How Can Industry Help Enable Rapid Digital Integration Between Domains?

Embracing integration: an army signaller uses a tactical military communications system to share data across domains. Image: Defence Imagery / OGL v3.0

By working together with key customers on the common implementation of standards for cross-domain integration, the defence industry can help ensure that Western armed forces hold the information advantage.

Early on during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a team of Ukrainian developers created an ‘Uber’-style app that translated enemy positions spotted via drones into targeting information for artillery, which it automatically ‘handed off’ to the best-placed unit. This reduced the time between target detection and firing from around 20 minutes down to just one. It’s been done rapidly, using commercial off-the-shelf drones and sharing their onboard GPS data.

This story illustrates three things:

  • The incredible impact possible from sharing information rapidly across domains.
  • The speed at which progress can be made if there’s a common purpose and a will to succeed.
  • That solving smaller challenges can sometimes bring a disproportionate reward.

NATO Allies can learn a lot from this approach. The term ‘Multi-Domain Integration’ carries the burden of a lot of talk and ambition, but limited progress when it comes to tangible cross-domain information sharing – perhaps because defence has struggled to solve the whole problem at once and been overwhelmed. But this one example shows the rapid progress that can be made if one starts small and grows outwards from these quick and manageable wins.

In the West and across NATO Allies, there are multiple different standards for communication protocols, navigation, how to store information on targets, vehicle control and a host of other areas. A big problem for is that there are too many standards – some open and some proprietary, and all subject to different interpretations on how to apply them. This means that every project needs to devote significant time to translating data inputs and outputs to be understood by other systems or elements.

Everyone I know who works in defence is here to help our armed forces defend our way of life

This needs to change. Modern data science gives the West – and its adversaries – the capability to analyse the vast quantity of data available, generating a rapid and more accurate picture of enemy movements and resulting in better decisions which deliver better operational outcomes. Industry as a whole needs to ensure that our customers have access to greater integration capability than their adversaries to ensure that they hold the information advantage.

That’s why we’re proposing that the defence industry works with our key customers to collectively agree on agile approaches to achieving integration through common implementation of standards. It won’t be easy or quick, but there is a case for optimism. If we can start small, choose the most critical use cases to deliver first, learn from this implementation and voluntarily agree to use the resulting approach across industry, I’m sure that together we can start making a difference.

If successful, everyone wins. Defence customers will find it easier to share data across domains, while the defence industry can bring innovative products to market faster by removing the complexity of integration across different standards and interpretations. This will also help smaller enterprises provide innovative solutions for defence, as they’ll have standard interfaces to work with – or, simply stated, they’ll understand the ‘socket’ into which their ‘plug and play system’ needs to fit.

There’s a good recent example of open published standards helping the customers of another industry with high security requirements – banking. With the advent of Open Banking standards, suddenly a whole host of new non-traditional vendors can access the market. It’s also unlocked much easier movement between providers for consumers. This all started with the UK’s Open Banking Standard, but quickly spread to Europe and is now being replicated elsewhere, with further improvements to the standard being made soon.

Defence customers are rightly concerned about being locked into a single vendor, but if we can make collective progress on clear standards, this should become much more avoidable. Everyone I know who works in defence – either at BAE Systems or for one of our competitors – is here to help our armed forces defend our way of life. We look forward to working with RUSI and others in industry, as well as the Ministry of Defence and NATO, to help make this happen.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Rob Merryweather

Technology Director, BAE Systems

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