Defence in a digital and disruptive era: innovation in IT
BT looks at turning points within the UK defence sector, the evolving nature of warfare and how new cyber-attacks pose new questions for our national defence
In response to the evolving nature of warfare, Britain’s armed forces must become more agile, ready to engage in combat operations anywhere in the world, as well as prepared to deliver more humanitarian and peacekeeping missions at home and overseas. The operational challenge is also centred on being ready for new cyber threats which are infiltrating the defence sector at a global level.
Consequently, the Ministry of Defence is introducing a new approach to the way it fights, operates and organises. The new strategy places information - a ‘force multiplier’ - at the heart of operational capability, and has major implications for the way the MoD procures IT products and services.
One of the key enablers of an information based defence strategy will be making a successful transition from a fixed communications defence infrastructure to a highly mobile one. The MoD is ready to explore and exploit new technologies, both to enhance operational effectiveness and business decision making. For example:
• Equipping personnel with mobile devices and processes means they can work anywhere, accessing the information and services they need on the spot, whether in offices, headquarters or deployed bases. It’s not just for corporate or military applications but also routine services such as making a travel booking or submitting expenses. This is the thinking behind the MoD’s New Style of IT (NsoIT) programme and its deployment of Microsoft Office 365 software. NSoIT’s purpose is to securely deliver greater agility and mobility to service personnel wherever they may be and one single secure log in gives each user access to all the services he or she is authorised to use.
• Cloud gives users on the move access to the information and services they need. They’ll be able to get hold of and have better continuity of information, both on the base and in the field. NSoIT is intended to help the MoD fully exploit the power of cloud computing.
• Network virtualisation helps manage the massive increase and ongoing change in demand for data and the resulting strain on networks. Software defined networking (SDN) and network function virtualisation (NFV) let defence users dynamically reconfigure the network in line with demand, without investing in more hardware, and has a key role to play in developing more agile information solutions.
• An established home base in the UK might have around 20km of copper cabling, some of it dating back to the 1940s. Wireless technologies can help to modernise the dependence on older cables. With the right wireless infrastructure the MoD can introduce flexible working for administrative and managerial roles, mobile processes for field workers such as engineers and maintenance teams, and asset tracking for valuable or critical equipment and vehicles. In addition, wireless solutions across the base provide the connectivity that is essential for military personnel to access welfare services, pursue their social lives and stay in touch with friends and family.
• The availability of social media is important to military wellbeing and morale, but bases are often too far from the local exchange for conventional broadband. There are commercial difficulties too, particularly with providing fixed lines into what is effectively temporary accommodation. The MoD uses an innovative wireless internet access solution, which provides fast, secure access to the web without the need for a fixed network connection.
• Social media is also an important weapon in its own right. The Army has set up a new unit, the 77th Brigade, which will use psychological operations and social media to help fight wars in the information age.
• The volume of defence data is going to be huge. Making sense of it, whether on the battlefield or the boardroom, will require powerful data engines and analytical tools.
• Wireless technology is advancing all the time. For example, tethered drones could supply wireless solutions in more remote sites and it’s quick to deploy (no mast, no cables and no digging up roads). New mesh technology is also ideal for military use. It links different nodes together so they can communicate without any central provider. With any-node to any-node capabilities, a kinetic mesh wireless network can continuously, instantaneously route data via the best available traffic path and frequency. It is easy to install and well-suited to harsh physical environments as well as the home base.
• The Internet of Things has a wide range of potential application in the defence sector. New connectivity designed specifically for the Internet of Things, such as Low Power Wide Area Networks make it easier to connect thousands of sensors, smart meters, location trackers and broadband hubs. New advances in battery life mean these smart devices will work for years with no recharging.
• At home, IoT devices and sensors can be used to develop a ‘smart home base’, along the lines of a ‘smart city’, where digital technologies monitor and control everything from street lighting to rubbish collection and site security and even access to the gym. A smart base would have lower running costs, greater operational flexibility and a better quality of life for personnel. In the field, IoT technologies can play a role in keeping human beings out of harm’s way, helping the MoD fulfil its duty of care to employees. For example, geofencing alerts when someone moves out of their expected location zone or enters a hazardous area.
The MoD is clearly committed to exploiting digital technology to build a more agile IT infrastructure and leverage information for military advantage. What is also clear is that the armed forces are seeking a new kind of relationship with their technology vendors. Large or small, innovative technology providers have the opportunity to play a key role in developing the UK’s defences for the digital age.