Keeping pace with the speed of change of technology is challenging for any organisation.
But doing so helps provide a competitive advantage, which is what all organisations want, not least of all the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MOD). Its supply chain is competing commercially on an international stage but the MOD itself is also competing with potential adversaries.
Embracing innovative technologies is a key focus for the Defence Equipment and Support Agency (DE&S), the MOD’s largest professional delivery organisation, which since 2014 has awarded over 4,500 contracts, worth more than £47bn, and managed 80% of the UK’s biggest defence programmes.
As stated in the recently launched DE&S 2025 strategy, the agency aims to work at increasing pace to help provide the armed forces with some of the most advanced technology equipment needed to maintain their operational advantage. This means rapidly developing cutting-edge capabilities that have been acquired from industry and getting them into use by front-line commands. Within this, the agency’s Future Capability Group (FCG) plays a key role.
James Gavin, the head of the group, explains: “The FCG has a mandate to ‘explore’ new technology and capability areas towards that which is ‘exploitable’. We are exploring areas like safety, policy and how to maintain equipment against processes and real-world trials. We are also maturing capabilities to be ready to be exploited in operations.”
Developing and exploiting these new technologies at pace means having agile processes that also allow for working ‘at pace’. So, in the past year, the FCG has reformed its acquisition processes.
“The FCG’s role is to explore and exploit technology, but it’s also to explore and exploit new acquisition methods. We need to keep pace at the ‘speed of relevance’ and this means considering new methods in addition to the traditional Waterfall-based approaches. By applying the ‘Agile by Default’ mechanism to buying equipment and software, we are able to explore and iteratively develop capability with the user and other stakeholders so as to get it into operation more rapidly,” says Gavin.
Called BATSO – Buy And Try at Scale Operate – this new acquisition framework is a shift from detailed, up-front requirements previously outlined in a competitive tender where companies joined the framework and had one chance to bid. Now it’s about acquiring small quantities of equipment to explore their utility. As a result, this also makes the work more accessible to small and medium-sized companies.
Gavin says: “This sees an overall intent for multiple acquisition competitions. Following the trials, feedback will be given to all framework members on updated requirements. This allows them to learn how to improve their products and then update them ready for the next competition.
“This iterative cycle of experimenting, feeding back and improving means that we end up developing something a lot faster than we would have normally from a supply chain. At the same time, customers will be trialling the equipment and deciding if they are ready to make larger-scale purchases.”
This new acquisition framework has been used in the FCG’s most recent competition, which went live at the end of June. The Heavy Lift Challenge is looking to replace helicopters with autonomous heavy-lift Uncrewed Air Systems (UAS) for use mainly at sea.
“Not only are we using our new BATSO framework here, but this work is also revolutionary in how quickly we’ve got the competition to go live. Previously it could take up to six months but we managed to engage with the Royal Navy which is involved in this challenge and get it done in three weeks,” says Gavin.
The reason for this competition is to look at using large UAS to replace helicopters for lightweight transport tasks, such as carrying a radio or cargo between ships at sea, or, in the future, weapons. There are various advantages for this both in terms of cost savings and keeping helicopters ready for missions where they are more needed.
Gavin says: “It costs £7,000 an hour or even double that to fly a helicopter. Why have people risking their lives in a helicopter when a UAS can do the same job and it costs significantly less? We see a lot of potential for the use of UAS within Royal Navy, and army, scenarios.”
With the competition having gone live, companies are given a month in which to respond. The first stage is what Gavin refers to as a bake-off in which companies are able to demonstrate their UAS technology capabilities, which the FCG then marks against a set of basic criteria. If the MOD makes an acquisition using the BATSO framework, it will then iteratively work with the supply chain to trial and develop the technology so as to accelerate the pace of development and reduce time to market.
“With a UAS you can iteratively improve quite quickly the hardware components and the software. With artificial intelligence, for instance, you constantly need to improve the machine learning because even when trialling and using it operationally you will be learning about what works best, which means having to go back and constantly recoding the software,” explains Gavin.
The FCG is also keen with this competition, and others, to pivot off commercial technology. It makes sense – why reinvent the wheel? Or drone, in this instance, as there is a lot of innovation in the commercial UAV technology field, especially with the increased development of ‘delivery drones’ and air-taxis. The FCG calls it ‘leveraging cross-sector investments’. But it’s not a straightforward case of bringing civilian technology into a military environment and simply being able to use it. There are many policy and safety considerations, which is another reason why this iterative approach works so well.
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