Speaking a few weeks ago at the launch of an £800 million fund aimed at creating innovation and developing new technology for military use, Secretary of State for Defence, Sir Michael Fallon said that while the UK had long been at the forefront of innovation in military technology development, it remains vital that we continue this if we are to stay ahead of the curve in order to meet constantly changing military threats.
I hope that most will agree with the above words and that they reflect a much needed intention by HMG to not only play into the military technology innovation development arena but also into the UK prosperity agenda as well. We must remember too that there are potentially huge longer term benefits of military innovation development investment for other commercial sectors as well.
I have been remiss in failing to write about the Defence Innovation Initiative that was announced by the Secretary of State for Defence on September 16th. Importantly, just last week the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond announced the long awaited final strategic plan for UK cyber security development which, together with a planned £1.9 billion investment spend over the next five years funded through the defence budget, is aimed at not only securing the UK from cyber-attack but also ensuring that we have sufficient tools in which to fight back.
Given the number of cyber-attacks that have already occurred over the past few years it is hardly surprising that we should step up to the plate in ensuring that the whole of our infrastructure is better protected from potential cyber-attack. I applaud this investment even if I believe that it should not be funded through the defence budget.
That apart, if we are to enable our armed forces to have advantage in conventional defence it is clear that more investment in military technology innovation would be required. It is thus pleasing that the UK government has now fired the starting gun of innovation based development and begun the process required.
Through the cold war era and beyond it is clear that innovation and technological superiority had been key to NATO military success. But while the West continues to enjoy superiority in many aspects of air and maritime capability and electronics based warfare the gap between what we and our would-be enemies have has in recent years narrowed substantially. Big state competitors such as China and Russia, neither of whom answers to a democratic system of government or is required to be transparent and accountable to its people continue to pour substantial funds in innovative defence based technology. The point is that while they have not yet caught up, we must recognise that at the present rate of development our adversaries and would-be enemies may soon be able to match the strength that the ‘West’ has achieved in respect military technology and capability.
China has been raising spending on defence by an average of close to 11% per annum over the past five years and while the growth figure for 2016 will, if official forecasts are to be believed, decline to a growth level of between 7% and 8%, we should not lose sight that Department of Defense estimates for China’s defence spend in 2016 are $180 billion while the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimates the figure this year likely to be $214 billion.
While Russia has been forced to cut back on defence spending temporarily this year we need to remember that last year it hot a record level of 3.3 trillion rubles ($81 billion) or if you prefer, 4.2% of GDP. That is well more than double in terms of GDP percentage that the UK spends and while the figure that Russia spends on defence is nowhere near the $598.5 billion that the US spent on defence last year it is clear that Russia and China continue to spend large sums on technology research and development.
India, now probably the fastest developing economy in the world and where British Prime Minister, Theresa May is this very day beginning an official three day visit in the hope of bolstering trade between the two nations has also been raising spending on defence and in the process, rapidly developing its own defence industrial base.
But while it is all very well admitting to the need to spend more on innovation based military technology to ensure that the ‘West’ can, in respect of defence and security, stay ahead of its adversaries and would-be enemies addressing the actual task requires more than simple rhetoric – it requires direct government commitment.
Facing up to new and maybe unknown hybrid threats along with known potential cyber-attack and CBRN (Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear) whilst at the same time accepting the need to remain firmly ahead in respect of all forms of complex guided weapons technology, delivery plus other forms of munition capability and delivery not only requires costly investment but also a very well thought out military strategy running behind it.
Britain has done well over the years but arguably when it comes to research and technology development and innovation investment it has, over the past ten years, arguably lagged behind some of its peers.
Conversely, the US Government has long been at the forefront of innovation based military technology. However, whilst the planned investment may be seen by some as being relatively small in relation to the size of the UK economy and the need to invest in innovation and technology creation, what UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon announced last month does at least demonstrate more than just an intention to ensure that we recognise the increased level of threats and the change that future warfare presents and that as a consequence we are prepared to push innovation investment onto a higher platform both in terms of the military perspective and need and also as part of the prosperity agenda.
Across the pond in the US, the Defense Innovation Initiative and which is another innovation based military technology investment was born a couple of years ago from the result of 13 years of direct engagement by US armed forces in in the Middle East and Afghanistan. What the US is doing in this sphere is more commonly referred to as ‘third offset strategy’ a term that is used to describe the need to have a range of different approaches and strategies in order to face an increasing range of multiple potential adversaries both small and large and one that seeks to maintain and increase technology advantage over potential adversaries.
Third Offset Strategy in the context made may also be used to describe a plan that envisages offsetting growing disadvantages that US forces face in present day war scenarios and within terrorist based activities.
For the record, the ‘first offset strategy’ in the US had appeared in 1952 and was designed to counter the numerical strength of military adversaries with technical innovation. The second offset strategy whilst the second, through the brunt of the cold-war, referred to achieving technological superiority to offset quantitative inferiority in conventional forces.
One idea behind the UK Government/MOD investment is to provide and encourage greater focus on disruptive technologies. Industry and the commercial sectors are already very closely involved in innovation and the Defence Growth Partnership will play a part in the process. Robotics, autonomous guidance and control systems, visualisation, biotechnology miniaturisation, advanced computing and big data and 3-D printing are all innovative constructs that started life as innovation based ideas and concepts and the whole idea of the investment is to encourage more ideas.
To achieve all this requires not only that further new capabilities are designed and developed but also ensuring that industry and government are working together as one. Given what industry has gone through in terms of cuts in defence spending that could be a tall order but in this case, provided that the government is sincere in its intentions, I believe that the private sector will embrace the idea.
Success will of course highlight the need to ensure that we place even more emphasis on ensuring that we in the UK have a workforce to match the scale of technological development required and that a highly trained and motivated skills base is able to ensure that we are able to move forward from a position of strength and adapt to new situations as and when they emerge.
I am grateful to US Deputy Secretary of Defense, Bob Werke whose speeches on ‘Third US Offset Strategy’, one given at the superb Willard Hotel venue in January 2015 and another in London to RUSI provided a set of very interesting views on the urgency of requirement together with Northrop Grumman whose work in electronics warfare, unmanned aerial vehicles and guided munitions are early achievements within what we are now calling US Third Offset Strategy for much of what I have so far learned in this important, interesting and necessary component of defence requirement.
Whilst the UK innovation and technology plan may not be being referred to as our version of US ‘Third Offset Strategy’ just yet be in no doubt that from military strategy point of view it is being built along similar lines. In terms of understanding the need to bolster conventional deterrence the US and Britain have long been partners and have and continue to work alongside each other. Each can play to their strengths in this and Britain can and I hope will play a big part in military innovation creation. The benefits are not just for the military either because from military innovation is also born ideas that can be translated into a potential range of interesting benefits for the larger commercial sectors such as automotive and high tech electronics industries.
The £800 million investment announced by the UK government is part of the commitment made several years ago to spend 1.2% of the then £36 billion defence budget on science and technology development. Clearly it is good to see what looks to be a genuine effort being made to boost innovation based science and technology developments although arguably, I would have to suggest that compared to our peers, spending a mere 1.2% of the defence budget of science and technology developments really is a far too small an amount for an economy that remains the sixth largest in the world.
Even so, with new investments such as the £2.5 million that has helped to fund development of miniature decoys designed by Selex UK to better protect combat jets against missiles together with a new laser designed by MBDA to be used for the purpose of shooting down missiles that might otherwise damage or destroy ships are good examples of what an £800 million fund can achieve. Presumably the investment plan will also embrace DSTL, the Defence Growth Partnership along with the UK defence industrial base including thousands of small and medium sized enterprises and component suppliers that are, hopefully, brimming with innovative ideas for technology development.
CHW (London – 7th November 2016)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785