“We are in an era of rapid technological change. Our adversaries are exploiting this. And we need to embrace, match and utilise this pace of change.” First Sea Lord Admiral Radakin, now Chief of Defence Staff September 2019
Few can doubt the Royal Navy’s importance to the United Kingdom. From protecting maritime trade to peacekeeping, providing humanitarian aid to supporting international partnerships, today’s Royal Navy strengthens the defence of the realm in ways large and small. Its strategic context, however, is shifting.
While the rise of sub threshold and grey zone activity between nation states is becoming more common, the compass of the global economy is increasingly pointing east. The UK’s exit from the European Union has also had an effect – the Royal Navy is now seen as a Global Navy, supporting a Global Britain that is not retreating from the world stage.
But any discussion about the current shape and state of the Royal Navy is not complete without acknowledging the revolutionary impact of digital technologies. Conflict at sea has always been dependent on the exploitation of available technologies – but this reliance is increasing, both in terms of strategic planning and decision making, and in the integration of new information and digital effects into military operations.
Ships are usually asked to fulfil multiple roles during their lifetime, from intelligence gathering to acting as a floating embassy to becoming a launch pad for drones. The integration challenge of each of these roles is becoming more complex, as each new task increasingly requires many additional sensors, applications and effectors to support the mission.
For Amelia Gould, this ever-evolving digital tapestry is like manna from heaven. As Combat Systems Director at BAE Systems, she oversees a technology portfolio of about 100 projects that support navies around the world in achieving their digital potential at pace – and it’s a role she is relishing.
“We deliver projects right across the lifecycle,” she says. “I have an innovation and technology team looking at early concepts and new technologies coming on the market, then we transition these into products which we design, develop, manufacture and introduce into service. We provide digital infrastructure and integrated networks acting as ships’ private cloud computing environments, as well as developing applications that sit on those hosted networks and are integrated with other systems and domains.”
It’s quite the array of responsibilities, but one that reflects both Amelia’s engineering heritage and longstanding connection with the Royal Navy, one that began while she was a student. “I was offered a sponsorship by the Royal Navy through university, where I studied engineering and computing science,” she explains. “After graduating I then completed my naval training before serving at sea on HMS Ark Royal during the war in Iraq in 2003 and ashore in the defence procurement organisation as a navy weapons engineering officer.”
After eleven years’ service, Gould took a two year sabbatical – which saw her sail around the world, as one does – before returning to the UK and five years as a consultant doing early digital transformation work. From there, she joined BAE Systems, a move that was heavily influenced by the fact her office would be within 10 miles of Portsmouth, where she lives with her young family.
Going fully digital
The Royal Navy aims to be fully digital by 2023. This will involve the seamless combination of people, process, technology and culture and, in more practical terms, incorporates priorities such as improved sharing of data and intelligence at speed, improved ability to collaborate with allies and improved capabilities for business and operational support.
For Gould, this evolving backdrop reflects her own shifting priorities working on combat systems, which have changed beyond compare since such technology was first implemented on board naval ships during the Second World War. “The critical catalyst initiating digital transformation for the war fighter is they effectively now have unlimited processing power and networks at their disposal,” she says.
“Together with the move to autonomy and multi-domain integration, we are shifting from a localised hub and spoke arrangement, towards a much more federated system where the sensor, effecter and command and control system could be anywhere. It’s about changing how you move data across that underpinning infrastructure and networks to still deliver the same effects with the same level of assurance that the navies we operate with would clearly expect.”
Gould is a particular fan of the federated approach to software development, citing the increased inclusivity it engenders. “Being federated opens doors to parts of industry that hadn’t previously considered Defence or hadn’t previously understood the challenges we were trying to solve,” she explains. “This opens doors to the innovation available anywhere – which is exciting – as we can unleash more people to come work on our datasets and gain new insights.”
Assurance, she adds, is absolutely critical – when you’re working on systems that link to missiles, errors of any kind are totally unacceptable – but does this focus on mission critical and safety critical system engineering come into conflict with working approaches such as agile? Actually, Gould and her team are adopting it wholesale and not just cherry picking certain aspects.
“We’re now running agile processes wherever they are required,” she says. “Things used to be in silos – a radar system, a combat management system and so on – but it’s a much more blurred picture now between the real-time mission critical and the non-real time, because even the non-real time data is just as important to the operator. The blurring of the line means you have to have a different digital data process. Having the right systems in place and the right level of assurance at each point enables this to maintain a single point of truth for the decision maker.”
And then there’s cloud technologies, which are fast becoming ever-more vital both aboard ships and at naval bases. “At the moment we have a private cloud on the ship which hosts applications and, with the coming Type 26 class, a common data store and generic consoles,” she says. “We’re also collaborating with global technology partners to explore and accelerate developments in the area.”
Gould has only been in her current role for two years – previous notable positions included a year-long stint on secondment as Chief of Staff to the BAE Systems CEO – and she is quick to make clear that she has unfinished business to complete.
“I still very much feel like I’m starting out,” she admits. “The more senior you get, the time period it takes to see the impact of changes you make gets longer. When you’re an engineer you can do something and see it change the next day but now it can take almost a whole business cycle to check the impact of my actions. Having set the Combat Systems strategy this year to focus on digital transformation and multi domain, I want to stay and deliver it”
Gould is also firmly of the opinion that engineering will continue to shape her future – regardless of the role or project. “I still very much see myself as a systems engineer – I’m just engineering fewer systems with 1s and 0s and more complex systems that involve people and organisations,” she concludes.
“The skills I learned as an engineer, and especially complex system integration, has made it much easier to transition from engineering to management and back again. I don’t feel as I’ve walked away from engineering – more that I’m now applying it in different places.”
About the author
Mivy James is Digital Transformation Director at BAE Systems Digital Intelligence
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