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  1. Technology
7 October 2023

Three ways to strengthen UK defence

The country faces new challenges in an uncertain world. It’s vital we adapt.

By Nick Chaffey

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the UK’s Armed Forces have weathered an exceptional eighteen months. Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has imposed new demands on personnel and equipment, the lessons from which have revealed capability gaps, supply chain challenges and the need for new investment.

At the same time, other commitments have not eased, and tensions remain high across the world. Cyber and space have continued to grow in importance as critical domains, demanding attention and further stretching resources. UK defence has faced increased political scrutiny and challenge, as we address questions of national security that have not been considered for decades.

Despite the UK’s tight fiscal position, the Chancellor found an additional £11bn for defence in the spring Budget. While this will bring some relief, senior military leaders have called publicly for even more. The British public trust the military, so it should be unsurprising that in one poll 59 per cent of the UK population supported increasing defence spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP, despite pressures to spend money on other public services.

While such a spending uplift will require difficult political choices, public finances will remain tight for some time. Therefore, it is vital that the UK defence sector stays laser-focused on what matters, maximising the value of every pound of taxpayer’s money spent.

Many commentators were disappointed by the lack of new announcements, but the MoD’s 2023 Defence Command Paper included several significant long-term proposals that will help build a UK fighting force fit for the future. Success will require sustained effort and commitment, alongside unprecedented collaboration with industry, which the paper recognises. With that in mind, there are three ways we can strengthen UK defence. 

Collaboration should underpin everything

In a world more interconnected than ever, the UK is more secure when it is working closely with allies and industrial partners. The Defence Command Paper says that UK forces will be “allied by design” and stresses the importance of the United States and Nato partners.

International collaboration strengthens the UK’s defensive capabilities and it brings industrial benefits. Partnerships like Aukus and the Global Combat Air Programme, with Japan and Italy, demonstrate the value of industrial collaboration, pooling expertise and resources to deliver new, enhanced capability.

Interoperability will become even more important. At every opportunity, the UK should favour solutions that support allied interoperability and reject bespoke proprietary solutions. Interoperability strengthens UK security and enhances the UK’s strategic value among allies.

Collaboration can also strengthen industrial resilience and capacity. The past eighteen months have stretched supply chains and revealed production capacity constraints. As we work to meet these new demands, “friendshoring” will play a valuable role, as the Defence Command Paper notes, alongside a re-energised domestic production base.

The UK must retain control of key strategic capabilities. However, as allied collaboration intensifies, and public finances are strained, we need to consider the cost and time implications of developing key capabilities domestically, particularly if an allied solution is already available that offers sovereignty of use and better enables interoperability.

Above all, government and industry must work ever closer together. A more strategic relationship can provide industry with more certainty, rebalancing risk and responsibility and creating more resilient and efficient supply chains that make the UK more secure.

Science and technology to deliver advantage

General Sir James Hockenhull, Commander United Kingdom Strategic Command, has described Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as the world’s first digital war. The conflict provides numerous examples of how technology has provided advantage. The Ukrainians’ use of information has been highly innovative: from leveraging geolocation data taken from social media to target Russian forces, to using AI to transcribe and summarise intercepted communications.

As this demonstrates, victory will be increasingly dependent on the ability to gather, process and exploit information. This reinforces the importance of multi-domain integration and the need for a digital-first mindset. Building on the Defence Command Paper, UK defence must pursue a digital-first future, taking advantage of digital concepts such as open systems architectures, digital twinning and software-defined systems that are interoperable, upgradeable and future-proofed. Available today, these are technologies that deliver economic and strategic advantage.

Technology is advancing at a rapid pace, presenting opportunities and risks. For the UK to maintain its strategic advantage over its adversaries, the UK must invest in innovation, supporting new and emerging technologies that offer transformative potential.

Investing in our future

Finally, as the Defence Command Paper acknowledges, we must invest in our future. The UK’s defence and security industry supports 285,000 jobs, many of which are high-skilled. Government, industry and academia must work together more closely to nurture the talent and cultivate the skills that are needed to ensure that our industry can develop and replenish the defence capabilities of the future.

For our part, Northrop Grumman is recruiting more graduates than ever before, building partnerships and supporting programmes that help young people, under-represented groups and career changers develop new Stem skills. To meet the skill needs of the years ahead, a national effort is required, encompassing apprenticeships and tailored academic programmes that help build the skillset that we need to support UK defence.

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