Main Image Credit Next generation: a prototype of the Boxer armoured vehicle being tested on Salisbury Plain. Image: Defence Imagery / MOD News Licence
While the UK’s new Land Industrial Strategy sets out clear objectives for Army procurement, it lacks detail about the intended industrial partners.
The Land Industrial Strategy (LIS), published at the formal opening of the BattleLab in Dorset on 18 May, is a thoughtful and detailed statement of the criteria for future defence acquisition in the land domain. It is particularly thorough on how the Army is to approach acquisition, and it provides some detail on the capabilities to be pursued in a Land Investment Landscape out to 2035. It is a specific follow-up to the broader Defence and Security Industrial Strategy (DSIS) paper of 2021.
The hefty ambition for the land sector is to pursue and integrate five objectives:
- To procure equipment that will create sustained military advantage.
- To maintain operational independence and resilience for UK forces.
- To cultivate an innovative, competitive and highly skilled industrial base.
- To enhance all the dimensions of social value, including tackling economic inequality and climate change.
- To strengthen international influence and relationships through collaboration and exports.
Securing a balance among these five areas that will satisfy the Army, other sectors in government and a wide range of stakeholders will be difficult, but the strategy significantly acknowledges that military needs must be balanced alongside the need of the private sector for a drumbeat of orders to sustain its workforce and organisational expertise. Recognition of a problem is the first and key step towards to its effective management.
The strategy argues that the UK should move away from targeting an exquisite product from the outset.
The Army will place more emphasis on commercialising ideas and reducing risk through investing in prototyping/proofs of concept that provide ‘minimal viable products’ (which are then improved iteratively using Agile approaches superimposed on longer hardware cycles)
The LIS is also marked by an emphasis on the importance of digital systems for future military advantage. The importance of computers and software for military advantage and freedom of action underlines the need for the UK to be able to regularly upgrade much of its equipment. The LIS also stresses that the in-service support for systems must receive full attention from the early stages of a project. The modularity and ease of upgrade stressed in the LIS underline that the UK government, or at least its trusted suppliers, should have design authority and data rights.
The document is strong on where the Army needs to be and how it should seek to move towards that destination, but says little to nothing about with whom it will work
The LIS is also clear that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) should take a more partnered approach to acquisition, with all parties working together to defence requirements and fixed acquisition approaches. This is familiar behaviour with complex weapons, submarines and combat air. The LIS uses the DSIS term of a ‘more nuanced’ approach to acquisition. The terms ‘competitive’ and ‘competition’ appear in the document only with reference to the UK needing to be competitive in the global military and industrial areas, not in terms of MoD procurement. There are multiple references to partners and partnering with industry, including expressed readiness to welcome foreign investment into the UK as a means of delivering multiple benefits from an acquisition choice.
Finally, while international collaboration has long been a feature of air systems and missiles, this document stresses that it also needs to be a significant element for land systems, arguing that the UK should be a partner of choice. The investment of Rheinmetall and Krauss Maffei in the UK armoured vehicles sector could lubricate UK-German collaboration, in particular. But other international firms (such as General Dynamics, Lockheed-Martin, Elbit and Thales) also play notable roles in the UK military land sector.
In all, the LIS asserts:
The Army requires capabilities that are agile, adaptable, resilient, interoperable by design, and affordable, to give UK Land Forces – operating with an integrated, multi-domain network – advantage over their adversaries
This is all compatible with the recognition that a more ‘nuanced’ approach to competition must be put in place, and that the MoD needs a partnered rather than adversarial relationship with suppliers, especially on development projects. The implication here is surely that a deal such as that concluded in 2016 for a de facto replacement of the Apache D fleet with Apache Es built in the US would not have been agreed had the LIS been in force.
More broadly, while the LIS was drafted well before Russia’s 2022 attack on Ukraine, that conflict has underlined the value of access to a capable national industrial base in the UK.
While the document is strong on where the Army needs to be and how it should seek to move towards that destination, it says little to nothing about with whom it will work or who its key suppliers will be. While placing what has become established emphasis on the potential role of small and medium-sized Enterprises, it says nothing about the prime contractor firms with which the MoD might partner. No specific companies are even mentioned. However, watchers of the AJAX project will note that it is treated in the document as something that will come into service alongside three other approved programmes (Boxer, Challenger Update and Apache). Overall, the LIS presents the UK land industrial sector as being in a promising state (supporting 10,000 jobs) and describes the last few decades as a period of ‘consolidation’ (with some ‘hollowing out’) rather than shrinkage.
The Army needs to make sure it has expertise about global technological developments and that it puts people with such expertise into positions of authority
The LIS places technology and the supply issues in a central position on the Army’s agenda but does not ask if the service needs to increase the incidence and depth of technical education for its personnel, nor whether technical and managerial expertise should be more highly valued in terms of choices for senior rank and the Army Executive Board. At the working level, does the Army believe that it has the fleet configuration management and control capability to be able to implement the sought-after continuous improvement programmes? The failure to focus on Army capabilities in the LIS comes despite the AJAX programme’s exposure of the limited technical expertise in the service and the MoD as a whole. If the Army wishes to better exploit technology, it needs to make sure it has expertise about global technological developments and that it puts people with such expertise into positions of authority. Two new two-star posts (a Director Futures and a Director Programmes) may in isolation lack the expertise and power to bring about the needed cultural change.
Finally, current efforts on digitisation programmes going beyond Bowman seem to be struggling, despite expenditure of £1.5 billion. In apparent hierarchical order starting from the bottom, there is Evolve to Open (progressing Bowman to an open systems architecture), Morpheus (the successor to Bowman) and LE TacCIS (Land Environment Tactical Communication and Information System). These are separate from AJAX but clearly related. The LIS does not seek to explain why these projects are seemingly treading water, or how they should be addressed.
The LIS is a well-drafted and clear statement addressing how defence acquisition in the land environment should proceed in pursuit of the targets of the Integrated Review for a prosperous UK with a global role and interests, and capable of independent military action.
It clearly had to be written in a difficult period for some important land projects, which meant it could not address which companies were seen as having specific positive and negative attributes. The development and production of land systems not only demands industrial intellectual capabilities and skills, but also is a function of infrastructure assets, and the number of firms with facilities that can address the heavy metal assembly and support is finite. Closing down some and building up new ones is not easy or low-cost, so at least some of the firms currently working to deliver platforms and IT systems in an ideal world would have had a mention. This can be contrasted with the Combat Air Strategy, where BAE Systems, Rolls Royce, Leonardo and MBDA were identified clearly from an early stage as the key industrial players.
Like all strategy documents, but especially those in the defence sector, implementation will be key for the LIS as the Army and Defence Equipment and Support proceed with specific choices. Some government commercial officers will be reluctant to move away from competitive tendering. But formal competitions will struggle anyway with handling the multiple areas of benefit that government hopes to secure from defence projects. Buying off the shelf from a US production line will be more difficult to justify, while remaining appealing to some users. Yet the LIS provides a valuable and clear handrail for those addressing requirements, procurement and support. In itself, it solves no problems, but does point to their containment and easing.
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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Professorial Research Fellow
Defence, Industries and Society