Client Conversation: In Pursuit of Digital Wings - Sir Stuart Atha Headshot Do you remember the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics?

I have a vivid memory of sitting down at home with my family to watch with a mixture of pride, sadness (that this glorious festival of sport was ending) and no small relief that London – and the UK as a whole – had not buckled under such a fierce global spotlight. On the contrary, it was a period where, as a city and a country, we came together and collectively rose to the occasion.

Stuart Atha may have been experiencing similar emotions but his vantage point was very different to my own. While I nestled comfortably on my sofa – there may have been a glass of wine in the vicinity – seated next to him, by contrast, was the then Home Secretary, Theresa May.

Were they in the stadium itself? No, as the Air Defence Commander for the London Olympics, Atha and the future UK Prime Minister had joined a mix of security and civilian personnel at the Air Command bunker in High Wycombe. It was from this subterranean warren that they watched the ceremony play out, anxiously hoping that it would pass without a security-related incident or interruption marring the occasion.

“These were the high profile events which were the ones at greatest risk,” recalls Atha. “From an air perspective, could it be a drone, or is it going to be a 9/11-style attack? But we had spent a long time developing a plan, including missiles placed on roofs, rapiers into parks, snipers onto helicopters, fast jets over London and so on. We had exercised it and, while we were reasonably confident, there’s always anxiety.”

Of course, in the event both the Olympics and Paralympics proceeded pretty much according to plan – a fact that Atha, rightly, continues to draw great pride from. “Did the deterrent work? Well, you only know for sure when deterrence fails but what we had was a commitment, a true national endeavour,” he says, “Exercising fast jets over London doesn’t happen every day – it really was teamwork at its best.”
 
 

Doing digital differently


Atha’s appointment to such a high profile and daunting role was a testament to his expertise and myriad achievements since joining the Royal Air Force some 28 years previously, including tip of the spear operations in Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq, through to a range of senior leadership roles at the heart of UK Defence.

These experiences, which have since been augmented by his move to a senior role at BAE Systems, continue to shape Atha’s approach and insights. A common thread, though, has been his deep understanding of the evolving role of technology and its central role in addressing the ricocheting threats of the 21st century – on land, sea and the skies above.

For Atha, his was no damascene digital conversion but rather an innate grasp – perhaps rooted in his maths and physics degree – of information’s criticality to the business of war and defence. He does, however, offer up one pivotal example from his experiences in Afghanistan, about 13 years ago, that offers a powerful demonstration of why this is so important.

“I was out there as the one star responsible for the air support,” he explains. “At that point, IEDs were everywhere and they were causing significant damage. I remember one specific instance where a drone spotted one of these devices being laid.

“When it came back the next day an American fighting vehicle had been blown up by that bomb and was lying on its roof. The sad truth was that the data had not been effectively shared and exploited. As a commander in the field, we recognised that we needed to do things differently – whether this was about the capture of the information, the sharing, the exploiting, and the decision making. For me it was personal.”
 
“This has been one of the perennial challenges – how do we bridge between those who understand technologies and those who need to use the technologies, i.e. the decision makers. It’s not just a repackaging of network enabled capabilities or network centric warfare – it’s something far more significant” Sir Stuart Atha, Director of Defence Capability at BAE Systems

From battlespace to business space


Client Conversation: In Pursuit of Digital Wings - From Battlespace to Business Upon his return to the UK, Atha took up a new position at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) as Director of Joint Capabilities, a role that straddled information challenges both in battle and back home at headquarters. He embraced it with gusto.

“My priority was working out how to better connect across different environments and services, both vertically and internationally,” he explains.

To illustrate his point, he describes a cross, where the vertical goes from strategic down to tactical, looking at how to integrate, inform and establish two way flows of information, recognising sensitivities and firewalling information when needed. The horizontal would moving across the services, across key government departments and across internationally. “The aim was – and still is – to develop a seamless information environment in which you set up decision makers at each level with what they need.”

From there he became Chief Information Officer for the Royal Air Force – a role he held for three years – and one where he sought to bridge the gap between those who were technically adept and those who actually need and use the information.

“This has been one of the perennial challenges – how do we bridge between those who understand technologies and those who need to use the technologies, i.e. the decision makers,” he says. “It’s not just a repackaging of network enabled capabilities or network centric warfare – it’s something far more significant. Previously, you would have concepts moving ahead of the technology. But by the end of my time as a customer of the technology I would say that the technology had moved ahead of our concepts – such as multi domain integration and operations.”
 


Flying the nest


It was about this time that Atha found himself at something of a crossroads. With his time in uniform drawing to an end, he had to decide what to do next – which is where BAE Systems came in.

“To be honest, I would rather be Chief of the Air Staff, running the RAF,” he admits. “This was my professional ambition. But when that was not to be I was at a juncture where I could do something new or continue along a similar path. When I was recruited into BAE Systems as Director of Defence Capability, I saw an opportunity to help the customer achieve its aims but from a different position.”

Atha took up the position in May 2020. Less than two years later, Europe has once again found itself rocked by war. For Atha – whose conversation is frequently peppered by amusing self-deprecating acknowledgement of his long answers – “forgive my Scottish Presbyterian monologue” – it is a subject where such tendencies come to an abrupt halt: Do you wish you were still in uniform? “Yes,” he instantly replies.

He goes on to explain that this is because his career has been dominated by operational delivery. “If you go through every operation since 1991 I’ve been involved in some way,” he explains. “So you cannot experience 30 years of consistent involvement in operations without feeling this way.” In addition, he points out that when Russia went into Crimea and the Donbas in 2014, he was intimately involved in the UK’s response from his then position as the deputy commander at Permanent Joint Headquarters.

“The challenge that we had from a country and military perspective was beyond anything we had seen since the end of the Cold War,” he says. “I was intimately involved with Ukraine in that role – I visited Kiev three times between 2014 and 2016 to work with the Ukrainians. Hopefully, some of their successes in recent weeks is because the UK leant heavily into their training in the preceding years.”

However, he is also keen to stress that from his new role at BAE Systems, he is still contributing – just from a different vantage point. “It’s a huge ask to take the military that we have developed in the first 15 years of this century and get it match fit for the sort of NATO Article 5 operations that ideally we deter, but we have to be able to defeat,” he says.
 
“Economy and security are two sides of the same coin. So when it comes to prosperity, growth and export campaigns the military certainly have a role to play and that is something that is often forgotten – that sense of UK plc” Sir Stuart Atha, Director of Defence Capability at BAE Systems

Blending global with local


Client Conversation: In Pursuit of Digital Wings - Blending Global with Local In his previous career in uniform and his current role with BAE Systems, Atha is often found collaborating closely with international colleagues. Asked if he has to flex his style to take into account the preferences and idiosyncrasies of his overseas teammates, Atha prefers instead to point out the strengths you gain from such relationships.

“At their heart each air force has their own distinctive identity,” he explains. “There is an élan and spirit about the French, for example, and there is a scale and a size and a mass that the United States Air Force brings. The trick is to bring the strengths of each and have one plus one plus one equal five. There are challenges – information sharing is right up there; the need to know versus the need to share – so there will be frictions but individuals are very much likeminded. Shared risk and common endeavour is the flavour of what I, as an airman, became accustomed to.”

He goes on to say that there are times when you have to subordinate the national interest for the greater international good, but protecting and promoting the national interest is the biggest part of what the military does.

“Sometimes it’s forgotten that the prosperity agenda is a formal strategic objective for the military,” he points out. “Economy and security are two sides of the same coin. So when it comes to prosperity, growth and export campaigns the military certainly have a role to play and that is something that is often forgotten – that sense of UK plc. When you’re operating in a coalition it’s an art to manage the national interest at the same time.”

And he agrees that every country should work to their respective strengths. The scale of US forces is impressive but because the UK lacks a similar budget, it forces the British military to innovate differently – mass can blunt innovative zeal as it’s less about necessity.

“The UK certainly rinses out every ounce of its military capabilities but I don’t think we are as good as we could be when it comes to innovation, he concedes. “It’s about creating the right environment for innovation – like Group Captain Blythe Crawford did at RAF Leeming – establishing a safe space which brings together industry and war fighters, academia and scientists. We need to apply this joint approach into the cross government space as well, including multi domain operations which include cyber and space. So it’s a complex set of environments to navigate while you experiment in this space. It’s not straightforward.”
 
“The UK certainly rinses out every ounce of its military capabilities but I don’t think we are as good as we could be when it comes to innovation. It’s about creating the right environment for innovation –establishing a safe space which brings together industry and war fighters, academia and scientists.” Sir Stuart Atha, Director of Defence Capability at BAE Systems

Getting down to business


Such work forms part of his burgeoning role at BAE Systems, concentrating on future products and services that the customer needs as we transition from the industrial age of the platform to the information age of the system.

This also includes his responsibilities as head of the UK delegation to NATO’s industry advisory group.  “Following our exit from the European Union, it’s absolutely in our interest to better understand NATO, particularly in capability development terms,” he points out. “It’s about figuring out how we, as a company and a country, can play into the NATO processes. We want to be leading the way on behalf of industry and how that is going to be taken forward.”

So from data criticality to digital enablement, system transformation to supporting training in the UK and overseas, Atha’s agenda is shifting and challenging, fluctuating and demanding. It’s not for the fainthearted or for those who prefer the quiet life. Atha, by contrast, wouldn’t have it any other way.
 
 

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About the author

Mivy James is Digital Transformation Director at BAE Systems Digital Intelligence

mivy.james@baesystems.com


Further reading

  • Defending our skyward horizons. For centuries, people have gazed towards the heavens, imagining the possibilities that lie beyond the stars. But today, such excitement is tinged with the knowledge that space is now increasingly contested by allies and adversaries alike. Here, John Young examines the UK government’s first ever Defence Space Strategy, which sets out plans to protect interests, stimulate growth and support jobs
  • 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
  • Conflict in the grey zone: Preparing ourselves against cyber opponents. When it comes to the cyber arms race, Miriam Howe says that preparation, collaboration and adaptability are critical
  • Unshackling technology in Defence. 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
  • The benefits of user-centred design in Defence. Helena Bishop explores how placing users at the heart of applications, products and services can strengthen Defence in ways large and small
  • 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