It’s time for action – Fix defence tech procurement

summary

The defence procurement system is broken and it’s time for it to be fixed. In light of escalating geopolitical tensions and the resurgence of near-peer conflicts, the urgency for an effective defence procurement system is pressing. The recent warning from the Secretary General of NATO, about the potential for “a full-blown war” between NATO and It’s time for action – Fix defence tech procurement

Studio
4 min read

The defence procurement system is broken and it’s time for it to be fixed. In light of escalating geopolitical tensions and the resurgence of near-peer conflicts, the urgency for an effective defence procurement system is pressing. The recent warning from the Secretary General of NATO, about the potential for “a full-blown war” between NATO and Russia being a “real possibility”, underscores the gravity of the situation. In the meantime, a technology gap jeopardises the military’s competitive advantage, emphasising the importance of partnering with startups to develop products that address current and future military needs.

The evolving security landscape demands that the UK’s Armed Forces and defence industry prepare for the possibility of facing peer adversary threats with limited strategic warning. The notion of a ‘come as you are’ war requires a procurement system that can swiftly adapt to rapidly changing circumstances and deliver the necessary capabilities without delay. Against the backdrop of ongoing conflicts and geopolitical tensions, the need for an agile and efficient procurement framework becomes increasingly evident.

While the problems are known to most, if not all, key stakeholders, inertia keeps us from seeing meaningful change, even though the consequences of sluggish procurement are dire. As technology evolves at breakneck speed, the procurement process for defence technology often lags behind, leaving armed forces grappling with outdated capabilities and missed opportunities. This was especially highlighted in the 2023 Defence Select Committee Review, titled “It is broke – and it’s time to fix it: The UK’s defence procurement system”. By the time the armed forces acquire the latest capabilities, they risk being obsolete in the face of rapidly evolving threats. This gap in technology readiness undermines the military’s ability to maintain a competitive edge on the battlefield and poses significant risks to national security.

Proactive involvement from lawmakers is essential to overcome the challenges associated with defence technology procurement. As the Select Committee suggested, extending the service of Ministers and public servants in key positions would give them the time needed to build relationships, streamline the bureaucratic processes, and reduce red tape that often hampers the timely acquisition of cutting-edge technologies. Additionally, more secondments into industry at the highest levels are needed. Bringing several decision-makers and budget holders from industry would help initiate meaningful change. This approach would facilitate a deeper understanding of industry perspectives and foster collaboration between the public and private sectors, ultimately leading to more efficient and effective defence procurement processes.

Policymakers should also work to facilitate a symbiotic relationship between established primes and emerging startups in the defence industry. This can be achieved through targeted investments in research and development (R&D) initiatives that promote collaboration and innovation. To achieve this, it may be necessary to implement regulatory measures or oversight mechanisms that prevent primes from monopolising contracts or engaging in anti-competitive practices. This could include policies to promote subcontracting opportunities for SMEs, transparency requirements in procurement processes, and mechanisms for monitoring and enforcing compliance with fair competition principles.

Collaborative efforts such as Project OdySSEy which saw an ecosystem of SMEs unite under the leadership of BAE Systems Air to deliver a cutting-edge, state-of-the-art, multi-domain synthetic training environment, show how quickly partnerships can lead to the effective development of novel capabilities. By providing financial incentives and fostering a conducive environment for partnership, lawmakers can help create a procurement environment that encourages collaboration and partnership between primes and SMEs, rather than one that incentivises predatory behaviour or exclusionary practices. In turn, maintaining a level playing field within the industry, protecting the interests of SMEs and promoting a healthy ecosystem of suppliers, will ensure that the defence industry can better leverage the collective expertise, diversity and capabilities of all stakeholders to meet the evolving needs of national security.

With barriers to entry lowered and dual-use technologies more widely accepted by defence system integrators and military services, more SMEs and start-ups would have the opportunity to enter the market. Technologies developed for commercial applications, such as AI, XR, AR, VR, and spatial technology, can find valuable use cases in defence. This also aligns with the growing need in defence to embrace open architecture technologies that enable standards-based approaches, interoperability frameworks, and collaborative platforms, as a strategic imperative for overcoming technological blockers and driving innovation. By validating these technologies for military applications, companies can not only enhance defence capabilities but also open up new market verticals, such as supply chain management and disaster response.

The defence procurement system is broken and it’s time for it to be fixed. In light of escalating geopolitical tensions and the resurgence of near-peer conflicts, the urgency for an effective defence procurement system is pressing. The recent warning from the Secretary General of NATO, about the potential for “a full-blown war” between NATO and Russia being a “real possibility”, underscores the gravity of the situation. In the meantime, a technology gap jeopardises the military’s competitive advantage, emphasising the importance of partnering with startups to develop products that address current and future military needs.

The evolving security landscape demands that the UK’s Armed Forces and defence industry prepare for the possibility of facing peer adversary threats with limited strategic warning. The notion of a ‘come as you are’ war requires a procurement system that can swiftly adapt to rapidly changing circumstances and deliver the necessary capabilities without delay. Against the backdrop of ongoing conflicts and geopolitical tensions, the need for an agile and efficient procurement framework becomes increasingly evident.

While the problems are known to most, if not all, key stakeholders, inertia keeps us from seeing meaningful change, even though the consequences of sluggish procurement are dire. As technology evolves at breakneck speed, the procurement process for defence technology often lags behind, leaving armed forces grappling with outdated capabilities and missed opportunities. This was especially highlighted in the 2023 Defence Select Committee Review, titled “It is broke – and it’s time to fix it: The UK’s defence procurement system”. By the time the armed forces acquire the latest capabilities, they risk being obsolete in the face of rapidly evolving threats. This gap in technology readiness undermines the military’s ability to maintain a competitive edge on the battlefield and poses significant risks to national security.

Proactive involvement from lawmakers is essential to overcome the challenges associated with defence technology procurement. As the Select Committee suggested, extending the service of Ministers and public servants in key positions would give them the time needed to build relationships, streamline the bureaucratic processes, and reduce red tape that often hampers the timely acquisition of cutting-edge technologies. Additionally, more secondments into industry at the highest levels are needed. Bringing several decision-makers and budget holders from industry would help initiate meaningful change. This approach would facilitate a deeper understanding of industry perspectives and foster collaboration between the public and private sectors, ultimately leading to more efficient and effective defence procurement processes.

Policymakers should also work to facilitate a symbiotic relationship between established primes and emerging startups in the defence industry. This can be achieved through targeted investments in research and development (R&D) initiatives that promote collaboration and innovation. To achieve this, it may be necessary to implement regulatory measures or oversight mechanisms that prevent primes from monopolising contracts or engaging in anti-competitive practices. This could include policies to promote subcontracting opportunities for SMEs, transparency requirements in procurement processes, and mechanisms for monitoring and enforcing compliance with fair competition principles.

Collaborative efforts such as Project OdySSEy which saw an ecosystem of SMEs unite under the leadership of BAE Systems Air to deliver a cutting-edge, state-of-the-art, multi-domain synthetic training environment, show how quickly partnerships can lead to the effective development of novel capabilities. By providing financial incentives and fostering a conducive environment for partnership, lawmakers can help create a procurement environment that encourages collaboration and partnership between primes and SMEs, rather than one that incentivises predatory behaviour or exclusionary practices. In turn, maintaining a level playing field within the industry, protecting the interests of SMEs and promoting a healthy ecosystem of suppliers, will ensure that the defence industry can better leverage the collective expertise, diversity and capabilities of all stakeholders to meet the evolving needs of national security.

With barriers to entry lowered and dual-use technologies more widely accepted by defence system integrators and military services, more SMEs and start-ups would have the opportunity to enter the market. Technologies developed for commercial applications, such as AI, XR, AR, VR, and spatial technology, can find valuable use cases in defence. This also aligns with the growing need in defence to embrace open architecture technologies that enable standards-based approaches, interoperability frameworks, and collaborative platforms, as a strategic imperative for overcoming technological blockers and driving innovation. By validating these technologies for military applications, companies can not only enhance defence capabilities but also open up new market verticals, such as supply chain management and disaster response.