December 4, 2019 was no average day for Dr Paul Kealey.
Dstl’s Head of Cyber and Information Systems rose early and, along with a few select colleagues, arrived at work at 5am for security checks. Fast forward a few hours and he found himself deep into a one to one conversation with President Macron about the intricacies of technology and Defence. As other leaders and heads of state mingled around them, Kealey and the French President remained locked in discussion for 15 minutes – an encounter to linger long in the memory.
“Having the opportunity to pitch the UK position at the NATO Summit in London made me really proud,” he recalls. “The president and I talked about our Defence and cyber, as well as how to develop talented leaders, and he was absolutely able to hold a detailed conversation – in English – about skills, challenges, and what they were doing in France. It was really human too – we literally finished with an exchange of business cards. I can’t ever endorse a politician but I came away thinking what a nice, clever and engaged man.”
Admittedly, such encounters are not exactly the norm. Nonetheless the very fact he was in such august company, representing the best of Britain’s world-class defence industry to the global elite, speaks volumes about Kealey’s career and achievements to date.
So how did this scientist, who emerged from academia with a PhD in Condensed Matter Physics, find himself in a room with the world’s most senior leaders?
Driven by ‘curiosity’
Although his professional ascent might suggest otherwise, Kealey did not harbour life-long ambitions to work in the Defence sector. Sure, he was always destined to work in science but Defence was not his first port of call.
A career spent amongst laboratories and research stacks initially seemed to beckon, particularly as his PhD studies took him to international neutron and muon facilities in France and Switzerland, with his conclusions circulated in notable publications such as Nature. “I was trying to use fundamental physics to answer fundamental questions and I really enjoyed it,” he recalls.
But amidst these international experiments, and possibly on the shuttle back and forth from the airport, Kealey began to consider what else might be out there. His research was professionally satisfying but his travels, and use of facilities elsewhere, had piqued his curiosity and catalysed his need to broaden horizons.
“I got to a point where I had to ask whether I wanted to stay in pure academia or whether I should look around and see what else is available,” he explains. “I saw an opportunity at the Defence Evaluation Research Agency (DERA) just before its privatisation, and I think it was curiosity which swung it for me. I’d visited DERA as a postgrad and used some of their labs and I was curious about what I could do there next. I had a belief that Defence was important but it was scientific curiosity which took me there.”
A matter of timing
Kealey began work performing signal processing research in radar and electronic-surveillance across air and space systems. Eight days later the September 11 attacks took place – an event which “changed everything” he says. “Since then, we’ve had Iraq, Afghanistan, and an absolute need for continuous rapid change. So there has been this need for science and technology to step up and provide support for operations by developing new capabilities.”
With Defence thrust centre stage, Kealey buried himself in the minutiae of technical research, publishing open literature papers on space-time adaptive processing and radar Doppler recognition algorithms for moving targets. “I spent eight years doing this type of deep technical work which was really cool,” he says, adding that it helped him “understand this type of technology” across the battlespace.
But, again displaying characteristic itchy feet, he felt the need to step back and increase his wider understanding of the sector – which was what prompted him to join the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, Dstl. It proved an excellent fit.
“My family agreed to a move near Salisbury so that I could be based at the Dstl site at Porton Down - first to work on sensor systems and to support operations,” he explains. “I wanted to see how all the military commands were thinking and to work across industry. I took on a job as a team leader – I liked leading people, I liked leading teams and I liked leading projects – and so I quickly went up Dstl’s ranks as a leader of people. First I led teams, then I led a group of about 90 people and then I started to lead at the departmental level.”
Unlike many of his peers, Kealey did not flinch at the prospect of looming change and transformation programmes. On the contrary, he forsook the peace and quiet of the status quo to actively seek out opportunities to deliver change programmes large and small.
Kealey puts this down to his desire “to make things happen” and leave his mark on the organisation of the organisation he serves. “I became fascinated by change,” he reflects. “And that’s why I spent about two or three years leading a change programme which reorganised Dstl. I see its five divisions today as part of the results of these changes; I helped name them, I helped make them.”
Dstl’s transformation programme was not the only one which he was involved with, however. At the same time, central government was undergoing a series of capability reviews – the brainchild of then Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell – which aimed to hold departmental leaders to account for improving their departments' capability to deliver.
“The science capability review was underway and it was affecting Dstl and the Ministry of Defence,” explains Kealey. “I was asked to go there and perform leadership in that area too. I enjoyed it but at the same time I also wanted to get back into the science and leading what was actually occurring, and so I took a role leading the portfolio in DST – Defence Science and Technology. Again, I was focusing on change and along with some colleagues I led the redesign of its science and technology portfolio.”
After a couple of years in post, Kealey returned to Dstl having competed for, and been appointed to, the role of leading its cyber and information systems division. This is the position he still serves in today and it’s through this prism that he has sought to steer his team through the impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic. Asking about the scale of its impact prompts the first pause in our conversation.
I really want to improve the exploitation of science and technology for the national benefit – and equally communicate it so its value is easily understood.
Paul Kealey, Head of Cyber and Information Systems, Dstl
“I think it has changed a lot,” he concedes. “I think we have learned that we could and have grasped different types of technology and different ways of working really quickly. For example, I think we’ve learned to be really quite fast in decision-making. We have also learned how to work when 95 per cent of staff are off site and working remotely.”
But that’s not to say there have not been challenges, particularly when it comes to working around the fact that much of Dstl’s work requires a secure environment for it to take place. There’s only so much that he and his colleagues can do from home, which means they have been trying to strike a balance between security and the health and safety of team members.
“We have always had people working at the highest levels when necessary,” he reveals. “But we’ve also been planning what work can be done at a lower classification. So a member of staff who used to work at the highest classification level is now popping into the office for half a day a fortnight, but then does as much as possible at lower level classification in between. That said, we do need to get back to somewhere approaching normal at some point – we can’t stay offsite forever.”
No time to press pause
Mirroring Kealey’s own restless nature, Defence continues to evolve in different directions. Much of this rapid change is rooted in technological advances which, it turns out, have penetrated even the way he relaxes.
“In my study at home I have got one of those nvidia jetson nano machines, which allows me to practice Artificial Intelligence – amateur of course – but it’s a chance to do some programming. I call it ‘modern embroidery’. I am by no means the best but it is good fun. It does demonstrate, though, the pace of technological change – not so long ago I would have needed a computer rack to do this sort of thing.”
Technology also serves as the bridge between his spare time and professional commitments. In addition to helping guide Dstl though the challenges of the Pandemic – which very much remains a work in progress – his in-tray is bulging with priorities both data-led, and communications-led.
“I really want to improve the exploitation of science and technology for the national benefit – and equally communicate it so its value is easily understood,” he says, firmly. “And I also want to make sure that Defence can fully exploit the value of data. I’m writing papers that are currently going round the highest levels of Defence on how do we rapidly exploit data and make sure it moves between platforms, commands and environments so it gets to the decision maker at real speed. We need to make sure data is far more exploited and valued.”
At Dstl we think using data effectively comes down to five things – Standards, Architecture, Network, Software Development and Data Centricity.
Paul Kealey, Head of Cyber and Information Systems, Dstl
To this end, much has been made of “Information Advantage”, a concept embraced by the Ministry of Defence and others which encompasses the increasing use of information and data-based capabilities to deliver transformative change and disproportionate influence. Its newfound prevalence reflects the scale of the potential sea change it offers and Kealey, too, is a strong advocate for this approach.
“My focus is how we get data, how we use it to our advantage,” he points out. “Information Advantage is all about influence, it’s about operations, it’s about seizing the moment – it’s become a very wide change initiative. At Dstl we think using data effectively comes down to five things – Standards, Architecture, Network, Software Development and Data Centricity. There are big conversations going on right now about how to seize the moment.”
The digital horizon
So what’s next for Kealey? As befits a scholar, he has clearly done much thinking about how Defence will evolve in the future. And once again, technology looms large.
“We will always have to defend against the conventional threat but I think we will have some form of new quantum technologies, and some form of laser weaponry which will be operational,” he predicts. “Obviously we have the Air, Land and Maritime domains but Space will matter more, as will the electromagnetic environment and cyber. We will be contesting across all of these. It will be really interesting to see how data influences decisions and how we’re working much quicker, and how we will be more willing to take on new ideas.”
Much will hinge, he adds, on the ability of the Defence industry and government to come together at pace. “We’ll still need things to get us to certain places at certain times but it will be more about how we work across government. And let’s face it there will be substantial changes. There will come a time where we won’t have the vulnerability of navigation via satellites; we may get to a point where we can navigate using other small devices, for example.”
And more immediately, there is the priority of capturing the best of the new ways of working catalysed by Covid-19. Kealey, for one, is determined not to revert back to the old ways completely.
“Admittedly, some of my scientists will need to get back to normal as soon as possible – particularly those working in our highest classified laboratories,” he says. “But there are certain things we have learned about not having to come together all the time, about using IT differently and about not having to use paper that we just can’t go back on. There’s been some really great environmental benefits – reduced travel, electronic approvals – that we should lock in and that’s what we absolutely want to do.”
As for so much of Defence, it’s a case of watch this space. Rapid change is coming – and in many cases, it’s already here.
About the author
Mike Stratford is Head of AI Labs at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence
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