Forget Darpa. The British military is far too slow in embracing tech

Getty Images / Leon Neal / Staff

Prime minister Boris Johnson is in the middle of rethinking the UK’s role in a post-Brexit world. An “Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy” has been kicked off. Whatever its aims, it’s an open secret in Westminster that Johnson’s main aide, Dominic Cummings, thinks the defence establishment is riddled with inefficiencies.
In a blog published before he entered government, Cummings called a scheme to build two new aircraft carriers a “farce”, and argued the Ministry of Defence had “continued to squander billions of pounds, enriching some of the worst corporate looters and corrupting public life via the revolving door of officials/lobbyists”.


Cummings is not the only one looking for change. Aboard frigates, on nuclear submarines, in the air and on bases across the country, thousands of soldiers, sailors, and airmen and women have high hopes for the government’s review. The reason is simple. New threats to the UK’s interests are fast emerging: cyberattacks, disinformation, anti-satellite systems, hypersonic missiles, and directed energy weapons are just some of the new weapons capable of targeting the UK. At the same time, the “old” threats like chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons, ships, jets, and tanks, not to mention terrorism, haven’t gone away. Overlaying this is the spectre of climate change, economic collapse and the threats of pandemics.
For this reason, the Ministry of Defence, the security agencies, and the Foreign and Development Office will no doubt ask for more money. But, not least due to Covid-19, resources are scarce and the NHS is more likely to benefit from additional cash than soldiers and spies. How to break out of the dilemma in which the armed forces either need more money or less ambition?
The answer is that the military, like every other industry, should embrace the opportunity presented by technology. You might think that the government in general, and the Armed Forces in particular, would already be an early adopter of new capabilities. After all, many of the technologies we use today emerged from government laboratories.
Radar, GPS, microprocessors, cellular communications, LCDs, the internet, HTTP/HTML, photovoltaic cells, camera phones, CAT scans, freeze-dried foods, air purifiers, and many other tools were initially developed by the public sector. Created in the wake of the surprise Soviet launch of the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik, the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been the source of countless inventions and keeps looming large in the public’s imagination.


Unfortunately, that rich seam has dried up – at least in the UK. The Ministry of Defence’s R&D spend is less than £3 billion, which is much less than some individual companies spend. This might not be a problem if the Armed Forces were early adopters of technologies developed in the civil sector. But, by and large, they are not.
The military talks a big game about “warfare in the information age”, but it has proved to be a very slow adopter of 21st century tech. Its talk of innovation often becomes a type of performance art rather than real-world change. The most capable computer on board a UK fighting platform, the F-35 jet, aka Lightning 2, can perform 400 billion operations per second. The NVIDIA Drive AGX Pegasus, at 320 trillion operations per second, has 800 times more processing power – and you could find one on a truck. This is just one example of how our Armed Forces are behind the curve. Yet, changing this situation has proved to be a wicked problem. Why?
In the The Kill Chain, Christian Brose writes about the military, “fighting a losing game” against faster-thinking adversaries. The military should not focus on the sort of platforms they used to – ships, planes, and vehicles – but digital platforms that allow for a totally different way of preparing for and fighting battles. By leveraging AI and big data to understand the theatre – be it through detailed simulations or sensors-gathered information – these platforms can be key in determining what action to take in life or death scenarios.
But to do that, you need a workforce incentivised and trained to think differently. The UK military has begun to make a shift. Through innovation initiatives like Navy X, jHub, and Astra, the military has sought to work with startups, rather than the traditional defence supplier base, and adopt new, more agile ways of working. Rapid contracting and greater authority to enter into pilots are making it easier and faster for startups to work with the defence sector. But these efforts have not proved sufficient. They are operating at the margins of defence budgets and military organisations, and defence will not really maximise its digital opportunities until its culture and personnel change.


That is why we have joined forces with Admiral Tony Radakin, the forward-thinking head of the Royal Navy, to create a completely new way to train Navy personnel. This initiative is called the Percy Hobart Fellowship, in honour of Major General Sir Percy Hobart, a highly effective military innovator in World War 2 who was thrown out of the Army but then personally brought back by Winston Churchill. In the face of enormous objections from the establishment, Hobart designed, developed and introduced into service a range of automotive solutions to overcome the German defences, having a decisive effect on the success of the Normandy landings.
The course takes Navy service personnel and officials – of all ranks and specialisms – and sheep-dips them in the world of innovation. Percy Hobart Fellows are embedded in a startup, and not necessarily one focused on defence, given a mini-MBA course, and then made to develop their own product which they have to pitch to investors, decision-makers and buyers.
From bullet-proof oxygen tanks to using augmented reality to enable remote surgical support, some new technologies are making headway across the armed forces already – though more can be done. Our hope is that the course will expand in the Navy but also across other Services and help to create the vanguard of change required. We hope that Hobartians will arrive at a base in future and look to find new recruits to the course; that senior leaders, facing a complicated problem, will say “OK I need a team of six Hobartians here.” In that way, the culture of the larger organisation will begin to change and more people will want to learn and look to deploy new technologies and approaches.
Across the world, the modern state is undergoing an extraordinary transformation. A new generation of technology is changing the way nations – or, indeed, local governments – collect taxes, deliver services, distribute welfare, maintain security, and more. In the Royal Navy this change has already begun: it is training its own band of pirates to make us all safer.
Daniel Korski is the CEO and co-founder of PUBLIC, which runs the Percy Hobart Fellowship. General (Ret) Sir Chris Deverell, commanded UK Joint Forces before retiring
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