National Shipbuilding Strategy - The Influence of Digital

On Wednesday of this week the Government’s National Shipbuilding Strategy (NSBS) was released. The document sets out a renaissance vision for the UK’s shipbuilding industry that looks to return world leading naval projects and programmes to ship yards around the country.

Whereas in previous strategies for this most traditional of military platform production there has only been a passing relationship with the digital industries in terms of collaboration, the NSBS often notes the importance of digital technologies and cyber security to the naval platforms of the future. This is very much welcomed by the techUK defence community.

Modularity, Interoperability, and Innovation are noted as leading considerations for shipbuilding in the coming decades. All three are also key trends within digital technology markets, with a push on modularity being especially important to UK Defence. As all military naval platforms become more complex and the requirement to keep them connected, interoperable, and digitally protected will only increase it is vital that the digital tech community engages with the traditional maritime systems community to ensure joint direction of travel. The all-encompassing nature of digital technologies means that even traditionally ‘analogue’ industries such as shipbuilding must now engage with the tech sector if they want a shot at export success.

The promise of a rejuvenated approach to British shipbuilding for the 21st century brings with it discussions of how other technologies will affect the Royal Navy on operations around the globe. The strategy highlights the potential impact of automation on platforms of the future, noting the fleet will include more surface and sub-surface unmanned platforms. techUK strongly welcomes this intention and would point towards the Information Warrior exercises of recent years as excellent examples of how industry stands ready to contribute to developing this vision. In a similar fashion the UK’s reputation for leadership in modelling, simulation, and ‘digital engineering’ positions the Royal Navy to benefit from naval platforms that could have reduced through life costs thanks to more accurate digital modelling and planning technologies.

UK expertise in maritime systems, equipment, design, manufacturing, engineering, and naval architecture are all recognised throughout the world. Quite rightly, the strategy places a lot of emphasis on improving the UK’s approach to shipbuilding with exportability in mind. It is quite right that this consideration should be considered at the very start of the Defence Lines of Development (DLOD) process, and that exportability affects the decisions over depth of capability. It is also of vital importance that MOD leverage the deep well of skills and knowledge of exporting that exists within UK industry. Many major UK and international defence suppliers use the UK as their base for exporting to Europe and further afield. Within London, Bristol, and around the country there is a wealth of experience of negotiating tough international naval programmes from the outset, something that the UK civil service will have little of. Here a new relationship that values hard fought experience and cultural knowledge is needed.

Following the SDSR 2015 MOD took on more responsibility for contributing to national economic prosperity through support to exports and certain trade missions. The international competitiveness plans set out within the NSBS are an ideal opportunity for the Royal Navy to contribute towards this goal. The ‘used by the UK’ brand which can apply to equipment and support services is influential in international markets and coupled with the increasingly prestigious UK tech brand, the information systems and services integrated in new naval platforms could become a leading UK offer.

The reputation and prowess of the UK’s digital technology industry would be a major bonus to the exportability of naval platforms, but must be supported by a concerted effort to integrate open architectures and interoperability principles. As the new NSBS highlights, it is important that any programmes that are intended to be exported do not succumb to over specification from the UK customer. When addressing the issue of exportability the complexity of the information systems aboard the new builds (and indeed existing platforms) must be a top consideration. The issues here are similar to those of land and air platforms; can these systems become interoperable during their lifespan? How will they be maintained and updated? Is it even wise to include these systems in the sale of a platform?

The UK Defence industry makes significant contributions to regional economies, as do tech clusters around the UK. The NSBS refers to regional clusters supporting shipyards and creating an international offer for other nations looking to use these yards for maintenance and upgrades. The UK’s digital technology clusters and companies based near the shipyards have an excellent opportunity to engage directly with these new communities and place themselves as valuable providers of technologies such as modelling, simulation, navigation, and communications technologies.

The NSBS accepts the challenges of operating a shipyard with traditional industrial maritime manufacture processes, that is to say work can wax and wane, and without a sustained pipeline of work these national assets can become dormant, at the cost of thousands of jobs. Creating a pipeline of work and resilience in times of hardship will be key to this strategy, and ensuring that the industrial communities (both locally connected and further afield) are prepared to support this activity will be vital. Yet again this will rely on clear communication between industry and government regarding opportunities, and using a collaborative approach to prioritise the most advantageous national offer. On this point, although technology alone is rarely the definitive answer to a question this large, digital collaboration and information sharing tools could play an important role. Online remote collaboration enabling design, commercial, and engineering tasks could dramatically reduce cost and time spent on future programmes.

A key challenge in the coming months will be for MOD to ensure that the NSBS and the yet to be released Defence Industrial Policy Refresh exercise dovetail on important points such as pace of procurement, a long term view of value for money, support to SMEs in the supply chains of large programmes, and prioritising interoperability and open standards. techUK will continue to work with MOD to promote these values that are invaluable to creating good relations between industry and their customer. The challenge then becomes enacting and delivering on these strategies. 

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