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The innovation imperative - military technology

To continue to supply and support the Armed Forces with cutting-edge, battle-winning military technology, it is important that MOD and industry work closely together to stimulate and encourage innovation.

Karen Fairall

Karen Fairall of the DTIC High Innovation Team outlines the changes that will need to take place to meet current and future demands and challenges UK Defence to come up with the ideas and military technology to meet evolving threats with limited recourses.

From before World War II up until the end of the 1980s military technology was generally considered ?cutting-edge? and superior to civilian equivalents. By 1998, investment in civilian R&D in areas such as IT and electronics was estimated to be ten times that of R&D into military technology (MOD Strategic Defence Review, 1998). From their latest accounts the R&D budgets of market leaders such Sony (£3.4 billion), Microsoft (£5.6 billion) and IBM (£3.9 billion) their R&D budgets all exceed UK MOD?s Defence R&D budget into of £2 billion of which £500 million is research into military technology. The output of this huge amount of commercial R&D is a global technological rate of change unprecedented in human history. This is available to everyone ? friend and foe ? and provides both an opportunity and threat to retaining our Armed Forces? technological edge ? the edge in military technology that saves lives and wins battles. UK Defence has little control over the rapid military technology advancement taking place worldwide and even less over the way in which future threats will emerge and develop.

Challenges to military technology

The recently published ?Strategy for Defence? maps out the path to the forthcoming Strategic Defence Review which will take place after the General Election. It states that we can no longer ?reliably predict the specific challenges or threats we will face in the future?. Today the UK faces adversaries whose tactics change rapidly gaining advantage by employing ever more varied and advanced innovation and military technology.

Published as part of the Defence Green Paper, the ?Global Strategic Trends out to 2040? paper identifies pace of development, a commercial imperative and growth of R&D capability outside established centres as key trends where the breadth, depth and speed of the application of innovation will generate an unprecedented reliance on military technology. Increased access and rapid cultural assimilation of technology will render future generations increasingly vulnerable to the deliberate or unintentional disruption of technology-based utilities.

New business models for military technology

UK Defence involves many people and organisations who are involved in supplying and supporting the Armed Forces. It consists of the MOD, Industry, SMEs and academia, who all contribute knowledge, expertise and products. The term UK Defence embraces all these people and organisations. To provide the innovation required for the Armed Forces to be effective with military technology ? to stimulate relevant innovation and rapidly exploit innovative technologies into complex military technology defence systems ? will require change to the way that UK Defence works as a business enterprise. In other market sectors, new business models have proved particularly important to maximise the benefits from wider innovation; exploitation of this opportunity is critical for UK Defence.

UK Defence must become more agile in both intent and delivery of innovation. It must become more effective and efficient in its use of limited defence-specific resources and take advantage of the significantly greater investments made in markets outside of its control or influence. Much of the defence-relevant military technology is driven by the non-defence commercial imperative, eg communications, energy, materials, autonomy, human science, medicine, signal processing, information systems and systems engineering. There is a real cost associated with change; in terms of quality, time or money and UK Defence cannot afford to continually reorganise to respond to changes. To provide the best support to our Armed Forces within a constantly changing environment, ways of working are required that are stable yet continually provide military advantage within the dynamic environment of military technology.

Stability in our ways of working is essential to build critical UK capability where the emphasis of Defence R&D shifts from the development of new military technology, to partnerships that can access and exploit commercial technologies to deliver effective and affordable military capability. At the same time, UK Defence will continue to buy and use systems, subsystems and components that will fit into systems designed by UK Defence to provide differentiating performance of military technology in critical areas.

Working together

MOD cannot undertake this change alone. The role of MOD is to head the UK Defence enterprise and work to understand and communicate current and future military technology needs. MOD and the UK defence supply base have different motivations but a common objective; they both need access to relevant, cutting-edge technical capabilities to enable the development of relevant, cutting-edge military technology defence products.

The NDIC provides the formal forum in which industry and MOD meets. The fortunes of MOD and the UK defence supply base are inextricably linked. MOD recognises the importance of export markets and works with industry to take advantage of the wealth creation and revenue reinvestment that these bring. By participating in market-leading activities with Industry MOD is able to give the Armed Forces and its military technology a competitive edge through access to the latest and best technologies.

The Innovation challenge

Innovation can take place at any stage of investment ? from fundamental research through to concept, design, manufacture, use and recycling. It can occur in any function including the way requirements are derived or expressed in potential solutions or in how intellectual capital is managed. The innovation itself can also exhibit in any form ? in a new piece of information, a new process, new method of training or a new piece of military technology.

During early stages of development and investment, the supply base needs to be an open and vibrant network to maximise the innovation and competition that will configure the products that are then delivered by supply chains.

The challenge for UK Defence is to:

  • Identify, harvest and stimulate innovative ideas;
  • Operate ways of working that are stable yet enable rapid, affordable and safe exploitation in a dynamic environment.

Innovation requires orchestration from the top for effective change. But it is important to change the right things, eg putting in place a new business model without changing the way people work cannot be successful. For MOD itself, the challenge is even more relevant as most of the practitioners of science and technology (the designers and developers) are outside of MOD in industry and academia.

UK Defence also has to deal with very different maturation cycles. Some military technology evolve rapidly while others have a much longer gestation. Crucially these are often longer than the evolving threat, meaning the longer-term military technology systems have to be adaptable to cope with threats not yet envisaged or planned for. This means that major platforms such as ships, tanks and aircraft may be in service for 30 years or more and during that time have their main engines replaced or upgraded a few times. Weapons systems are changed more often and electronics and software frequently updated.

MOD?s developing approach to innovation can be seen in (available at

  • Defence Industrial Strategy.
  • Defence Technology Strategy.
  • MOD Innovation Strategy.

Supporting UK innovation

UK research is widely recognised as world leading and universities are aggressively looking at mechanisms for developing, demonstrating and exploiting novel applications across all markets. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) is driving the government innovation agenda. For example, the Technology Strategy Board supports SMEs in national and global markets. On 29 June 2009 the government created of the UK Innovation Investment Fund to invest in technology-based businesses with high growth potential.

?We want to make sure that Britain is the best place in the world to run an innovative business or service ? this is critical to the UK?s future prosperity, our quality of life and future job prospects. Boosting and focusing investment in innovation in areas where the UK has strength and potential future competitive advantage must be a key element of government action during the downturn to ensure a successful recovery.?


Karen Fairall

Centre for Defence Enterprise,
Start Electron, Fermi Avenue,
Harwell Science and Innnovation Campus,
Harwell, Oxfordshire OX11 0QR
Tel: 012 3543 8445

Added the 17 April 2010 in category Innovation UK Vol6-1

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Tags: Aerospace & Defence, MOD, DTIC High Innovation Team, military technology