Before Christmas the armed forces outlined their future plans for the technology supporting the range of highly complex equipment they take into battle. It really is one of the most complex challenges.
Keeping all this equipment functioning is not a straightforward task. If we look at a ship it has to be constantly refuelled, the crew has to be fed and watered before we even look at any capability to fight a battle. When we look at weapons and sensors these need to be maintained – throwing a ship, even a large ship, around in rough weather breaks the sensitive electronics inside the wide range of sensors that a ship has. The mechanicals, engines, generators, helicopters, and munitions are not immune either. Add in a dose of corrosive salt water for good measure that adds to the challenge. The same applies for aircraft, tanks, submarines – all have their own unique environmental challenges.
The UK has always taken great pride in their armed forces: they are well trained, dedicated and very hard working. We need to ensure that the tools that we give them on the range of mission and when they engage the enemy are up to the task. We have good equipment that works much of the time. If you combine good kit with well trained personnel, you have a world-leading combination.
We need to ensure with budgets becoming ever tighter, partly through the costs of the ever more sophisticated and difficult to maintain weaponry, that we use the money as wisely as possible. The logistics and supply chains that act in support need to raise their game. The forces currently rely on a complex web of aged systems held together with chewing gum and sticky tape plus the guile of the operators and logisticians who, through experience and cunning, manage to keep the show on the road. Indeed, the recent MoD Science and Technology Strategy (Oct 2020) said as much:
“we have collectively recognised that we must change how we invest in and develop capability to avoid falling behind our adversaries”.
The Christmas presentation by the armed forces’ does set out a great vision with much more enlightened use of technology. The armed forces’ presenters certainly knew what they wanted and what good could look like for the next generation of logistical services and systems, but the reciprocal view from industry looked complacent and lacking in much foresight.
The capabilities are definitely out there. World leading capabilities in real-time engine management from Rolls Royce keep commercial planes flying, with very high availability. Minute to minute technicians know on the ground how an engine is performing, and have the sophisticated diagnostics available to anticipate problems, and ensure ground crews can make adjustments or repairs. Rolls Royce uses a wide range of technologies to ensure they have an up-to-date informed view of where every plane is and the performance of every engine. That is world class.
The UK’s armed forces don’t have the predictability of set routes and schedules that airlines have, but the technologies exist to make a major step change in logistic support capability. Use of IoT, RFID, digital twins and integrated logistics packages could be introduced tomorrow as the start of the process, but the funding, inclination and know how has to be corralled very soon. Another lesson the armed forces could learn from other digital initiatives is that proving concepts, starting small and expanding, showing the art of the possible and learning is the right approach. One step at a time, using some of the best ideas and innovation that the UK and its tech industry is renowned for – that will help take the whole process forward. Just one point – legacy suppliers are not the most motivated to enable that step change – they like the highly profitable status quo.
I hope the various senior brass – the two, three and four star types will have the vision to look at a wide range of suppliers to realise their vision one bit of the elephant at a time. The expertise is out there, but will the Commercial teams who often drive these processes look a bit wider than the rack of tired incumbents.
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