07 Jul 2021

Making our armed forces safer and more effective with digital transformation

Guest blog by Kevin Nicholas, Government Market Leader at Capita

Like all organisations, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) has been forced to confront unexpected challenges due to the Covid-19 crisis.

True to its tradition of courage and grit, our defence sector has shown determination and agility under fire. And as Major General Tom Copinger-Symes, Director Military Digitisation – UK Strategic Command, explained in our recent podcast, the MOD is seizing the opportunities created by the crisis to move forward with digital transformation, making our forces safer, more efficient and more effective.

The first thing that struck me in my chat with Tom was how much has already changed at the MOD in under a year. The demand for digitisation of services and remote work — overcoming challenges ‘of time and space’, as Tom puts it — has been urgent and constant since the start of the pandemic, overturning any objections to distributed teams and the virtualisation of services. There has also, as Tom explained, been a ‘re-learning’ of the importance of knowing your people, and of cultivating diversity and resilience. In times like these you need to be able to trust your team and have people in place who can be agile enough to solve new problems.

Take the example of the challenge of remote working: the MOD has responded to the practicality of the issue by rolling out tens of thousands of laptops, but even more importantly there has been a culture shift. Previously desktops dominated the workplace and the MOD was wary of laptops going home with people, but now the IT team has accepted this new, more ‘intimate’ relationship between hardware and human, in a work environment that is not as controlled as the office.

As Tom points out, in a sense the military has perhaps had a head start on solving the remote working problem, because there have always been military and non-military personnel deployed in foreign territories, far from headquarters, some working under very difficult and uncertain conditions and with the need for high levels of security.

The challenge now is to transform the experience of the people serving in these distributed workplaces, whether “their place of work is a ship or a plane or a tank or a trench or a headquarters in some dusty part of the world”, as Tom puts it. With a re-doubled focus on building data-driven capabilities we can enrich and empower all these service men and women to be far more productive, far more efficient, far more accurate and far more speedy.

A growing digital challenge for the MOD is cyber security. In the military, every serving individual has always been trained in self-defence. But now, as Tom points out, the stakes are far higher when an individual comes under cyber-attack: “Every single soldier, sailor, airman, civil servant needs to understand how to protect themselves online… but also to understand what threats are out there and make sure that they don’t become the point of weakness that allows the whole organisation to get attacked.”

Education is our most important weapon against this threat. We need to get the message across to team members who might not realise the damage someone can do if they access your system through a phishing email or whatever technique they are using. Once you’re inside someone’s network you can access the same data and you can do the same damage as if you went through the most sophisticated cyber engineer’s machine.

Beyond the direct need for security against cyber-attack, new secure ways to collaborate digitally are needed in this era of distributed, multi-disciplinary teams. This is a challenge when working on highly classified projects. The MOD deserves access to the biggest talent pool possible, which includes some people who are the best engineers in the business but just don’t happen to have the security clearance.

The solution is to split a programme into different aspects of development so that you can give enough information to engineers to build something, without revealing the classified purpose or details of the whole project. That’s very difficult to get right but that’s the way that we work at Capita’s government consulting team on a regular basis. The more we can improve online collaboration and cross-domain collaboration, the more innovation we will see, at a faster space, especially in high-value applications that have a direct bearing on the safety and effectiveness of our forces on the battleground.

It’s been thrilling for me to see how my engineering and consulting colleagues, who may not have worked directing on defence or strategic government projects before, have been energised and excited by the challenge of these ‘nutty problems’, as Tom calls them. For many of our extremely talented and highly skilled experts, it has been a career highlight and we are proud to have developed methods and technology that allow these multidisciplinary teams to support the MOD and work with their specialists to make our forces more safe and effective.