The UK has established itself as a global frontrunner in defence technology, placing a strong emphasis on innovation within the defence sector. This emphasis comes against the backdrop of significant geopolitical events and a climate of global uncertainty. The country’s contributions range from groundbreaking logistics vehicles and cutting-edge communication and surveillance technologies to unparalleled armour. As a result, nations worldwide turn to the British defence sector for inspiration and insight into the evolving defence requirements of the modern era.
Recent reports revealing a decrease in investment by UK investors in leading defence companies however have raised alarms about potential lack of support for the sector within London’s financial hub. Consequently, there is a growing recognition of the necessity for deeper and more effective collaboration between the UK’s innovative startup digital ecosystem and the military. Such collaboration will amplify the nation’s defence expertise and sustain crucial levels of investment in the sector.
The growing demand for robust solutions
The UK defence industry is set to experience substantial growth, increasing from £49.1 billion in 2023 to £57.2 billion by 2028. This expansion underscores the value of defence in terms of job creation, economic growth and attracting international investment. Leveraging its expertise in manufacturing, research and development, and international collaboration, the UK has combined specialist skills to establish its stellar reputation. These efforts are important in response to a shifting international landscape that warrants more robust and effective solutions.
In fact, the international climate has changed dramatically in recent times, prompting the need for swift, practical adjustments and heightened digitalisation within the defence space. The focus has notably shifted towards the realm of technology, necessitating faster innovation and new solutions to address evolving security threats and the ever-growing demands of the defence industry.
This demand is in part driven by the need for more robust and adaptable defence solutions. It’s not enough to simply demonstrate potential. Emerging defence solutions aiming for international adoption and successful scalability must exhibit an unparalleled level of resilience to counter interception, destruction, and compromise. This is by no means an easy feat for startups however, and at Digital Catapult, we play a pivotal role in providing access to experts who understand the landscape and possess the technological expertise to fill market gaps. By enabling successful collaboration between innovative startups and the military, our support is key to sharpening the UK’s competitive edge in the field of defence and security, and enhancing the country’s defence capabilities overall.
Meeting global demand for defence technology
The surging global demand for robust defence solutions has ignited intense international competition, presenting a strategic opening for Britain to leverage its innovation and expertise. Indeed, the UK Government is poised to meet this demand as demonstrated by ongoing investments in the military and defence sector. For example, the 2023 Integrated Review Refresh (IR23) announced an additional £5 billion to the Ministry of Defence over the next two years, which will help Britain to maintain its competitiveness and possibly secure an advantage over peers. Securing this advantage however hinges on fostering closer collaboration with the country’s pioneering startups.
Strengthening partnerships between military entities and defence-focused startups is pivotal for successful public-private collaborations. Pioneering collaborations not only invigorate innovation but also foster a pipeline of cutting-edge technologies that can fuel sustainable growth in the UK’s defence sector. Our experience at Digital Catapult underscores the rewards of such partnerships. A prime example is our Skills Passport project in the nuclear energy industry.
This allows employers to rapidly verify that new members of staff satisfy their requirement in terms of skills, qualifications and experience, using a shared blockchain based ledger. This creates a triangle of trust between the employee, the employer and a central skills and qualifications authority – using immutable and verifiable records. This has been created for the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority by a UK startup called Condatis, under the supervision of Digital Catapult. There are many potential applications in the defence sector where the concept of being able to prove that you are a suitable qualified and experienced professional (SQEP) is well established.
Such collaborations like the Skills Passport empower startups to refine products, ensuring long-term viability. By creating impactful solutions through authentic cooperation, startups contribute to the growth of sectors crucial for national security and economic prosperity.
The value of commercially neutral facilitation to encourage authentic experimentation
At Digital Catapult, our role involves facilitating collaborations between defence industry partners, such as Thales, and groundbreaking startups specialising in cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), distributed ledger technology, immersive technology, and the internet of things (IoT). Through effective collaboration we are committed to ushering in innovative ways to enhance operational efficiency, bolster supply chain resilience, and accelerate prototype development. This symbiotic partnership not only grants established businesses access to emerging talent but also offers startup founders an opportunity to engage with and learn from industry giants, fostering experimentation within an authentic environment.
It is not an instantaneous transformation. It requires considerable cultural changes on both sides of the relationship. The large, established defence companies have the biggest challenge – changing the way that they see and value true collaboration – sharing ideas, success and the inevitable risks is new and not part of the established culture. In order to adapt, companies will need to be able to demonstrate success and embrace risk of failure.
An example of how this can be achieved was the work that Digital Catapult carried out with MOD Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S). The ability to work in a more agile manner and to successfully generate and harness new ideas were identified as key goals for DE&S. Digital Catapult was able to use its expertise and neutral position to support the start of a major cultural change within the organisation. This included helping to define what ‘innovation’ actually means; what the more successful processes are; and how impact can be tracked and measured. It also included helping to develop in-house skills at DE&S to continue this transformation.
This dynamic interaction plays a pivotal role in nurturing the next generation of defence leaders. It enables them to validate proof of concept, establish product robustness, and demonstrate reliability within real-world scenarios. Such achievements form a fundamental recipe for success, drawing the attention of investors and international customers alike. This underscores the significance of forging closer ties between startups and the UK military, subsequently elevating the nation’s defence expertise and its ability to start to work in a more agile manner – reducing the lead times to create new products and capabilities.
As global competition within the defence sector escalates in tandem with increased defence spending and investment, the UK finds itself in a favourable position. It holds the potential not only to achieve sustainable growth in this field but also to enhance its expertise through partnerships with innovative startups. By providing access to commercially neutral and authentic environments, this synergistic collaboration will see substantial outcomes for the nation’s defence sector.