Exploiting data from across the Defence ecosystem – a long road to success

10 May 2024

Ensuring UK armed forces and our allies have the information advantage in a highly congested digital battlespace is a priority for military leaders and the defence sector alike. Leonardo UK Head of Capability Development - Data & Digital, Kim Seward, highlights the challenges ahead and how these can be addressed.

It does not really matter which defence-related publication you reference; the Integrated Review, Integrated Operating Concept or the Data / Digital Strategy for Defence, all attest to the Ministry of Defence’s (MOD) understanding of its capability gap around sharing, utilising and exploiting the data. Whether it is one of the Front-Line Commands, DE&S or an enabling organisation, the restrictions to success are the same. Sharing data across classified, often international boundaries, to a level that is useful and sufficiently consistent to enable persistent information advantage – is presently just too difficult.

The most recent iteration of the US Army’s Project Convergence[1]’s, run out in California earlier this year, highlights the importance of networked information systems deployed on the modern battlefield. The British Army goes one step further, stating that, as it stands, the vast amounts of data flying around are not being properly processed, so commanders cannot make sense of the battlefield or make the decisions necessary to defeat the enemy.

Outside the battlespace and in the control room, training ground or the maintenance hangar, the same issue persists.

This highlights how the data landscape is changing in Defence. If you have listened to a UK one, two or three star brief in the last few years, you will have heard the term “at the speed of relevance”, essentially leveraging the digital revolution as a driver to outpace adversaries through the Observe, Orient, Decide and Act (OODA[2]) loop.

It is not a controversial view to state that the technology already exists today to help address, if not fully solve, this issue. Certainly, the Tech, Pharma and FinTech industries are showing how data is being used to greater effect than ever before. So why is Defence still dragging its heels?

Lack of skills, too many silos and non-standardised delivery across the sector are some of the main reasons currently mooted. Complexity in the Defence system, exacerbated by classification and security protocols, should also be acknowledged as big ticket limitations in data exploitation, but there are various ways of reducing those risks.

Zero trust[3], Secure by Design and Data-Centric security are all approaches used to mitigate cyber threats and security breaches. Architected correctly, a highly distributed approach to security gives the Defence sector the ability to gather and analyse data from across silos and draw conclusions based on multiple data sources. The challenge here is that this is a key balance to strike, where a too risk-averse approach to staying secret actually prevents effectiveness and fails to achieve the outcomes needed to enable true exploitation benefits.

The intelligence edge now lies with those who can most readily access all aspects of digital advantage; operational, informational and supportability, and industry is evolving to support that. Leonardo is a market leader in sharing intelligence and high classifications across the Defence enterprise, but is not alone in using digital capabilities to generate actionable insights at pace, using tools like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML).

So, if Defence knows its required and industry knows the MOD needs it, why does the challenge persist? Leonardo’s digital solutions are open and modular, built with microservices where sharing is controlled through reusable APIs; and this is generally agreed to be the most collaborative approach, but it requires evolution in the Defence sector’s business models and contracting mechanisms. Most programmes have not yet really caught up; things like Commercial X have been a step in the right direction but the attitude to risk from the average manager or budget holder has not changed. More often than not, objectives and directives are still focused on specific project delivery, rather than sacrificing time or requirement to consider wider collaboration and alignment. After all, time is money, at least in the short term.

The MOD is well on the path of understanding that data is a strategic asset, where significant challenge remains with the gap in suitable leadership styles; MOD needs to cultivate decision makers more comfortable with navigating complex adaptive systems in a digital world, across the services, not just among Senior Officers.

Changing and challenging behaviour is and will continue to be the biggest barrier to successfully exploiting data from across the Defence ecosystem. Collectively, Defence cannot just use new words to describe old approaches, whether it be the in treasury, boardroom or in the battlefield. As a community, Defence must actively take a more strategic view on risk, and lead the way with novel commercial agreements and business models; the technology exists – making evidence-based decisions formed from holistic data is easy to give lip service to, much harder to live and breathe in practise.

[1] US Army experimentation exercise, looking at how allies will fight in a multi-domain battlespace.

[2] Observe, Orient, Decide and Act – a decision-making cycle that focuses on filtering available information, putting it in context and quickly making the most appropriate decision, then repeating the process when new information becomes available.

[3] Zero trust means an organisation does not inherently trust any user. Trust must be continually assessed and granted in a granular fashion. This allows defence agencies to create policies that provide secure access for users connecting from any device, in any location. If you follow Zero Trust to the nth degree though, it can be over policed to the point of being unworkable.