Main Image Credit Fit for the future: the army has set out its plans for achieving a fully digitised force by 2030. Image: Defence Imagery / MOD News Licence
The British Army has unveiled its Digital and Data Plan. It aims to drive coherence and pace so the Army can meet the vision of a data-centric and digitally optimised force to outcompete its adversaries.
On 18 April 2023, the British Army unveiled the Army Digital and Data Plan (ADDP). The Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Patrick Sanders, and Director Information and Chief Information Officer Major General John Collyer hosted an event in London where details were laid out to both military personnel and industry partners. It is recognised and strongly emphasised that data is the Army’s second most important asset after its people. With a target date of 2030, the objective is a digitised force which organises, operates and fights in a data-centric manner.
Digitally optimised warfare is recognised as a potential step change in military capability. The ability to make data-driven decisions in real time allows the development of competitive advantage in precision, lethality, deception, understanding, tempo and resilience. By not seizing the opportunity to transform, the Army risks being outpaced by adversaries. Indeed, being outpaced by allies may be equally as troubling as it reduces the ability to integrate and converge capabilities in an effective manner. The war in Ukraine has shown the possibilities of fusing data and enabling kinetic effect in such a way as to blunt a conventionally more powerful force.
The seamless flow of data around the battlefield and wider military ecosystem is also central to the concept of Multi-Domain Integration (MDI), which has become the bedrock of the military alliance and partnering system that underpins Western notions of national security.
The pursuit of digitalisation is not a linear or simple task, and is subject to a host of threats. As more processes become digitised, the cyber threat surface is necessarily increased, creating more opportunities for malign activity by adversaries. The speed of change in the digital arena far outpaces that normally experienced in military organisations. Orthodox acquisition processes will see the Army left behind and therefore potentially vulnerable.
Siloed datasets and large amounts of un-digitised data constrain military forces from making informed decisions. Organisational inconsistency has meant that a multitude of different systems for holding and managing data exist, and information cannot be shared between them. There is little standardisation, and niche stovepipe solutions to particular problems have led to a lack of commonality. This is a missed opportunity and must be central to transformation efforts. Such frictions are felt strongly at the tactical level, both on deployments and in barracks. Time and energy spent troubleshooting and manually connecting data should instead be used to build competitive advantage.
The primary end of the ADDP is to improve operational effectiveness. The seamless synchronisation of stored data, open source intelligence, national means, and Defence and the Army’s own sensors will enable improved situational awareness and quicker, more accurate decision-making. In turn, this will lead to more precise and effective lethal and non-lethal effect. Artificial intelligence, machine learning and data visualisation tools will reduce cognitive burden and increase operational tempo. These developments are precursors for the future exploitation of autonomous systems which rely on such architecture.
Processes which are being digitised should not simply replicate the analogue version, but should instead be re-imagined to ensure that technology is used to best effect
These advancements will lead to a more cyber-aware workforce with the necessary skills to protect and recover from system degradation and to maintain operational output, which it is not optimised for today. Embedded cyber security principles and understanding of human factors can deliver protected data to the point of need. Redundancy enables resilience, while fielding alternate and contingent technologies allows electromagnetic manoeuvre.
The ADDP also envisions faster acquisition and deeper integration of capabilities. The Army does not have the expertise or budget to truly lead technological innovation and must therefore settle for being a fast follower. Platforms must be coherent across system, domain and alliance boundaries. Rapid upgrades to capability and faster integration of new technology into force elements is central to the plan. In so doing, the plan aims to unlock significant efficiency across the force. Access to real-time asset availability, readiness data and logistic chains will underpin the opportunity for improved operational and corporate decision-making. Automation will be used to simplify and streamline activities, unlocking human potential and minimising menial and repeatable activities to allow focus on the most important outputs.
Data will be available at the point of decision-making in an accessible and secure format, thereby allowing MDI to become business as usual.
A series of concrete steps are envisioned to help reach these ends, borne from three lines of effort. The first line of effort seeks to rebalance existing programmes. Project THEIA, the pre-existing digitalisation programme, will commit more resource toward battlespace technologies rather than focusing solely on holistic Army transformation. The Army’s people will receive instruction in digital skills as part of basic training and wider cyber awareness exercises. Processes which are being digitised should not simply replicate the analogue version, but should instead be re-imagined to ensure that technology is used to best effect.
The second line of effort is directed at the rules, patterns, standards and technical architecture of the Army’s systems. These endorsed protocols will enable in-service brownfield migration to be better achieved. The Army’s standards will be aligned with NATO’s Federated Mission Networking standards, which will help ensure interoperability with allies and partners.
The third line of effort will ensure the coherence of the remaining Army digitisation workstreams, which are at various stages of maturity. This includes Programme CASTLE, which is delivering the Army Talent Management Framework.
The delivery of these ways will be supported by a common approach to funding, governance and culture so that data and digital become embedded in the Army’s future.
The technological side of the ADDP must be underpinned – as always – by leadership to help inculcate cultural change
The ADDP’s implementation does not explicitly outline a demand for new resource, as it derives from existing funding within the Army Command Plan. It is recognised that funding must be democratised responsibly, and that budget holders are responsible for selecting and funding their own digital transformation. The process cannot all be administered from the centre. It is also acknowledged that the pursuit of digitisation across the Army does create funding pressures.
The implementation of the ADDP will be driven by extant performance reporting processes. An Information Design Authority will be the central arbiter of target technology architecture and will provide effective governance. It will exercise leadership in data, knowledge and information management, cyber protection, enterprise architecture and critical digital technologies. It will lead Army Digital and Data Rules, Patterns and Standards.
The maturation of future technologies will support the endeavours laid out in the ADDP. Modular, multifunctional and software-defined technology will offer greater flexibility from concept to deployment on operations. A resilient deployed communications network which keeps pace with operational needs and remains invisible to both the user and the adversary is envisaged. The pursuit of cross-boundary data integration which can automatically discover and connect data across sensor, platform and network boundaries in a secure way can create competitive advantage. Edge computing will enable local users to exploit distributed sensing in bandwidth-constrained situations to deliver effect. Finally, user-centric intelligent aids, from robotics to user interfaces, will advance the human-machine paradigm.
Importantly, the technological side of the ADDP must be underpinned – as always – by leadership to help inculcate cultural change. This will facilitate the right behaviours and conversations and incentivise movement in the right direction for the Army to digitise successfully.
The inaugural ADDP is an ambitious plan which will have to evolve alongside technology. Ruthless monitoring is required to ensure the plan develops as needed, so that soldiers have the best digital capabilities to succeed wherever they are operating.
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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Major Patrick Hinton
Former Chief of the General Staff’s Visiting Fellow