Trim, confident and exuding a strong sense of command, Colonel Dan Cheesman’s military bearing is unmistakable.
A Royal Marine who joined up straight from university, his career ascent has seen him serve with distinction in various global hot spots – the Congo, Kosovo and Helmand Province, to name a few – but for the past 18 months he has been immersed in something altogether different: the ongoing digital revolution transforming warfare the world over.
For the Royal Navy, its drive to accelerate the adoption of cutting-edge tech has meant focusing on enhancing digital, autonomy and lethality through increasing its agility. But how did Cheesman, with an overwhelmingly operationally-focused career, find himself as the Navy’s inaugural Chief Technology Officer (CTO)?
“The context is the exponential rise of disruptive technology and all those things landing within the military in some way,” he explains.
“These technologies are bouncing into our hierarchical, governmental processes and structures with frightening speed – which are hardly conducive to this way of working. This means we must change if we are to remain credible on the global stage. Fundamentally, our search for the best tech is not about the tech itself. It’s actually about having what we need to fight and, ideally, not fight wars. Hopefully, I am able to straddle the divide between the huge array of potential tech opportunities and threats, and knowing what we actually need and what will work.”
Cheesman is also keen to stress that his is a role rooted in aiming for crystal-clear, persuasive, prioritised communication, one that is an informed opinion, grounded in both tech and operational reality, rather than a deep reservoir of tech knowledge.
“‘Change’ is a political process,” he points out. “It’s absolutely not about the technology – it’s about trying to identify the appropriate pathways to success. Then it’s about winning over a room of decision-makers and vested interests to try and drive a course of action that enough people at a time can agree to, when they need to, and for it to be ready for when they need it. If you can’t achieve that, in that highly complex context, then you aren’t helping.” So, 18 months in, how’s he been getting on?
Up and running
Based in Portsmouth, Cheesman is “in London once or twice a week” and reports directly to the First Sea Lord, Admiral Tony Radakin – a testament, perhaps, to the significance and sway of his role.
“My function has been brought in as the first CTO to the Navy Board to be a strategic tech change agent for our entire Naval Service,” he explains. “We are a £6.5 billion business with an operational front-end and a business back-end that is trying to modernise in all areas simultaneously, and one of the initiatives to assist in this journey was to bring in a CTO. But of course, I and my small team in the Office of the CTO, are only one part of a significant team sport, led by the Navy Board, to transform the Royal Navy.”
His role was created to ensure the Navy is fit for purpose in the digital era – but Cheesman is quick to point out that there is no silver bullet. “We are a combination of air force, surface force, underwater force and commando force – plus operating in space and cyber,” he points out.
“And from the UK Government’s perspective, although we work closely with Joint Forces Command, the British Army and the Royal Air Force, we are the only single Service which operates across quite such an extraordinary range of environments. So any notion that any single tech or agility solution to our challenges is going to fit all of our parts and all our initiatives would be illogical.”
Advancing with Agile
One priority that is shaping a large part of his approach, however, is deploying Agile working in order to streamline decision making and operate faster and more effectively. “My favourite article at the moment about this was Agile at Scale, from the Harvard Business Review (HBR) in May-June last year, which talks about all the good which has come from Agile at scale in some exemplar large corporate organisations,” he explains.
"While it’s not possible to make everything Agile, we know we need to bottle some of the magic and go Agile, even though we haven’t yet the capacity to do it across the whole organisation." Colonel Dan Cheesman, Chief Technology Officer, Royal Navy
“While it’s not possible to make everything Agile – you have to put some deliverables on paper, hold people to account – we know we need to bottle some of the magic and go Agile, even though we haven’t yet the capacity to do it across the whole organisation. And as the authors of the HBR article warn, Agile at scale struggles if you have traditional HR processes and annual budget cycles – the exact two things which prove most intractable inside public bodies: employees on nearly lifelong contracts; beholden to spending taxpayer pounds issued by the Treasury on an annual basis.”
Changing with the times
So, delivering Agile at scale to the Royal Navy means tackling these, and many other issues. “The vast majority of what we do is based on our own rules and processes, derived ourselves over generations often through hard-won experience. To change them has almost never been rewarded, indeed is actively discouraged,” he points out.
“As a result, when things moved slowly we were safe and appropriate, but as tech, and life in general, has accelerated, we were frequently committing self-inflicted injuries. We have been trying to deliver change across a plethora of self-justifying, evidence-based, risk-averse, independently-reporting hierarchical stovepipes. To get anything done ties us, and to be fair all western militaries, in knots,” he says.
“If you come in with something new, you must drive it through this entire system to actually deliver it to the hands of the warfighter on the frontline – and if you don’t, the whole thing is pointless. And every time you hit the next process pyramid it either bounces upwards to the boss, or it goes sideways to a peer, or that person predicts that the next pyramid will block it so doesn’t do anything, and so it goes on. To fight your way through this can, at times, feel almost insurmountable.”
To illustrate his point, he points to the example of the use of small quadcopters on warships and the fact there are currently at least seven separate chains-of-command, or pyramids, which need to agree whether these can be put into service. “Despite being populated by good people, all trying to do good things, the resistance to change this architectural structure is significant.”
“This means that even quadcopters flown from a Bridge Wing can send the system into anaphylactic shock. And even when senior Admirals and Generals say ‘make it happen’ the frozen middle can emerge. Overlay on this simple case study a more realistic operational need for something much bigger, say for example a fully digitised, open, cloud-based, cyber-hardened, armed drone swarm, and then the tensions inherent in the system are everywhere to be seen. It’s not anyone’s deliberate intention, but 18 months ago this was the lived experience, and accepted reality of many.”
From vision to reality
Such comments – which also demonstrate how science fiction is rapidly becoming science fact – underline the scale of the challenge but Cheesman appears an optimist at heart, and he clearly and calmly returns to the underlying motivation.
“We’ve simply got to change. Many analyses of our military capability against perceived threats will tell you time and time again that, if we carry on as we are, we will not get the outcome we need.” Colonel Dan Cheesman, Chief Technology Officer, Royal Navy
“Why are we doing it?” he asks. “Well, we’ve simply got to change. Many analyses of our military capability against perceived threats will tell you time and time again that, if we carry on as we are, we will not get the outcome we need. It’s this strategic red flag which is the catalyst for changing how we are currently operating.”
And the good news is that progress is being made. “It starts and finishes with culture – it’s all about culture,” says Cheesman firmly. “I aim to show not tell, using exemplar imagery and vignettes from the best of tech, excerpts from futurologists such as Gerd Leonhard and videos of our own rapid progress to influence our significant array of internal and external stakeholders. Fortunately for me, over the past few years there has been a big shift within the leadership fully understanding the need for modernisation and driving change from the top. So these types of messages resonate powerfully with them, and more importantly their support helps land it increasingly well with those who had, to date, ‘got it’ less.”
The Navy’s Project NELSON is perhaps the leading evidence of their success so far. The project, formed as the Royal Navy’s digital accelerator to rapidly accelerate the exploitation of advanced data analytics and Artificial Intelligence, is maturing rapidly. It has already developed a data platform now in place on a Type 45 Destroyer which will enable better, data-driven decision making. “It’s properly game-changing and a global first,” says Cheesman, proudly.
“To scale NELSON’s benefits across the entire Naval Service is a long journey but, so far, it’s a huge success story and we appear to be leading much of NATO in our efforts. It is also a hugely powerful change-agent – not only for the actual AI-powered digitisation of our frontline operational capability and our rear-based business practices in their own right, but also for our wider business processes. All of our sudden, through the rigour of Agile Discovery phases being applied to multiple areas, we are gaining insights right across the business that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. And furthermore, our relationships with industry are modernising in tandem”.
He goes on to point out, though, that efficiencies – while important – are not the be all and end all.
“Our tech vision is that we know Machine-Speed Warfare is coming,” he says. “In this, we know we need to be more efficient, but fundamentally, we also need to be more Lethal on the grand-strategic global stage. To do so, we must accelerate change across our software, hardware and wetware. Saving money is one thing, but being operationally credible is what we are here for.”
Project NELSON is far from the only way the Royal Navy is seeking to transform its embrace of technology. The MoD’s first single-service innovation hub – Discover Analysis and Rapid Exploitation (DARE) – is also up and running and so, too, is MarWorks, an innovation team spearheading digital change across its military communications operations. And then there’s NavyX, a new joint military and industry hi-tech accelerator staffed and supported by the military, civil servants, entrepreneurs and industry specialists developing networked, cutting-edge autonomy in the air, on the surface, below the surface and ashore for all users at an unheard of pace.
Cheesman, while pleased with progress, is also determined not to press pause. “It doesn’t mean that we have solved all the problems, or, notably, cracked how to scale this technology with ease every time we land on a game-changing solution,” he admits, somewhat ruefully.
His restlessness is palpable but it’s worth pointing out that transformations do not happen overnight. Creating the Royal Navy of the future is inevitably going to be a work in progress.
“Sometimes I get asked whether all this is just a case of the Royal Navy ‘catching up’ with the pace of civilian tech change,” he reflects. “And sure, that’s part of it, and I think that if you spoke to the Army and Royal Air Force they would say they need a catch up as well, but the art and science of war has ever been thus. It’s just that AI, quantum, robots, laser guns and more seems to be making everything move even faster and the price of not being on the front foot is likely to prove even more dramatic.”
Fundamentally, he believes: “It comes down to strengthening the essence of what we do – the controlled application of extreme violence. We have to speed up our ability to maintain our competitive advantage, to fight and win, and we are on course to deliver just that.”
“Our deeply held belief is that the better we are at it, thankfully, the less likely we will have to do it.”
*Since this article first appeared, Dan Cheesman has been promoted to Brigadier
About the author
Mivy James is Head of Consulting for National Security, BAE Systems
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