Improbable Defence

Captain Al Wilson completed a 27-year career in the Royal Navy in February 2021. He’s commanded four warships, contributed to peacekeeping and maritime operations worldwide and served in a broad range of senior management roles in national and NATO strategic headquarters.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, no one could have predicted how events would pan out. Six months later, and with still no end in sight, we’re no closer to swapping guesses with clear answers.

But when 98% of Ukranians believe their country will win the war, it lifts my spirits to see theirs stay strong against perhaps the greatest threat we’ve seen in years.

Russia’s war of aggression has taken centre stage not only across worldwide media but also in the 
NATO 2022 Strategic Concept. Released in June, it paints a stark portrait of a world rocked by ‘pervasive instability, rising strategic competition and advancing authoritarianism’.

In the face of such threats, the Alliance’s fifth principle is a vital one. We must ‘enhance our individual and collective resilience and technological edge’ in order to overcome challenges to NATO’s interests, mission and vision.

Whether the Alliance can achieve this depends on a future defined by technological advancement and innovation. The good news is that we’re making headway. Having served in the Royal Navy, I’ve seen first hand how willing the Service is to experiment and employ new technologies to gain a competitive edge. I’ve witnessed the desire to innovate across all levels of personnel at events like the Atlantic Future Forum (AFF). The clue’s in the name, and this year’s AFF theme couldn’t have said it better:

‘In the coming decade, national power will not be defined just by the number of tanks and ships a country possesses, but the technology that drives them.’

It bears repeating: our adversaries are looking to out-compete us on every front and all the time. Against such odds, the importance of collaboration in pursuit of technological advancement can’t be overstated. Programmes like NavyPODS and MHC stand as a prime example of defence taking calculated risks on promising new technologies and industry working together to help pull them fast through from the R&D stage to prototyping and deployment. We’re seeing the benefits of this collaborative innovation bear fruit across the Service, from modernised agile C2 capabilities to a maturing AI platform that supports faster, more effective decision making.

And when the Strategic Concept so explicitly states that ‘technological primacy increasingly influences success on the battlefield’, operations like the Navy’s Autonomy and Lethality Accelerator NavyX are key to securing this technological edge.

Under NavyX, experimentation and innovation experts test new kit, technology and concepts before getting these quickly into the hands of those who need them most. 

Take the 
XV Patrick Blackett. 42m, 270-tonne and a formidable matte black, this testbed ship was purchased, adapted and delivered to the Navy within twelve months. It’s a spectacular feat, made more so by the ship’s plug-and-play element which supports the NavyPODS concept and allows NavyX experts to experiment with testing drones, unmanned vessels and AI decision making. 
Underpinning this innovation is a mission that’s never resonated quite so well in the wake of the Strategic Concept:

‘NaxyX: To adopt a transparent and collaborative approach, empowering a diverse team to discover, experiment and understand emerging technologies, and to challenge the status quo.’

It’s a mission that reflects one of the Navy’s long-standing traditions – working hard, fast and collaboratively to develop the capabilities it needs. 

As an industry, we must continue to harness and apply such traditions more broadly if we’re to support NATO’s efforts in restoring Western peace, safety and prosperity. Doing so means collaborating across governments, across militaries, across industry and academia to ensure that the UK has what it needs to mount a fast, effective, truly integrated response to future threats.

For industry, this presents the perfect opportunity  –  and responsibility. If we can harness our technical edge and work together to help defence organisations like the Royal Navy turn this into a strategic advantage, we’re a step closer to helping NATO achieve its vision:

‘We want to live in a world where sovereignty, territorial integrity, human rights and international law are respected and where each country can choose its own path, free from aggression, coercion or subversion.’



The Skyral Partner Network exists to foster collaboration across industry, academia and government and to help Services such as the Royal Navy secure the UK’s resilience in the face of an increasingly complex, fluid and fast moving threat landscape.

Become a partner and you’ll be amongst others committed to developing the best possible capabilities and getting them into the hands of end users – fast.