Speech: Military Robotics and Autonomous Systems

Good afternoon, everybody. So I’m the Minister for Defence procurement in the UK, I don’t have a speech as such, and what I mean by that is I haven’t got one written by the Civil Service. When I was a Treasury Minister, before I got this job, I went to a conference a bit like this about AI. And there were four Secretary of States speaking at this conference, and what neither of them knew was that they all had the same gag when they started, which is they read their speech, the first paragraph and guess what? As if it had been written by Chat GPT. Once you get to the fourth iteration of that is not as funny as it was the first time. So this hasn’t been written by Chat GPT, this is me because I’m very passionate about this issue because I think autonomy in defence is an amazing opportunity.

And I’ll explain why but first of all, congratulations to my hosts. Thank you for inviting me because this happens to coincide with a very important day. Today the Ministry of Defence we’ve launched officially our new procurement system, which I’ve put forward. It’s called the Integrated Procurement Model. Now, just to put that in context, when I got this job last April, after Alex Chalk became Lord Chancellor, I replaced him as Minister for Defence Procurement, we were in the middle of a vote in the House of Commons and as I was walking around the lobby voting, my colleagues were coming up to me and they all congratulating me. And each of them in the same phrase would say, but by the way, you’ve got Ajax. So this job is sort of synonymous with one particular project, and I think from day one, I knew we needed to reform procurement. And when I announced the new procurement model on the 28th of February I was very clear that whilst this is about responding to all the concerns that have been brought up over the years, with programmes like Ajax but not just Ajax, Nimrod there is many of them going back over many years’ time.

The most important reason to reform procurement is much more fundamental than any of those reasons or to do with any of those programmes. And it is simply this that if we as a country, and our allies, as well, are to compete in the future with our adversaries with the way they are investing in defence and technology, we have no choice but to reform procurement. And one of the reasons why I think this new model hopefully will actually take effect not just being launched, but as you will know it has become cultural within MOD, which is something we’ll be working on, it’s fair to say.

The reason for that is because if we don’t reform procurement, our adversaries will just move too far away from us. And so I wanted to first of all set out what this reform is all about. Because it’s heart is technology, and for me, the most important part of that is around uncrewed systems and also all the technological advances that come with that and the systems that they depend upon. So fundamentally, it’s not about platforms is as you know, it’s about systems, it’s about architectures, about software.

And so there’s five key features of the new system. And now the first one is fundamental. It’s called an Integrated Procurement Model for a reason.  You’d be aware that in 2021, we announced a new integrated operating concept for the UK Armed Forces, but in announcing that and recognising the reality of modern warfare is an integrated battlespace. We maintain what’s called a delegated procurement model ie. primarily having three frontline services procuring what we describe as bottom up basis whereas to me, if you want an integrated approach, you have to integrated  procurement.

And so the first point is to have joined up approach to procurement in practice. The bête noire is what we call over programming, this phrase over programming means that essentially, the armed forces are trying to procure more stuff than there is management capacity to buy or frankly, capacity in DE&S and elsewhere to deliver and so the way we have controlled spending in recent years is you move programmes to the right, delay so that literally to control cost. And it’s not unique to MOD, it’s typical of big capital projects. They cost taxpayers a lot of money but it’s a particular issue in defence, because if you delay programmes they become more expensive and question marks that come out about the future those programmes.

And so one thing I want to see more of is by taking a joined up approach that is pan-defence, you are more likely to make your priorities based on the most important reason which is the threat we face and procuring in a joined up fashion. Okay, so a good example we’re currently working on our munitions plan for the munitions we purchase as a UK MOD over the next 10 years, particularly to replenish our stocks, following the significant gifting to Ukraine. The best way to do that is pan-defence. If we just said to the single services, what do you each need? We end up with an outcome that had a third, a third a third. But to me, that shouldn’t be the priority, the priority is the threats we face as a country and what we need to counter it and I’ll just finish on that point because we’re here to talk about autonomy.

The best example of that joined up approach is drones actually. So we’ve actually had some fantastic, military entrepreneurs in the MOD we’ve seen within the frontline command some fantastic experimentalism. That has led to some really cutting edge capabilities in the uncrewed space, some of which has been used in Ukraine, as you’ll be aware of.  The problem is, once you take those to the next level, procuring those systems to become part of an integrated force that can be effective in battle, at that point, you do need to have a more integrated approach.

We cannot just rely on the theory of 1,000 flowers that 1,000 flowers will bloom, as you will know, you have to have common data standards, the ability of your capabilities to talk to each other and to the other services. So that is a really good example of where we need to now move into a more joined up phase which was a key piece of the Uncrewed Strategy that I announced earlier this year.

The second part is checks and balances. Now, first of all, that’s about oversight. So we will have a new Integrated Design Authority to oversee these changes to make sure they actually happen in reality, if the procurement comes forward, and the requirements don’t enable whatever that system is to talk to the other services, it would be scored negatively, it’d be returned to wherever it came from. I mean, that’s in a nutshell, but I think there’s a really key part checks and balance which is my view as Minister for Defence Procurement, which is that to be as diplomatic as I can, my experience with this past year is that when the requirements come forward to you, the Minister, when the programme comes up to be signed off, shall we say there was something of an expectation that it will be signed off. Whereas I take a slightly different view. And to me, the most important part of this second aspect of checks and balances is what I call the creation of a second opinion.

Genuinely kicking the tyres on programs at the beginning. So that you ask the right questions and you get the right answer. Because there has been history, which is totally understandable, institutional, as in the UK defence I’m sure it is the same in other countries, in fact I know it is as I have discussed some of my colleagues and my counterparts in other countries, is this sort of what we call the platform presumption. We’ve got the mark five and after ten years we can have the mark six, seven, etc. But what if that’s not the right solution for the threat that we face?

And so the second opinion… we are very luck in the MOD, we don’t just have the military. We have amazing scientists in the Dstl. We have DE&S with all their interface with industry, which is now being strengthened with something called the DE&S gateway. We basically have this repository of data and information that is extraordinary. And so I want to have a position where when that procurement begins, that big programme, you don’t just have the military assessment of the requirements that you need. You have the challenge of the other experts that we have in our institution, the Dstl and so on telling you how technically viable that is. So for example, that key question, should it actually be an uncrewed system? And this is not a minor subject of conversation.

We’re talking about fundamentally questioning some assumptions about the capabilities that we presume we’ll probably be procuring in the future and I suspect the military evidence for wargaming from Ukraine, will show that increasingly we are going to be vulnerable, and that we need to do what other countries have started to do, I  have just seen that the the US has just announced they have cancelled a major programme and that would have been crewed and that will now be uncrewed, it was a major reconnaissance programme FARA.

So the third point is about exportability to checks and balances all joins up with exportability, the FT covered this today, when I was talking to them really saw this as a standout feature, and I think that’s fair, because, again, going back to the first day of the job, you get your first submission, which is what the Civil Service give you as a piece of advice. And first one I had on procurement had about a sentence about exportability in fact, the letter to the Chief Secretary that went with it recommended to procure it. And awaiting my sign-off was that it it didn’t mention prospective benefits of exportability and I think this should be ingrained in acquisition from the beginning.

And there’s two key reasons for that. The first one is what is the main problem at the moment in defence it’s the resilience of our supply chain, because we had great success with NLAW in Ukraine. We picked up the phone and said give us more of those, okay, if you’re willing to wait years. You’ve got to have that continuous maximum level of aggregate demand, right? Continuous supply chains. That’s why you need to drive exploitability but the other part of it is a bit subtle, but is really key in procurement. I’m always asked the hypothetical question, would your new approach have avoided the Ajax problems. Physically impossible to answer obviously, since we’re not in the period of having a time machine. Which is the if you if you have to consider international requirements, my view it is a good counterbalance to being that terrible phrase overly exquisite, ie having lots of very bespoke requirements. It doesn’t guarantee it  but it’s more likely that. There tends to be a vector between international demand and your ideal domestic UK production. And if you can minimise that, you’ve got a pretty good product because it means you get it into line with the UK and then export it to protect your supply chain.

So the third point on exportability it is already something I’m pushing. So on the New Medium Helicopter procurement. We’ve got a strong weighting for exportability. The fourth point is about empowering industrial innovation. Now this is really where you guys particularly come in those from industry here something I’m keen to see much more often I hope you’ve been aware of this that we are doing more and more engagement in industry at a classified level.

So the industry can understand our requirements much earlier in the process. And in turn, we can pick up the feedback from what’s happening in the real world. And I hope that what’s happening with all these people talking is very interesting. So I’ll give you a good example, the most uplifting experience I’ve had as a Minister for Defence Procurement was last October when I went see a UK company developing a drone being used in Ukraine. While I was there, they were receiving feedback from the frontline. And they were then spirally responding to that within days.

Now when we used to have people coming in and saying Minister this thing is going to be delayed another 27 years or whatever. And you see that sort of spiral development in the flesh. It’s quite something to behold especially because the capability is highly effective and costs a tiny fraction of the thing I was talking about that’s going to be delayed many years, we start to really think about whether you’ve got the right approach for procurement and it is quite revolutionary what is happening.

So I always have a situation where the UK industry feels close to MOD. It doesn’t mean close as in the bad way of being close it’s a really rich relationship based on this feedback with the data from the frontline  and from Ukraine and so on, and what is becoming possible what is becoming necessary and rapid development of products on the back of it.

And the fifth and final one is about having spiral development by default. Spiral development wonderful phrase as the FT said to me yesterday, it’s actually really sort of very common place in the corporate world. The phrase is not commonplace in defence and that’s where the change needs to be made.

What does it really mean? So we say well, if you want to go get 60 to 80% of your requirements instead 100%. Instead, of having IOC and FOC long standing ways of measuring your progress, we just want to add minimum deployable product. Basically, you measure the effectiveness of the product, the point at which it is able to be used, and I think that’s a really good way of measuring.

So we talked about the military, I have got written answers and I look at them at them if this is crazy. That were my opponents asked me the IOC and FOC all of our programmes, and quite a few of them are in use. They’re being used and we’re saying they’ve only been achieved IOC if they’re being used by military but there’s quite a good example in our missile systems.  

And I think it just shows the point that that’s because we’re focusing on the perfect thing to achieve. Where we want to get into service quickly and spiral upgrade it. It does happen, but it’s not cultural. That’s the key point we want to become the cultural assumption in Defence because there will be programmes like nuclear submarines, which will not conform to this approach. By definition, they’ll still take many years, absolutely necessary. Highly unlikely so there is still going to be a big programme which is an exception sitting outside the norm but the fact is, from today through the new procurement model in defence, we have time limits – three years for software, five years for hardware.

So I said in my speech to the House, on our Mobile Fires Platform which is our engineering artillery capability. It will be procured within five years, which in many ways didn’t sound that quick but it is as you all know compared to what’s gone on before on our major platforms etc.  

Just to say and so what does this mean for uncrewed and robotic systems and so on. And I think this approach I’m outlining is all about technology. We have this thing called the Equipment Plan. What I mean is we have 10-year programme, right, which everyone is focused on. And yet, we are told that the same time that we could be at war in two or three years, we’re in a pre-war environment. And we’re still focused on this platform iteration model. Well, we’re gonna get more ships. Now those ships will take nine years to build, but you know, we’re just gonna get more ships. That’s what we need to do for the country. Whereas to me, always have to do is why this is so important. And why you’re meeting today, we’ve got to focus increasingly on how you make your existing platforms and people and capabilities more lethal, more survivable.

And also the platform you’re building out in the water and in the air, in a couple of years. That’s where the focus in my view needs to be. And if you do that, it is conceivable that some of the acquisition you presumed to be doing later in the Equipment Plan you believe to happen.

Now I can appreciate this is not conventional thinking but that’s actually what’s happening in Ukraine. So it’s telling us we need to start focusing on what sort of weapons we can bring forward rapidly, what sort of weapon systems what sort of IT systems to support them. There will be capabilities we have today, which we will use if we were in conflict imminently where there are it upgrades, software AI, that will make them more lethal and more survivable.

So I think to me, that’s a big part of the focus. That doesn’t mean you don’t still have the longer programs that take time to do that. It’s just again, where’s your cultural focus? Because I would put it to you now , where do we think the focus still is institutionally in defence? That’s a fair question. And I think that has to shift and it’s starting to shift.

I will finish on this broader point about where to next move on uncrewed. I actually think this is an amazing opportunity. When people say to James, brilliant, it’s just, it’s never gonna happen in practice. Too good to be true. It is happening in practice. I talked about the drone company. There’s many other examples where we have SMEs who are coming forward with really cutting edge stuff and rapidly, particularly software companies. Obviously, this sort of approach is standard in software. Constant upgrade. We all know that sometimes it’s incredibly irritating, especially with a legacy laptop or IT system.

But it is standard practice in much of industry and we need to adapt it into the culture and DNA of defence.

We’re not talking just be clear about Urgent Operational Requirements. This is where you are literally not just on the cusp of more why situation you are preparing to go out to wherever and there are things you need to do to your vehicles to your kit, iterations that means you can withstand whatever that threat is. This is different to that. This is about having taking advantage of the pace of innovation that’s out there. The UK could have much more survivable and meaningful capability within a relatively small amount of time, cost-effectively, which should be stressed.

So I think it’s incredibly exciting people that are involved in this industry. I think that we are on the cusp of a significant pivot to much greater use of uncrewed systems. I mean, it’s made me think that’s an obvious thing to say. Some debate on if uncrewed overhyped or underhyped. I have the privilege of knowing what’s happening in theatre, but also Just imagine what it could do, in the hands of a top tier military. The point I’m making is really developing cohesively integrated battlespace, it could do incredible things, it can add mass.

My colleagues, my parliamentary colleagues will stand up in the House and they want us to commit to more ships more personnel, more aircraft etc. But how will the traditional platforms cope going forward?  Whereas we can bring out new drones, new ground effects and in particular in maritime relatively quickly, it’s already happening. We all know what’s happened in the Black Sea. That’s an incredible strategic victory for Ukraine, which is unfortunate, underplayed because of the coverage understandably for what is happening on land, but it is an incredible effect they’ve achieved as a country of UK we are very well placed literally the best placed country other than Ukraine to learn the lessons from what is happening in this very day and has been happening in that battle space in the uncrewed systems and you know, we need the maritime capability coalition with Norway we need the drone coalition with Latvia.

This is learning lessons in real time. There is no better test lab than that. We as a country have got to take that opportunity to drive proper embracing of uncrewed systems and all standard systems, the stuff that goes with it dealing with electronic warfare, which is all pervading in Ukraine, as you all know, means that our armed forces can fight the fight that is going to happen today. And if we do that, I think we build prosperity for our industry and greater security for our people. Thank you very much for your time.

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