “our brownfield site” – in which the army operates. “We have a very large number of systems and capabilities, some of them very tightly locked in, some highly secure, some not, some novel, some contentious,” he points out.

“What is the rule book for this digital ecosystem? I think this sets a real helpful context and within that I’m really hopeful that we can take stock of what we have got. In the dozens of new capabilities we’ve got coming on board – ranging from heavy metal hardware, weapons systems, physical infrastructure, and digital capabilities – we need to identify what binds it all together and uncover the paradigms that could fundamentally change us. What are our capabilities right now? How can we break that slightly unhelpful paradigm of ‘business space and battlespace’? These are some of the areas where we are really looking forward to drive forward.”

The Major General’s reference to ‘”brownfield” strikes something of a chord. It is relatively straightforward to connect new technology to new technology, apart from when things like intellectual property get in the way. In Defence, there are a lot of things that are specific to the military connecting into commercial cutting edge cloud technologies and everything in between.

This is a really interesting area to explore as old technology often unfairly gets a bad reputation – old is seen as bad and new is seen as better. But I’m not sure that is always the case; old often works really well and is fit for purpose, tried and tested, and is affordable. So the question is how you can fully exploit it, rather than leave it as just the single purpose it was designed for?

“We are operating on a brownfield site and that’s ok - and inevitably the case, particularly with the gearing of our change programmes,” he replies. “We are all very energetically got our eyes down at how we acquire and how we modernise capabilities, particularly in the software space. The lead times now to develop some of these capabilities, as well as, in the army’s case, integrators of its platforms, is as hard as it has ever been. Cracking that long running code of getting that pace, capability and upgrade ability is definitely high on the list as well.  Old paradigms and orthodoxy in acquiring and upgrading digital capabilities will not cut it.”
 
“Do I foresee some kind of hologram combat? No, I don’t but what I do see is an absolute pivot to really capitalising on the way we harness data and digital, which really sets the head mark out for the next few years.” Major General John Collyer, Director of Information and CIO of the British Army
And don’t forget data
And of course, there’s also the rewards on offer from the effective use of data – something that Collyer is also keen to highlight. “I’m genuinely happy about the direction of travel of both the Defence data strategy and the government’s broader data consultation,” he says. “Within the army we are looking to really supercharge Programme Theia, our digital transformation agenda – in very large part it is about the digital fitness of our people at all levels, grades and roles in addition to modernising across processes, data and technology exploitation.”

These proposals link back to the Future Soldier programme which we mentioned earlier. When asked whether he can foresee a time where the integration of soldier, data and technology is almost seamless, he says that this vision is not far-fetched in the slightest.

“Future soldier has at its absolute heart a really ambitious programme – the most ambitious one I’ve seen since I have served in uniform – that really shifts us from the idea you define your potency from just your infrastructures and platforms,” he says. “Do I foresee some kind of hologram combat? No, I don’t but what I do see is an absolute pivot to really capitalising on the way we harness data and digital, which really sets the head mark out for the next few years.”

All systems go then. A new digital era awaits.
 
 

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About the author

Mivy James is Digital Transformation Director at BAE Systems Digital Intelligence

mivy.james@baesystems.com


Further reading

  • Delivering Defence Integration and Collaboration. Meet Major General Robin Anderton-Brown. When he’s not partaking in dizzying fitness feats he’s heading up capability and multi-domain integration at UK Strategic Command. Mivy James talks digital, data and delivery with the man with the plan
  • Digitising the Daily Business of Defence. Rear Admiral Nick Washer’s job is not for the faint of heart but it’s one where he can shape UK Defence, day in, day out. He tells Mivy James about directing operations at Defence Digital
  • Bringing Data to the Party. Caroline Bellamy is on a mission to transform how the UK Ministry of Defence uses data. She tells Mivy James about her 30-year career in industry and why data holds the key to smarter and faster decision-making across Defence
  • Covering All Bases. The British Army is poised for a dramatic transformation in its estate and infrastructure. Major General David Southall tells Mivy James why the future is green
  • Engineering the Army of the Future. Meet Brigadier Stefan Crossfield, soldier, leader and engineer. By excelling in all three he’s currently serving as the British Army’s Chief Data Officer. He tells Mivy James about how the military can reap the dividends of the information age
  • The Art of Delivering Digital Projects in Defence. Major General Richard Spencer has got quite the portfolio. He takes time out from overseeing a multi-billion pound programme of digital delivery across Defence to tell Mivy James all about experiences
  • Helping Innovation take Flight. Group Captain Blythe Crawford is on a mission to do aviation differently. He tells Mivy James about his experiences of leveraging technology and innovation to drive forward change in Defence