Blog Post

August 3, 2023

Reflections on the Defence Command Paper Refresh: Are good intentions enough?

The past several years have thrown up several questions regarding the UK and her allies’ defence and national security capabilities - and whether or not they are correctly prioritised and aligned. The conflict in Ukraine is perhaps the most obvious example, but there are a litany of kinetic and sub-threshold examples of threats to draw upon to illustrate where democratic nations are at risk in the modern world - from disinformation, to the global economic and political influence China is amassing through developing nations. It has become clear that for UK Defence to be effective in its mission both now and in the future, it must become ‘integrated’ in every sense of the word, be it internally, with strategic allies, across government and civil society, and with industry.

The latest Defence Command Paper released last month is an attempt to address these issues, following soon after a predecessor Paper in 2021 in an effort to incorporate thinking and learning generated not only by what has happened in Ukraine, but a changed environment within the UK and across NATO. Whilst much of what it lays out is positive at least in intent, it is not perfect. Ultimately, the greatest concern lies in the gap between what the DCP proposes and what can actually be delivered.

Looking Back - The Integrated Review and Defence Command Paper 2021

The Integrated Review and corresponding DCP 2021 was a positive step in setting out not only the need for UK diplomatic and military power to be better synthesised, but that national industrial strategy, national infrastructure, cyber and space, and policing and intelligence activities need to be considered as elements of national security in a more holistic fashion. How this is achieved in a democratic state is a much harder charge - ensuring civil servants and the corporate world are informed and aligned with these needs, creating doctrines and processes to fuse these disparate arenas and capabilities as well as methods to share information, training the military to be more adaptive and innovative without weakening their core role of delivering lethal effect when necessary - the list goes on. And whilst the Ukraine conflict has seen new commitments to defence spending across Europe and new members joining NATO, one wonders if all of the requisite stakeholders needed to achieve this actually possess the purpose and capacity required.

The Now - The Defence Command Paper Refresh (DCP 2023): “Defence’s response to a more contested and volatile world”

Whilst doubling down on much of what was laid out two years ago, the DCP 2023 is hyper-focused on R&D, industry, supporting Ukraine, and restoring munition stockpiles, whilst avoiding any commitment to new ‘kit’ or personnel uplift. It is understandably Russia-oriented, doubles down on the commitment to creating a “data-centric” Defence, making full use of partnerships and partner programmes such as AUKUS, GCAP, NATO, and the “Five Eyes” to extend effect, along with the creation of a UK Global Response Force. Whilst taking pains to be clear that the lessons of Ukraine are still being learned, the influence of that conflict is apparent throughout.

Most critically, the paper is heavily invested in setting out the need for acquisition reform and “the requirement for a more agile acquisition process and an even stronger partnership between government and industry, both primes and small- and medium-sized enterprises”. This is summed up in three governing rules:

  1. Due to the acceleration of the pace of innovation across the battlespace conventional acquisition programmes and platform upgrades are not fit for purpose. The MoD “must buy simpler platforms more quickly and design into them the capacity to upgrade at speed – and not just with the original prime contractor”.
  1. “Defence must partner with industry, exploring together advances in technology and what they mean for UK defence capability, being willing to share risk and recognising the importance of our defence industrial base in our national security.
  1. “Thirdly, time matters. Waiting for 100% will almost certainly take too long. We must force ourselves to accept solutions that are ‘good enough’”. 

With references to agile approaches and spiral development - building on the work already being done by groups like DE&S’ Future Capabilities Group, NavyX, and the recently launched Commercial X - there is a clear recognition of a need for fundamental change, not simply doing incrementally better. Interestingly, alongside the demand for more “off the shelf” procurement, there is also a recognition of the importance of export markets when it comes to working with industry and an acknowledgement of past failure in this regard, especially as compared to successful defence exporters like France.

Unfortunately, the DCP 2023 follows almost immediately on the heels of a damning Defence Committee report on procurement - “It is broke – and it’s time to fix it” - as well as the recent Ajax Lessons Learned Review, not to mention a very negative Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey: 2023. Whilst Defence Equipment & Support are in the midst of a large transformation and various elements of the MoD are bringing more innovative and rapid approaches to bear - including the aforementioned FCG and others - there is an understandable concern that despite the DCP 2023 commitment to R&D funding and reform, the MoD and industry are not well placed to deliver value for money or at pace.

Similarly, capability gaps, infrastructural concerns, and insufficient SQEPs (“suitably qualified and experienced person”) in many critical domains, are all placing demands on funding, capacity, and morale. Upskilling and new training is therefore highlighted as a priority need but is itself a burden on personnel already operating at tempo and with little capacity to learn and change. Whilst autonomous platforms and AI-enabled systems can require fewer personnel to deliver effect, the fact of the matter is deploying them requires a great deal of expertise and training.

The lack of an uplift in serving personnel numbers will not go down well with those who feel the UK armed forces are already over-stretched and ‘hollowed out’. The adage that “mass has a quality all of its own'' may seem antiquated, but a lesson one could confidently draw from recent Ukrainian and Russian experience is how quickly a military can be degraded in a modern conflict. Deploying and maintaining a force in combat, whilst maintaining other commitments, requires sufficient people and equipment - the UK it seems, does not have them. And is unlikely to anytime soon.

Perhaps most critically, Defence also needs to lay out how it will bring all those elements of government they don’t own to bear when it comes to supporting this new approach to industry - finance and investment, foreign policy, trade, energy policy etc.

The Challenges with Industry and Innovation

From once being a driver of innovation and source of breakthrough technology, Defence is now behind the curve and insufficiently funded for R&D compared to the commercial world. Beyond lengthy and complex acquisition processes, defence suppliers struggle for investment due to recent political sensibilities and are themselves products of their customers, wedded to the processes governments have created. Ever since the Second World War there has been a steady decline in the variety of companies operating in defence, added to which the mechanisms governments have come to rely on to procure not only favour incumbents but also often prevent the entry of new players or the procurement of new technologies - the model used to purchase a nuclear submarine is not suitable to purchase subscription software. Primes - often contracting on behalf of the MoD - have not necessarily always worked well with SMEs, or with a large enough pool of them.

Startups face a raft of challenges beyond competing with highly domain-expert incumbents:

  • VCs are often not interested in startups working within defence; either due to ESG concerns or the peculiarities and long timelines of the market that mean it is unattractive for investors oriented around exit schedules. It is even the case that some banks hesitate to provide services to SMEs wishing to work in the sector. 
  • Procurement is opaque to say the least, and Defence can be incredibly risk averse with who they purchase from and who they let access their systems and data. Too much is unnecessarily locked away on the ‘high side’ and deemed sensitive or secret, requiring clearances and certifications that potential new suppliers cannot access or afford. 
  • Added to this, the MoD has been known to take an aggressive approach to Intellectual Property with SMEs, using DEFCON 703 terms in contracts to take ownership of IP when DEFCON 705 could be applicable, allowing the SME to keep the IP.

The winds of change

The positive intent of the DCP 2023 is aligned with work that has already begun, with new initiatives ranging from NATO’s DIANA accelerator programme to Ploughshare, an MoD-owned company seeking to commercialise their IP, helping drive a more forward-looking approach. Across the MoD organisations like the RAF’s RCO, the Defence AI Centre, and the Defence Innovation Unit, are embracing the challenge of finding better ways to procure and pull through technology and capability at pace, as well as bringing suppliers closer to end-users. Various primes are launching CVCs and accelerators, eager to find and deploy new dual-use technologies within their programmes, and government-backed funds such as NATO’s Defence Innovation Fund, In-Q-Tel, or the National Security Strategic Investment Fund (NSSIF), can fill the vacuum that private investors have created. And whilst systems and processes may not be ideal, the people working across defence, in both the private and public sector, are universally passionate about not only the mission but finding a more effective way to deliver.

On the other side of the equation, the UK is home to a thriving tech startup scene that could super-charge military capabilities should these innovators be properly brought into the ecosystem. Defence and National Security customers should be an incredible funding stream for dual-purpose technologies and help diversify, and shorten, supply chains to mitigate risk and boost innovation, supporting the work of incredible companies such as Helsing, Anduril, and Adarga, amongst others. One of the great benefits of free market economies is just this sort of innovation and it is where a true competitive advantage over our potential adversaries can be found if it is properly exploited - we will never achieve their level of vertical integration after all, nor should we wish to. Organic R&D funding can then be used to create markets and better support those technologies unique to the domain.

PUBLIC has identified three critical capability areas where we can and are currently supporting this mission: 

  1. Designing and delivering startup and challenge programmes to drive innovation, new capability development, and startup engagement across industry - taking a new approach to sourcing and implementing innovative tech solutions for defence which engages directly with the innovators themselves.
  2. Learning and workforce transformation programmes to both upskill defence personnel with essential capabilities to engage with new technologies as well as support organisational structures and leadership teams to build an environment which can foster and scale innovation from within. 
  3. Innovative procurement design that can accelerate the adoption of new processes and technology to achieve more SME-friendly procurement for the MoD and suppliers - ultimately bringing new, better solutions to defence which may otherwise be inaccessible.

What we can be sure about is that there is a lot to be done. Whilst foundations have been laid and momentum is building, genuine impact and lasting transformation will now require a concerted effort to engage with and integrate the full range of stakeholders. The good news is there are effective tools at our disposal which reflect a thoughtful yet unrelenting focus on developing people, processes, and technologies necessary to secure our freedoms and way of life today and in the future. It’s just up to the entire defence ecosystem to pick up those tools and use them.


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Matthew Long

Former Team Member

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