The UK places ‘sunrise’ technologies at the heart of military transformation
Published 15 December 2020
The UK’s recently announced defence spending hike is a firm response to a changing world, where peer rivals are a growing threat and new technologies are to the fore. Industry will play a key role in meeting these challenges.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a £16.5 billion multi-year settlement in mid-November 2020. At the time, he placed the funds in the context of a rapidly shifting operational environment, with the army being reshaped to the age of network warfare.
The cash injection comes at a time of changing priorities. While a focus on counter-insurgency operations dominated the early years of the century, attention has now shifted to rising peer or near-peer rivals, notably China and Russia.
Viasat UK has received a contract to provide Ultra High Frequency (UHF) satellite communications (SATCOM) for the new Type 31 frigates.
This change also has significant implications for defence suppliers, particularly those that focus on new and developing communications and connectivity technologies.
For example, Viasat is a secure communications specialist with a focus on military connectivity, cybersecurity and data protection, and a range of other areas that will be crucial in the competition with peer or near-peer rivals.
The company is increasingly expanding its UK operations with new projects that support UK defence capabilities, such as providing UHF satcom for the Royal Navy’s Type 31 frigates and developing a next-generation command post for NATO’s Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC) headquarters in Gloucestershire.
Ken Peterman, Viasat’s president of government systems, noted that the UK and its Five Eyes partners – the US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada – are ‘confronting the reality that the world is a different place than it was five or ten years ago’.
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For decades, US-led western nations have been able to establish military dominance anywhere in the world in a matter of weeks or months, employing concepts such as precision strike and relying on highly exquisite – and expensive – platforms like the E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS), the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS), purpose-built military satellites and a variety of other technologies.
In the emerging peer adversary environment, reliance on such ‘single point failures’ can be risky, as rivals now have the resources and the capabilities to challenge or destroy such capabilities.
ABOVE: Viasat was recently selected to provide a more agile C3 system for NATO's Allied Rapid Reaction Corps.
Projection of power
‘And when they take them away, it completely devastates our ability to conduct the kinds of operations and to assert the projection of power and the assertion of dominance that we’ve been accustomed to doing,’ Peterman warned. ‘It even creates a situation where [Western] homelands might be threatened.’
The UK’s rivals have carefully studied the Western way of war, identifying vulnerabilities and modernising their own capabilities to target such weaknesses, according to General Sir Nick Carter, head of the UK Armed Forces, speaking recently at Policy Exchange, a UK thinktank.
They learned that airpower could penetrate deep into hostile territory, and that western militaries preferred to strike targets from afar, he noted.
The UK’s authoritarian rivals view the strategic context as a continuous struggle, in which non-military and military instruments are used unconstrained by any distinction between peace and war, the general said. Such regimes believe they are already engaged in an intense form of conflict, though it is mainly political, rather than kinetic.
This strategy is designed to undermine cohesion, erode economic, political and social resilience, and to compete for strategic advantage in key regions of the world.
‘These attacks on our way of life, from authoritarian rivals and extremist ideologies, are remarkably difficult to defeat, without undermining the very freedoms we want to protect. We are exposed through our openness.’
For example, in Eastern Europe, NATO forces daily suffer from Russian information operations.
Integrated operating concept
The British Army is no stranger to information operations, and the service is at the cutting edge of emerging operational requirements designed to overcome such tactics: for example, boosting cyber defence and placing a real emphasis on Primary, Alternate, Contingency and Emergency (PACE) communications networks, among other technological advances.
Clearly, the evolving threat presents new challenges for the UK. Rivals are tailoring their activities to remain below obvious detection and response thresholds, Gen Carter noted.
They often rely on digital technology, with an increased emphasis on creativity, ambiguity and amplifying the cognitive elements of war, while dialling down the physical elements.
This way of warfare is strategic, synchronised and systematic, and demands a similar response. More of the same will not be enough.
Instead, the UK is turning to an Integrated Operating Concept, formed of several key ideas. First, it makes a distinction between operating and warfighting.
‘In an era of persistent competition, our deterrent posture needs to be more dynamically managed and modulated,’ Gen Carter said.
‘This concept therefore introduces a fifth C, that of competition, to the traditional deterrence model of comprehension, credibility, capability and communication. This recognises the need to compete below the threshold of war in order to deter war and to prevent one's adversaries from achieving their objectives in fait accompli strategies, as we've seen in the Crimea, Ukraine, Libya, and further afield.’
This involves a campaign posture of continuously operating on the UK’s own terms, he said, and in places of its choosing.
The second important idea is to avoid operating in silos, the general said, with effective integration of maritime, land, air, space and cyber achieving a multi-domain effect that adds up to more than the sum of its parts. And third, the armed forces must modernise: warfare will be enabled at every level by a digital backbone, he said, into which all sensors, effectors and deciders will be plugged.
‘This means that some Industrial Age capabilities will increasingly have to meet their sunset to create the space for capabilities needed for sunrise. The trick is how you find a path through the night.’
This shifting technological picture – the move from sunset to sunrise technologies – is at the heart of the increasingly crucial multi-domain operations (MDO) concept. Peterman points to the advantages of using swarms of assets, whether they be sensors or satellites or weapons, avoiding the risk of single points of failure.
‘We're disaggregating these exquisite single point failures into very affordable smaller assets that can act as swarms, such that if an adversary takes out 20% of them, or 50% of them, or 80% of them, it no longer disrupts our ability to conduct an effective military operation.’
To have a real-time common operating picture today in the context of MDO, it is essential to include a strong focus on the cyber and electromagnetic dimension.
Information dominance is increasingly cited as key here, and the UK armed forces are experimenting with new concepts around a more collaborative command and control (C2) approach and a more distributed ‘edge’ architecture.
Nevertheless, the rise of ‘sunrise’ technology capabilities in UK defence must be supported through collaboration with industry.
This will depend on innovative approaches, often involving non-traditional suppliers. Gary Waterfall, a retired RAF air vice-marshal who is now senior defence adviser for Clarion Defence and Security (organisers of the DSEI exhibition), noted that innovation doesn’t need to come from ‘the big company – it can be the young, the innovative, very tech-minded company.’ He called for a collaborative approach to developing such sunrise capabilities, not only around the UK but also throughout Europe.
ABOVE: The UK MoD would benefit greatly by a more agile approach to acquire the appropriate systems and services to meet technology acceleration and rapidly changing adversarial threats. (Photo via Viasat)
While it’s clear that the MoD is looking to innovative technologies and programmes as it addresses the future operating environment and the growing threat from peer rivals, what does this mean in practical terms?
Steve Beeching, managing director of Viasat’s UK business, said it is important to look at the essential building blocks of secure connectivity, such as Assured, Resilient, Integrated Networks (ARIN) that can support military efforts. Such tools are essential to moving data across multiple bearers, whether satcom, radio or other forms of communications.
‘You start at the very beginning with things like the assured, resilient, integrated network. People often talk about networks of networks, but at the heart of it, it's trying to foster the understanding to create an architecture that allows the five domains and all forms of deployment and engagement to cohesively work together. So, we often talk about our ARIN network, which moves everything from frontline tactical deployed, that allows them to be merged together into greater warfighting capability.’
Underpinning these innovations – and driving the evolution of sunrise capabilities – is data: the need to understand it, interrogate it, and use it in the most effective way. Behavioural changes will empower defence in the UK to increasingly focus on its mission, relying on trusted partners in industry more than ever before.
‘As you stand back and you look at this further, you've got this tsunami of technology approaching us. And this relentless innovation is showing no signs of slowing down. And I think to some extent, it's placing a huge burden on the existing programmes and how the MoD integrates those. The days of the platform-centric, driven procurement doesn't really reflect that,’ Beeching argues.
‘You overlay that onto the fact that they're trying to specify the technology rather than the missions. And so therefore, they keep reiterating trying to define the perfect solution, which often delays the platform they're going for… And I guess I would argue that with the fourth industrial revolution that's here, it's not vital for MoD to have a deep understanding of technology, but it is vital for industry to have a deep understanding of the operations.’