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Ministry of Defence “not up to the task” of delivering digital strategy, say MPs

Progress replacing more than 2,000 MoD systems, many of which run on legacy technology, has been slow, a critical report says.

By Matthew Gooding

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has no plan in place to deliver its transformative digital strategy, a committee of MPs has warned. A critical report from parliament’s Public Accounts Committee says the MoD has yet to implement the organisational change required to make full use of digital technologies.

Published today, the report follows an inquiry into the Digital Strategy for Defence, which was unveiled in 2021 and is supposed to provide a blueprint for the way the MoD will embrace better use of data and emerging technologies in the decade to 2030.

According to the strategy document, “Defence will value data as a strategic asset, recognising it as the mineral ore that fuels integration and enables a system-of-systems approach,” the strategy says. “Defence will persistently deliver transformative digital capabilities to enable sustainable military and business advantage. These capabilities will be secure, integrated, easy to use and delivered at scale and pace to all in Defence.”

It builds on many of the digitisation efforts the MoD undertook during the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw plans come together to develop a single “digital backbone” to modernise its core platforms and services.

This included developing hyperscale cloud capabilities on secure, resilient networks, organising and integrating its data, upskilling its people, nurturing its supplier ecosystems, and integrating its management processes so the organisation operates cohesively rather than in silos, MoD CIO Charles Forte told a Tech Monitor event in 2020.

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But since, progress has stalled according to the Public Accounts Committee report, which outlines that the MoD has been “struggling for years” to replace more than 2,000 systems and applications for 200,000 users, ranging from administrative and back-office IT to military platforms such as ships and satellites. Many of these run on outdated legacy technology, the report says.

The MoD is “frankly not up to the task it faces” according to Dame Meg Hillier MP, chair of the committee. “The scale and nature of the challenge of modern warfare is accelerating away from the ministry, while it’s bogged down in critical projects that are years delayed and at risk of being obsolescent on delivery,” she said.

Dame Hillier pointed out that two major digital transformation projects planned by the MoD – MoDNet Evolve and New Style IT base – have been deemed unachievable and given a “red rating” by the Infrastructure Projects Authority (IPA), the government body which oversees such schemes. “There is no world in which that is an acceptable situation at the heart of our national defence,” she said.

The findings of the Public Accounts Committee echo a critical report into the strategy released by the National Audit Office last year, which said progress had been slow and that the MoD had no way of measuring how close it was to achieving its aims.

MPs said the MoD must make a ‘down payment’ on a whole new way of operating in its digital action plan, now expected in April 2023. It must display a genuine sense of urgency to address these serious issues, accompanied by a thorough, realistic and costed programme for doing so.

Mark Francois MP, a member of the Public Accounts Committee, said: “The war in Ukraine brutally illustrates why we need advanced digital capabilities now, rather than many years from now. What more will it take for MoD to step up and acknowledge the procurement weaknesses which the PAC has, quite literally, been highlighting for decades now?

“The time for the usual MoD platitudes is over – we now need to see MoD radically reform its procedures, to provide equipment – including crucial digital systems – in a timely and cost-effective manner, before it’s too late.”

A Ministry of Defence spokesperson said: “Defence Digital’s improvement programme is a priority for the department, which is why we’re investing over £4bn annually. We have made significant progress in delivering our IT projects, and following work in recent months only one of the six major digital programmes is rated red.

“Maximising digital capabilities and data is fundamental to success in military operations and the Committee recognises our strategy has the right priorities for achieving this.”

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