Improbable Defence

The timely delivery of ‘understand’ is going to be at the heart of the integration

The RUSI-hosted UK Strategic Command Conference 2021 has delivered some great insights and interesting perspectives have been coming to the fore as the panels considered both the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of sharpening the UK Defence’s Edge in the 2020s. The Rt Hon Ben Wallace MP, Secretary of State for Defence, set the tone for the day as he emphasised the need for integration. A key theme I picked up on in his address and also across the conference as a whole was the need for faster decision making. This might be because from a technical perspective this is a real challenge that we, industry and military, will need to solve if Multi-Domain Integration is to become a reality.

Decision making is, of course,complex, and is influenced by a wide range of factors. But throughout the conference, two core challenges stood out. These were highlighted by Lt Gen Rob Magowan and Lt Gen Dennis Crall, who called out the twin challenges of speed and understanding. Both will need to be enhanced to support the decision making process for delivering integration. General Sir Patrick Sanders also highlighted in his keynote address that the ability to ‘sense’, ‘understand’ and ‘orchestrate’ will be key to achieving successful integration.

Of these three elements, the timely delivery of ‘understand’ is going to be at the heart of the integration if we are to realise the vision of the IR and ensure practical delivery of Multi-Domain Integration. If defence wishes to ensure the effective posturing of available military capabilities in concert with other instruments of national power (as well as allies and partners) then this ability to understand is critical – as is the ability to act in the newer domains.

Multi-Domain Integration seeks to deliver effects at the optimal tempo, across the operational domains and levels of warfare. It’s reliant on the system being able to support the efficient application of ‘sense’, ‘understand’ and ‘orchestrate’ activities. A lot of effort is likely to be invested in both the ‘sense’ and ‘orchestrate’ elements, as they are probably more familiar and closer in nature to current capabilities. However, ‘understand’ is the fulcrum to Multi-Domain Integration and needs careful consideration.

There is a risk that this ‘understand’ element is somewhat overshadowed by sunrise capability delivery and is therefore left underdeveloped. If this is the case then there is a real risk that reaching the IR and MDI vision remains hobbled until this area is addressed.

The reason that ‘understand’ is so important is that ‘sense’ is going to be ubiquitous within the battlefield. As connectivity increases and systems are provided with ever more sensors, data is going to increase. However, data does not equal information, and more of it certainly does not lead naturally to the greater insight required to support delicate orchestration.

The natural inclination is to point to AI/ML as the solution to the ‘understand’ issue. ‘Understand’ will employ elements of AI to assist the human operator, these could range from autonomous to assistive AI. However, within the timeframe of IR it is going to be a real challenge to fully exploit AI’s potential; due to the complexity of the MDI environment and lack of appropriate data with which to train it.

There are complementary enhancements that could be brought in now to support ‘understand’ in the short term and also provide incremental development of the more complex AI that will be required. This includes data visualisation, modelling and simulation – as well as existing and emerging AI technologies as has been demonstrated in the single synthetic environment. This approach to development of the ‘understand’ would help to get data ready so that there is an easier development pathway to deliver the more complex AI that will eventually support the ‘understand’. This type of approach could also support the provision of synthetic as well as real data sets to enable AI training and development.

AI will have an increasingly prominent place in supporting the decision maker and enhancing tempo. However, from where we currently sit with nascent sunrise capabilities and the challenges that AI development will face to support the delivery of MDI. I think it’s reasonable to argue that less complex technological solutions could be delivered that would support both the early realisation of MDI and evolution of more complex AI that will be required in the longer term to play a critical role in the ‘understand’ and ‘orchestrate’ areas.

If the UK were to take an innovative approach to delivering MDI then the option to choose an evolutionary and incremental approach that enhances the structuring of data and employs both existing and emerging AI technologies to support the ‘understand’ element would seem a sensible mechanism to de-risk the delivery of the challenging transformation that will be required to sharpen the UK Defence’s Edge in 2020s.