Keeping pace: five trends driving defence programmes

Ed Robinson

Project Director


A fast-moving global security environment is placing governments under a level of pressure that is unique in modern history – facing threats on multiple fronts and increasingly blurred lines of potential, and actual, conflict.

A climate of growing strategic volatility and uncertainty pervades. The resurgent threat from Russia, a complex Middle East with myriad potential scenarios, the rise of China and also non-state actors all challenge the traditional order.

Technology advances are transforming the character of conflict – with a diversification of, and access to, capabilities and exposure to threats beyond the traditional maritime, land and air domains into cyber and space.

Add to this a weaponisation and exploitation of the economic, environmental and social levers (including media) that spawn from globalisation, and it creates a multi-dimensional theatre of phenomenal threat complexity.

The once world order where conflict was constrained by the risk of triggering a collective defence response under NATO Article V has been upturned by approaches that operate beneath this threshold. Such is the pace of change, there is a risk of exquisite irrelevance for some military capabilities before they even enter service.

The availability of resource, the threat complexity faced and spectrum of capabilities required to counter these, exacerbates the drive for defence programmes to be managed and delivered more efficiently than ever before.

This presents a unique opportunity for the defence sector to evolve; behaviourally, commercially and operationally to ensure it remains fit and relevant to the future global security environment. 

For those planning, pursuing and delivering major defence programmes we see five major trends:

1. An accelerating pace of change

The strategic context is changing almost every three months, as opposed to every decade in the early 20th century. Setting requirements and ensuring capability relevance for the next 20-30 years will become increasingly challenging at best and at worst impossible, posing a constant risk of change or requirements creep that escalates cost.

In response, we need to establish programmes that are more agile and able to adapt to shifting requirements. This demands designed-in, robust and automated project controls, to enable a big data approach to asset information that has the capability to provide immediate, real-time feedback of a programme baseline, progress and spend.

Analysing this data effectively can then inform decision-making and alternative strategies that could be introduced at multiple stages during procurement or through the lifecycle of a capability. This requires a commercial flexibility that promotes agility.

Addressing a wider spectrum of rapidly evolving threats may involve accepting a lower threshold of capability, or one more agile to evolve, and a broader range of assets that may have a shorter longevity, in place of a full suite of top end ‘status’ assets.

2. Fierce competition for talent

The talent shortage is being faced by all sectors. In science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), this is estimated to be costing UK businesses £1.5bn per annum and a number of skills areas present demographic cliff edges as swathes of employees approach retirement with a vacuum of capability and experience following them. This, whilst a challenge, is also an opportunity to drive change over the longer term. 

With the advent of infotech and biotech creating the foundations for greater automation, attracting, training (re-training) and retaining people with the right skillsets and experience to exploit big data, to deliver and to control mega-scale complex programmes effectively is vital.

The complexity of this challenge will increase; STEM, relevant now, may become less so in a decade or two. Science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) is already a fashioned term, recognising the creativity inspired through the arts as the genesis of the innovation that will maintain humankind’s relevance in the workplace for far longer. 

Attracting talent, comparable skills and innovation from other sectors is an option for defence, but to succeed, organisations must be behaviourally attractive. The aim must aspire towards building a compelling, effective through-life training regime focused on technical and creative skills, core competency and behaviours that embrace an attitude and aptitude to manage change.

3. A need for deeper partnerships

There is a sense of opportunity in closer and more collaborative ways of working through partnerships between clients and the defence supply chain. Supply chain relationships must work for all parties, be flexible, share risk appropriately, create an environment for performance excellence and deliver outcomes that exceed expectations - these must be viable and represent real value to both the supplier and client.

This demands a bold approach and strong leadership that is no mean feat in a traditionally risk-adverse and often single source sector. It comes down to aligned objectives, shared risk, incentivisation, a long-term visible programme and effective engagement and procurement.

This demands a real shift in behaviours throughout organisations on both sides of the client/supplier dynamic. Plus a commitment across and between governments, the public sector and private industry to set the tone for relationships to drive prosperity, not just at home, but globally.

4. The pursuit for increased value and performance

Faced with challenging political environments globally and a rise of populist governments, defence programmes must continuously demonstrate value, performance, efficiency, relevance and effective delivery. The focus is now far broader than organisational efficiency and cost.

Programme performance and value needs to be appraised through a longer-term, whole life, lens, shifting the narrative from a preoccupation with physical assets and monetary inputs, to recognise a far wider outcome for society of a strengthened sovereign defence capability. The delivery of an industrial and manufacturing capability, a sustainable sector and skilled workforce delivers and maintains national security, strategic exports and wider economic benefits; this will drive prosperity.

5. Constant innovation

Disruptive technologies, infotech, biotech and big data are driving a faster turnaround of ground-breaking innovation. This is rendering certain capabilities irrelevant, and ultimately demanding a different approach towards requirements, procurement and resourcing.

Embracing insight and behaviours from beyond the defence sector are vital to transforming our approach to delivering mega-scale complex programmes and driving better value and performance. Creating the right contracting and procurement environment will stimulate innovation, particularly through engaging Tier 2, 3 and SME suppliers, and put the defence sector at the forefront of the disruption debate.

It will unlock vast potential and present a competitive advantage, not just commercially, technologically or in the traditional domains of defence, but deep into cyber and space where we are yet to envisage, let alone experience, the greatest endeavours of humankind to date.

Rising to the challenge

US General Eric Shinseki said:

If you don’t like change, you are going to like irrelevance even less".

The current climate and these five strategic challenges means the defence sector must embrace the wave of change upon it and seize the opportunity to do things differently. Evolving now is vital; it demands a radical shift in behaviours and approach in client and supply chain relationships, commercial innovation, organisational culture, programme performance oversight and measurement of value.

Many other sectors have undergone similar major step changes, emerged reinvigorated and enabled to remain relevant and viable. The defence sector must learn from others; this requires a bold and daring leadership that will rise to the challenge. The maintenance of our security and stability, from which our societies prosper, is otherwise at risk.

We are attending DSEI 2019 at ExCel London, 10-13 September. Meet us in the Supply Chain Lounge (SC2) to learn more about how we drive value and performance in defence.