Historically, the commercial world has profited from the re-purposing of inventions originally developed for military applications. Everyday items we now take for granted such as the internet, GPS navigation, Super Glue and even the LCD screen on your mobile phone all came into existence as products originally intended to benefit military operations.
Despite its history of innovation, one criticism leveled at buying, developing and integrating new technology into military service is that it is slow; painfully slow. A cursory glance through the media will reveal an abundance of articles bemoaning military procurement projects gone wrong. Blame swings between purchases being grossly over budget, being based upon ambiguous requirements or, in the worst case, being obsolete upon delivery to front line commands as the threats they were originally designed to defeat evolve.
In trying to solve this problem, governments and military industries have for some time been looking to the commercial sector for solutions. With the world rushing headlong into what is being termed the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ (4iR) – an era defined by the fusion of disruptive technologies, fed by colossal quantities of data and powered by autonomy and artificial intelligence, new technologies are going from concept to end users extraordinarily quickly. The Technology industry now lives and dies by their ability to bring new ideas to market quickly before their competitors can.
This requires the rigid and gate-driven procurement processes which plague military buyers to be dispensed with and replaced by a ‘prototyping culture’. This involves deploying concepts earlier and experimenting with new ideas at lower technology readiness levels in real life scenarios to understand better their performance and impact.
Whilst the consequences of sending an underdeveloped mobile phone to market too early are inconsequential when compared to the risk to human life posed by deploying sub-standard military equipment, there are aspects of this approach that can benefit military procurement. Rapid prototyping achieves a low cost, high speed means to discover failure points by giving users a way to interact with an idea in the field and with the advent of 4iR technologies, such as additive manufacturing, prototype quality is becoming more akin to the final product. This entrepreneurial and agile approach has embraced the need to fail faster, learn quicker and continually optimise. So how should the military embrace these new approaches?
UK defence company QinetiQ has been at the forefront in attempting to challenge government and defence industry thinking around the usage of 4iR technologies and their application to military procurement. QinetiQ’s joint venture in the UAE, Houbara Defence and Security, has been actively promoting this approach by helping to facilitate rapid autonomous systems experimentation for a local customer. Tim Allen, CEO of Houbara, said “our military customers are frustrated by acquisition systems which fail to keep pace with technological change – while their asymmetric adversaries are proving highly adept at exploiting these gaps. We can help political and military leaders make better informed decisions, to the immediate benefit of the ‘warfighter’, but without engendering excessive risk”.
Encouragingly, this approach is being championed by militaries in reducing the ‘concept to in-service’ time span. Former US Defence Secretary James Mattis, remarking on the 2018 US National Defence Strategy said, “success no longer goes to the country that develops a new fighting technology first, but rather the one that better integrates it and adapts its way of fighting”. A clear statement that change in military procurement culture needs to be driven from the top down.
As with all change, however, instilling a future prototype culture will inevitably encounter barriers which will require some long-established perceptions to be challenged. Questions such as, ‘can an immature technology be effective on the battlefield?’; ‘will a rush of new equipment create a training burden?’; and ‘will immature technologies present a cyber or operational security risk?’ will inevitably arise. Safety and ethical concerns also need to be addressed. ‘Will an immature system endanger user safety?’; ‘can we match our adversaries’ pace of technological development, without compromising our ethical standards?’; and ‘what if we continually fail with public money?’.
Whilst the defence industry’s application of a prototype culture will, by necessity, look different to that employed by their commercial counterparts, there are actions the industry can take now to facilitate positive change. Militaries should embrace ‘horizon scanning’ and be alert to emerging technologies that they may experiment with in their existing force structure. They can encourage an experimental mindset in their user communities whilst concurrently assuring safety and security as a priority. Finally, the application of Prototype Warfare is a sector-wide endeavor and should be viewed as a collaborative enterprise with industry, government and military end-users developing, testing, failing and learning together for the benefit of national security and the deployed soldier.