Essential to the Army’s on-going modernisation journey is THEIA, the Army’s Digital Transformation Programme. As a core element of the British Army Land Operating Concept and Army Operating Model, THEIA’s aim is to “drive digital transformation in the British Army so we will out-compete our adversaries, integrate with our partners and operate with maximum efficiency”.
Announced in November 2020, THEIA’s role is the use of digital data and technologies to improve operational and business decision-making across Army functions. It seeks to build an asymmetrical Army for the digital age by focusing on 3 key objectives:
Change digital culture and behaviours, equipping people with digital skills, and promoting new digital ways of working
Integrate all information from command and control, intelligence, sensors, effectors and platforms across domains, partners and allies
Deliver better data and enabling better operational and corporate competitiveness, efficiency and effectiveness.
To explore many of these ideas, on 25 January 2023 the British Army Digital Transformation Conference took place in London organised by Chief Disruptor. Attendees included over 120 people drawn from a variety of organisations, predominantly in senior roles at suppliers, advisors, and contractors to the Army. The broad agenda included a variety of keynote presentations interspersed with guided workshops where key themes were discussed by attendees.
The THEIA conference was a forum to bring together a wide community of people involved in delivering digital transformation in the Army. After at least two postponed events due to COVID, this was the first occasion for people to gather for some time. Consequently, it was an important event providing an opportunity to update the diverse audience on recent digital transformation strategy announcements, review progress over that period, and explore the evolving context in which work is taking place. In this respect, it covered a great deal of ground and offered valuable insight into current perceptions of the Army’s digital transformation landscape.
Key speakers at the event included:
Major General John Collyer, Director Information & Chief Information Officer, British Army
Colonel Toby Courage, Director Land CEMA Programme, British Army
Charlie Forte, Chief Information Officer, Ministry of Defence
Brigadier Stefan Crossfield, Head of Information Exploitation, Chief Data Officer, Principal AI Officer, British Army
Lieutenant General Tom Copinger-Symes CBE, Deputy Commander UK Strategic Command
In addition to keynote presentations, there were 4 workshops that took place throughout the day:
- Future adoption of hyperscale cloud: Is it the silver bullet for Defence?
- Digital Skills Landscape: Recruitment and retention in Defence
- Data Accessibility & Ownership: The integrity behind the scenes
- Cyber Security: From Barrier to Business enabler - Secure by design approach
The themes addressed during the conference covered many core areas for digital transformation and created a great deal of comment. While it is not possible to capture all of these ideas, in this whitepaper we offer a review and commentary on several of the main topics. It is explicitly not an attempt to produce a complete, formal record of the event. Rather, it is intentionally a personal perspective aimed at highlighting themes and conversations of relevance to a broader digital transformation community.
A Broad Perspective
The THEIA conference took place at a critical time for UK Defence. Faced with uncertainty caused by volatile and unpredictable worldwide trends, institutions in all domains are being forced to reconsider their current operating effectiveness and the changes that will be needed to adapt to future needs. Consequently, throughout the day, keynote speakers placed considerable emphasis on the importance and priority of adapting at pace to the evolving context with digital modernisation a cornerstone of efforts for the Army to increase flexibility, drive innovation, and deliver its mission efficiently.
Recent defence strategy and spending statements reinforce the urgency for change. In the defence sector, there is high pressure to adjust to address the particular issues it faces to ensure its mission is carried out effectively. Current world events have heightened interest in digital transformation and highlighted the priority that must be given to accelerating the adoption of digital technologies across all aspects of the defence community. However, significant advances in digital technology capability offer a great opportunity, but also raise important concerns across many areas: Where they can best be applied; how to scale their use; What organisational adjustments are required for their use; What are the impacts on recruiting practices; How to responsibly deploy them; and so on. Furthermore, technological advances are driving questions about the suitability of current organisational, management, governance, contracting, and operating practices.
For all organisations these questions must be addressed to define a digital strategy and operating model that is appropriate for the context. Given its situation and role, the defence sector faces additional challenges, particularly in the current environment. To move forward, the defence sector is adjusting to several macro-trends affecting all aspects of its current operations and future strategy:
- The long-term impacts and on-going challenges of the global COVID pandemic have resulted in adjustments to operational policies, working practices, and contractor relationships that will continue to affect many areas: Directly in terms of redefined financial, resource, and operating practices; Indirectly in terms of longer-term impacts on skills retention and supply chain management. Further effort is needed to realign key parts of the organization to these changes.
- In recent years, many long-held practices and norms have been abandoned or reassessed as unfit for the future. This has raised many questions about what kind of defence organisation, capabilities, and support will be optimal. Uncertainty about future directions creates instability for decision makers and requires additional investment to maintain flexibility by building in redundancy and experimenting with different alternative solutions.
- Driven by a combination of factors, a tightening of the job market for key skills is causing churn in critical positions across the organisation, raising costs, and slowing down recruitment in areas of greatest need. The resulting resource management issues are hindering current activities and adding volatility to future plans.
- As publicly funded institutions, defence organisations must respond to changing societal pressures and rising expectations from a variety of stakeholders. In particular, in a world demanding greater responsibility and transparency, many aspects of its operational effectiveness, fairness, diversity, and value for money are being questioned. In addition to the direct impact of resulting changes, addressing such concerns may prove to be both expensive and complex to deliver.
Introduction of digital technologies has been a key part of the army’s strategy for some years. There are notable successes across a number of programmes. Many advances in the deployment of digital solutions have been rightly promoted as important milestones in the Army’s digital transformation. But there have also been shortcomings. In general, these bring several important lessons for future digital transformation activities:
- Timing pressures require faster turnaround from idea to action, and increased experimentation into alternative ways to meet needs. Despite best intentions, current ways of working too often create unnecessary barriers to achieving this.
- Contracting is too often slow, complex, and time consuming. This is creating limitations in the flexibility and speed needed to go from needs to solutions. It is also restricting the way suppliers look at responding to requirements. They often avoid proposing disruptive solutions or following unfamiliar delivery methods as they are seen unfavourably in competition with traditional approaches. This can be a particular inhibitor in adopting the latest innovation from smaller suppliers.
- Integration of systems across organisational and function boundaries remains a barrier to information sharing, improved performance, and cost reductions. New standards and common technology infrastructure help. However, traditional siloed mentalities and operating practices need to be overcome wherever possible.
- Technology-centric approaches are focusing attention on digitising the current environment. This is bringing incremental improvements and efficiencies. However, it is also limiting the focus on wider forms of digital transformation where deeper cultural changes are required to adapt to the issues and implications of operating in a digital environment.
Many people now recognise that at the centre of digital transformation is the need to adopt data-driven approaches to improve situational awareness and make better decisions. There are more opportunities than ever to gather data in new ways using both conventional (eg. satellites, field teams, etc) and unconventional (eg. mobile phones, social media, etc) data sources. While this has been broadly discussed for some time, the latest conflict in Ukraine has brought this issue to the fore and emphasised the disruptive impact on intelligence gathering. Consequently, such data-driven approaches are receiving much greater attention with respect to their direct value in the field.
In addition, however, data-driven approaches have an important role to play beyond direct operational scenarios. A clear example is in aspects of defence logistics where the management, tracking, supply and disposal of assets relies on accurate shared data across the supply chain. Here, there are many improvements that can be made and it is essential to direct attention to the data needs for digital transformation to adapt core capabilities in other critical areas such recruitment, skills development, and the health and wellbeing of personnel.
Improvements to the integration and sharing of data is a particular challenge for the Army and all defence organisations. The legacy contracting practices and technologies that have been used over the years have led too often to siloed systems. The move to more “horizontal thinking” to improve data sharing is important to deliver the integrated capabilities that will drive better decision making in all areas. Accelerating the move to shared data standards and data sources is a very important part of this effort and will bring many advantages. Without this move, digital transformation will be limited and only partially effective.
These observations lead to an overall conclusion that active digital transformation activities, estimated to be being delivered in at least 90 concurrent change programmes, are essential to the Army’s future effectiveness and are bringing important benefits to current operations. However, in recognition of the rapidly changing environment, there is urgency to increase the priority and impact of these efforts. In the coming months we will see this demand highlighted in updates to the digital strategies being released by the Army and coordinated across the MoD. These will bring a necessary focus on accelerating current activities and investing in additional initiatives in AI, data science, and the cultural shift that is required to support the Army’s mission to support UK defence and enable the future fighting force.
Responding to the Current Challenges
In addition to these broad concerns, the defence sector is today facing a range of specific challenges that bring into sharp focus many elements directly connected to its adoption of digital technology and the longer-term digital transformation journey on which it has embarked. Many of these were particularly highlighted in the THEIA conference as critical indicators of the priorities for digital transformation in the current environment. Unsurprisingly, their role and importance on current digital strategies influenced much of the discussion.
Each of the keynote presenters contextualized their remarks by observing that the THEIA conference took place at an important time as the world is responding to a diverse set of challenges. These include:
- The on-going conflict in Ukraine and the implication for future conflicts
- The responses in China to changing technology regulations and its recovery from the impact of COVID
- An increasing recognition of the climate emergency and its impacts
- Economic and fiscal constraints that limit investment, complicate recruitment plans, and add to the challenges of retaining key digital skills
All of these, and more, require the Army to focus digital transformation activities toward a number of important priorities to be effective in today’s environment and prepare for a future that will undoubtedly add new challenges from previous scenarios. Several characteristics of the current environment were identified.
One of the highest priorities is to increase resilience in all aspects of the Army’s infrastructure and operations. Paradoxically, digital transformation is proving to be both a critical tool to increase the Army’s capabilities and a source of some of the most difficult challenges to maintain stability and operating performance. How to respond to this dilemma is affecting actions at every level. One of the places where this tension is particularly evident is in areas of security and resilience.
As the defence sector increasingly digitises operations, it must protect itself from an evolving set of threats. In particular, recent events have highlighted that the digitally-based cyber threats being encountered today are growing, arriving from new sources, and more diverse in both construction and target. Digital technologies have been an important weapon in a cyber war that is having increasing impact at all levels of UK Defence. Improvements to the UK’s digital defensive and offensive capabilities are required. Traditional areas of concern and investment for cyber resilience will continue to be important. However, new areas will need to be addressed that previously were not included (eg. interruptions to energy supply; supply chain optimization; impact of signal blocking digital connectivity for key equipment; and many more).
Currently, speed of change across the Army’s activities in digital transformation are heavily constrained by a lack of digital skills. In an economic environment in which a premium is being placed on those with the right digital skills, the public sector struggles to recruit for digital roles, and has difficult holding on to those it has trained for key positions. Recruitment activities are being revised and training efforts on digital themes are widely available. However, the impact from these changes is limited. Inefficiencies in recruitment must be removed, and complex libraries of training courses must be simplified, coordinated, and aligned more effectively with career ambitions and promotion incentives.
While these skills shortages are being broadly felt, the defence sector faces particular challenges. In the case of the Army, it is affected by the traditional approach of moving between diverse roles to gain experience. While this has many advantages in the broad context of the Army’s mission, it has negative effects on those building a career as a digital specialist. Too often, trained specialists struggle to continue in their role or build a meaningful career path within the sector. Fixing this is challenging as it requires coordinated adjustments in recruitment, training, career management, and incentive management.
Conversely, it was also highlighted that many of the new recruits into the armed forces now arrive with significant expose to digital technologies and ways of working. These “digital natives” often bring an abundance of skills that are often under-utilised in today’s operational context. There are many potential opportunities to leverage these skills.
Digital Culture Change
There are many individual successes in digital transformation across the Army. However, attempts to scale and broaden digital transformation have been more challenging. Coordinating change activities across large established organisations is always difficult and complex. In the Army’s case there are several important cultural elements that limit the impact of digital approaches which often emphasise working practices that appear to be the antithesis of its operational approach: Open data sharing, autonomy of decision making, rapid experimentation, stable multi-disciplinary teams, and close stakeholder interactions.
This is often described as a major cultural gap between the traditional Army approach and the digital ways of working. The challenge, therefore, is to move beyond the current focus seen by many to interpret digital transformation in narrow terms as “digitise the backbone” and toward a more disruptive set of behavioural changes to update the “operating practices and business model of Defence”.
However important this shift, it is a substantial and controversial direction for some people. Progress will require a coordinated effort across many aspects of the Army, and more broadly across the defence sector ecosystem. Efforts are underway to bring this coordination, yet much more work remains.
Lessons from the Ukraine Conflict
The conflict in Ukraine is a major focus of attention in the defence sector. There are many aspects to its impact. In particular, it is having an important and significant effect on defence strategies and operational tactics by bringing into focus a number of digital technology issues. For example, the widely reported deployment of low-cost drones in intelligence gathering and combat scenarios is a clear demonstration of the implications of digital disruption in defence. Such scenarios are receiving a lot of attention both within and outside the defence sector.
Many of the presentations and discussions made direct reference to the importance of digital technologies in the Ukraine conflict and made observations on their effect on digital strategy. Some of the most important lessons for the Army’s digital transformation initiatives from the Ukraine conflict include:
- No sanctuary. It is difficult, if not impossible, to carry out activities without them being seen, recorded, transmitted, analysed, and responded to. Furthermore, these actions take place rapidly and involve a wide spectrum of groups and individuals that include civilians, commercial companies, and organised specialist groups (eg. the “IT army” used by Ukraine).
- Conflict of the electromagnetic spectrum. The technical and strategic components of electronic warfare have advanced significantly in recent months. Now, this is viewed more broadly with important implications for many aspects of the Army’s operational approach. Through this conflict the Army is learning a lot about electronic warfare, emissions control, and what soldiers’ footprints look like in the electromagnetic spectrum.
- Importance of domain integration. There is a lot to be learned about the ability of a much smaller force in Ukraine to out-manoeuvre the larger Russian forces. The speed and agility of the Ukrainian actions are seen as a consequence of its more advanced use of digital capabilities to integrate and align its activities. In contrast, the Russian inability to coordinate its superior forces has been clearly exposed.
- Mass, capacity, and sustainment. The rapid evolution of the conflict has brought particular pressure on supply chains and operating mobility. The conflict has emphasised the need for speed and coordination to get the right resources into the right place. On the other side, significant impact can be achieved by disrupting supply chains and delivery capabilities.
- Commodity vs exquisite. This conflict has seen surprising efforts aimed at re-purposing commercial and open-source technologies to inflict significant damage on the enemy. The diversity, speed, and cost profile of using such approaches has been contrasted with the specialised systems that have been fielded at great expense following long, complex procurement, trials, and deployment processes. The flexible redeployment of commercial digital technologies such as drones and satellite communications has caused many to reconsider priorities for how to address future equipment needs.
An important aspect of the conflict in Ukraine has been in changes to intelligence gathering and analysis. Digital approaches to generate data have exploded in recent years. One consequence is that many more open data sources are available. The use of public information has long been important in defence work. With the wider availability of digital data sources, the opportunities for Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) have significantly increased. Whether examining satellite images to understand troop movements or analysing social media posts to review sentiment about government actions, digital sources are being used as important inputs to many kinds of strategic decision making.
However, the importance and impact of open source approaches to intelligence now go far beyond digitizing traditional intelligence operations. They are now seen as a major digital disruption in the conflict in Ukraine such that some describe it as a digital war being fought both on the ground and in cyberspace with OSINT a significant factor.
The Future Focus
The wide-ranging discussions at the THEIA conference provoked a great deal of discussion in the workshops throughout the day, in the Q&A sessions as part of the plenary keynote presentations, and in informal discussions during conference breaks. However, overall three priorities emerged as essential priorities for the Army’s future efforts in digital transformation:
1. Increasing security and resilience
2. Amplifying cross program coherence
3. Accelerating digital transformation across all functions and capabilities
In establishing these three priorities, the aim is to ensure that digital technology adoption is targeted at areas that will not only provide immediate benefit to the Army’s operational position, but will also guide future investment to deliver the defensive strength, flexibility, and efficiency required to meet the needs of a complex, volatile world.
For the THEIA digital transformation activities, the Defence Digital Strategy forms the basis for the response. It highlights several components with particular importance to support the stated aims.
The first is to ensure that digital technology brings campaign advantage in the kinds of emerging scenarios we now foresee. Far beyond digitising current ways of working, the conflict in Ukraine is an indication that deployment of digital technologies has significantly and permanently altered warfare. It brings significant advantages when appropriately applied and destabilises situations in favour of those who can operate in ways that are optimised for a digital world. Those slow to grasp the impact of their use are at a severe disadvantage and must rapidly adjust.
Second, it is necessary to look broadly at digital capability development to improve performance. Integration and alignment is critical to improve understanding, accelerate time to response, and coordinate actions to achieve results. Acquiring and retaining essential digital skills is vital aspect of this. However, broader and more diverse digitally-defined strategies are required to mobilize resources as, where, and when they are needed.
Third, and finally, running a large, complex organisation demands a focus on digital transformation in all aspects of its operation. Beyond direct activities, there are important opportunities to improve the efficiency of operation in areas such as HR, contracts management, supply management, facilities management, and much more. This has direct impact on our ability to fight and sustain the deployed fighting force. Additionally, with a current spend of £8.5bn, efficiency across the defence sector through digital improvements is essential to drive reinvestment in frontline services.
However, addressing the digital transformation needs in these areas is more than simply a matter of responsible financial management and good practice in any one area. To create an integrated, flexible fighting force now demands coordination and alignment across all domains. Strength, resilience, and differentiation is provided through the connectivity and insight that digital transformation offers. Any weaknesses in this regard are susceptible to ruthless exploitation.
Current strategy proposals highlight the important role that digital transformation plays in the Army’s current and future activities. This emphasis will see an increase in forthcoming strategy announcements to bring together many of the on-going workstreams, and to consolidate the Army’s digital ambitions.
This whitepaper was written and produced by:
If you are interested in more Defence events hosted by Chief Disruptor, we are hosting the British Army Digital and Data Conference on Tuesday 18 April 23 in London.