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Innovation in the armed forces: there’s no choice but to modernise

Michael Crowley, EMEA Public Sector, VMware

The defence sector is evolving at breathtaking speed, which is something we’ve explored in our latest whitepaper, ‘The digital transformation of the armed forces – A constant (r)evolution’.

On the one hand, armed forces are faced with an ever-changing and unstable macro-economic environment encompassing everything from political unrest to peacekeeping. On the other they must also adapt to the evolving threat landscape. The bad guys still use guns and bombs, but they’ve also added sophisticated technological capabilities to their armory. It means the defence sector has to cope with long-standing, proven combat techniques as well as cutting-edge technology and often, both at the same time.

But it is no longer enough to simply be aware of technology. Defence teams must embrace it and understand the value it brings to operations. Put simply, the world of defence has no choice. It has to modernise. 

Today’s order – improve resiliency

Technologies enable forces to face multiple, challenging threats in complex environments. This has become increasingly critical as the threat landscape has broadened. Conventional field warfare has been overtaken – if not quite replaced – with terrorism at both a domestic and international level which can evolve rapidy. ISIS and its related activity is a great example here.

Despite this uncertainty, it is juxtaposed with the need to be active over long periods of time – we’ve been in Afghanistan and Iraq for about 15 years – and in both a vast spectrum of conditions and mission roles. Defence spans everything from humanitarian support, warfare and even vaccine programme deployment. None of which take exactly the same shape. When you add in that many missions, if not all, are built as a coalition between countries, the complexities expand further. For example, there may be French troops on the ground in Mali, but they have used UK transport and intelligence and US logistics. It means that irrespective of operation, geography or objective, the order of the day for armed forces is to improve and expand resiliency.

Adaption at speed

It is far from simple to manage 6,000 troops at 6,000 kilometers away from multiple countries and sustain them safely. And this is where new technology is helping provide solutions by innovating at speed to aid deployment and adapt to the rapidity of escalating situations.

Alongside General (ret.) Jean-Paul Paloméros, Senior Advisor at CEIS-AVISA Partners, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, Former Chief of Staff of the French Air Force, who was an advisor and contributor to the whitepaper, we identified a number of operational and environment requirements for adapting capabilities in relation to emerging technologies. These include everything from networking acceleration of the control and command cycle, which is helping to develop new applications, to the management of multiple sources of information and how that information is distributed to stakeholders and commanders.

Information is something that is part of intelligence but today this pertains much more closely to the management of big data. Filtering information so that it is divulged to the frontline as and when it is required – a need-to-know basis, as it were. It was a standard defined by NATO so the communication systems are interoperable. However, the advent of virtualisation is creating a swell of positive disruption because it allows defence teams to share the same application and information easily and quickly. By proxy it is shortening the innovation cycle and helping to build and deploy new applications in a secure way wherever the combatant is in the world and wherever the armed force originates from. Essentially, it is making the historical challenge of digital borders obsolete.

Shortening the innovation cycle

These developments are not new or surprising. Back in 2015, the NATO Framework for Future Alliance Operations stated clearly NATO technology superiority will be challenged. The issue is that the time to adapt has finally arrived.

In the past, armed forces used to do R&D in defense, which would lead to innovation. Now, the paradigm has shifted entirely. It is the consumer industry that perpetuates innovation and it is doing so at a rate that is way faster than any defense organisation can do. The days of lengthy projects that cost millions and take years to pay back are over. Technology means we can show commanders a project, and its impact, in around 18 months and we are empowering defence teams to amend their perceptions that this is within their grasp as long as procurement or IT departments can be convinced. The UK MOD is particularly good at this.

What is also getting commanders on-side with this evolution is that the actors within the threat landscape are evolving too – and they don’t have procurement or process to contend with. They have all these technologies available to them – everything from WhatsApp and Facebook to systems that can detect heat dissipation and while they may not be as polished as a defence organisation, they are still sophisticated and dangerous.

The Holy Trinity

It is the speed of innovation that is key to keeping the balance of power. A great example of this is the Balancing Strategy of the US MOD, which outlines that it is not simply the number of soldiers that will maintain superiority over their adversaries, but the technology that supports them. This is because technology means dispersed forces can be connected. We’re no longer in the days of a single battlefield so being able to coordinate teams and share information on locations and directives in real-time to individuals that are miles apart and often speaking different languages is critical to ensuring the right decisions can be made on the ground with the right level of initiative. Federated Mission Network is an acronym used by NATO that relates to federating units in one mission to anticipate and address threats as they unfold and before the threat develops. Having the right information, and the right time, is essential to that.

A hybrid cloud digital foundation is the basis for this vision to be realised as it is central to collecting, processing, storing and sharing information. Based on situational awareness – collecting information from different sources – obtained from everything from drone satellites to the man on the ground – defence teams collect information that needs to be processed. This, in turn, informs the directives or orders issued to troops with the information dissipated through a set of connected clouds depending on the countries involved and the specifics of the orders. Of course, given the information in question, most of this is done in a private cloud environment but even things like the weather, travel timetables and consumer air traffic – all available in the public cloud – are called upon in the situational awareness phase.

What we’re now seeing in the defence sector is the Holy Trinity of cloud technology, devices and applications driving innovation. For more on that, download our whitepaper, ‘The digital transformation of the armed forces – A constant (r)evolution’ here. Alternatively, to find out how VMware can support your defence programme, please contact our EMEA Industry Director for Defence, Michael Crowley.

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