A vision for the digital future of warfare
Troops from the British Army's Parachute Regiment, Exercise Askari Storm, Kenya.
All images courtesy of MOD (Crown Copyright © 2013-2021)
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A vision for the digital future of warfare

James Lawrence — January 2021
Alongside the Army, Air Force and Navy, digital is now a vital domain for confronting a nation’s enemies. The UK’s Director of Military Digitisation, Major General Tom Copinger-Symes, describes the challenge of transforming the country’s military capabilities to engage in this new dimension of conflict.

The nature — and arena — of warfare is changing rapidly and permanently, largely due to exponential advances in digital technology. In the UK, one of the people with the daunting task of ensuring the nation’s fighting forces have the necessary digital capabilities to prevail in this new era is Major General Tom Copinger-Symes, Director of Military Digitisation at the Ministry of Defence’s Defence Digital team.

“Instead of land, sea and air, the three areas we’ve fought in for the last century or more, we’re now expanding into cyberspace and space,” he says. “And as we start to integrate across five domains, that’s not just three plus two — the complexity is exponential.”

 

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The UK’s Director of Military Digitisation, Major General Tom Copinger-Symes


A key aspect of this challenge is ensuring that the UK’s forces are deploying the most effective digital technology and structures to compete in constantly shifting scenarios where the boundary between conflict and non-conflict is being blurred, making it increasingly hard to stay one step ahead of the enemy — if you can even identify who the enemy is. And all this in an environment that is far more aggressive than any corporate arena. “You’re not just competing with your opponents, they’re actively trying to stop you winning,” says Copinger-Symes with a good measure of understatement.

To achieve and maintain superiority, the UK’s Ministry of Defence, of which Defence Digital forms an increasingly vital pillar, is closely examining, experimenting with and actively exploiting virtually every aspect of cutting-edge technology available and in development. “You name it, and we’ll have a finger in that pie — pretty much the full stack,” says Copinger-Symes. That means everything from hosting data and applications in the cloud (where security permits) right through to exploring the advanced capabilities of artificial intelligence, machine learning, quantum computing, blockchain, visualization technologies and more.

“In the battlespace, [digital] is about stopping humans having to do the dirty and dangerous jobs. But fundamentally it’s also about enabling people to make better and quicker decisions.”

Further to this, the UK’s activities in these areas are only likely to increase dramatically, thanks to its government’s recent announcement of a huge funding boost of an additional £24 billion ($32bn) over the next four years, much of which is projected to be spent in the fields of cyber and artificial intelligence.

Amid speculation around the growing use of autonomous AI-enabled weapons, and the UK’s recent admission that it has both a defensive and offensive cyber-warfare capability under the newly formed National Cyber Force, much of the value of the technologies will ultimately come down to better decision-making, says Copinger-Symes.

“In the battlespace, at one end, [the application of advanced digital technologies] is about stopping humans having to do the dirty and dangerous jobs. Clearly that’s where we’re headed — although we’re not quite there yet,” he says. “But it’s also fundamentally about enabling people to make better and quicker decisions. That doesn’t always guarantee that you win, whether you’re below the threshold of conflict or above it, but it’s a good start — especially when using your data to drive analysis and insight and, maybe in due course, even foresight.”
Heads up decision-making

One particular field he points to, by way of illustration, is the area of visualization technology. “Whether it’s a pilot in a cockpit, an admiral on a ship’s bridge or a permanent secretary in a civil service office, we’re all making important decisions on which the country’s safety and security depends,” he says. “If we [as Defence Digital] can present that data in a much more immersive manner than we have in the past, that leads to better results.”

 

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RAF Typhoon combat aircraft with helmet display system


For example, the Royal Air Force is exploiting advanced technology from the gaming industry to enable fighter pilots engaged in combat to interact with data in a way that allows them to focus fully on the job in hand. In such a situation “you need to be able to take in vast amounts of data [concurrently]: to fly the plane at Mach 2, beat the bad guy who might be trying to kill you and make sure you’re going to get refueled when you need it. So if we can get data into a pilot’s head in a way that [enables] them to make the best decisions, we can get much better outcomes.”

But even as science fiction turns into reality, Copinger-Symes is keen to keep front of mind the human aspects of defense. “Warfare is ultimately about humans, not technology,” he says. “Tanks, planes, ships and so on are all important. But it’s really about people and trying to change their behavior. In the military, we have this extraordinary monopoly on the use of lethal force, but ultimately if we can change people’s behavior without [using that], then that’s far, far better.” And digital technologies can help provide some of the tools to do that, he says.

First published January 2021
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