Podcast review: Is British defence ready for the 2020s?
What is the role of intelligence in defence? Knowing your enemy has always been vital in traditional warfare, but with the dawn of digital technology and social media, defence seems to have taken on a different character – one where information is not just vital to war and peace, but its defining characteristic.
To unpack 'information advantage,' Leidos partnered with The Spectator for a defence special podcast. Simon Fovargue, the Chief Executive of Leidos UK and Europe, joined Professor Peter Roberts, Director of Military Sciences at RUSI and Dominic Nicholls, the Telegraph's Defence and Security Correspondent, with Katy Balls of The Spectator, to discuss what information advantage actually is, how Britain fares in this new technological world, and what role companies have in helping governments enhance their country's defence.
What is information advantage?
There is quite a debate about how best to explain information advantage, with Nicholls summarising it as “understanding the wider context in which you operate, and having that information to make decisions." For Fovargue, though, despite information advantage not being a new concept, the pace of technological change is having real impact. He says: “What is new is the velocity and volume of information that people need can be derived from many new sources. And the trick really is still to combine and capture those diverse sources in order to establish new opportunities, as well as identify threats that need to be mitigated."
With the UK not being at war, though, some may wonder what the rush is in ensuring that information advantage is achieved. Which brings us to another definition; that of the 'grey zone,' where conflict is happening, but no one has declared war. As Roberts put it: “…there's been a beautiful idea that we should call it something of an 'un-war,' a non-peace, a grey zone; something that exists that suits our own frame of reference these days, that doesn't articulate something that is total war, but something that sits between those two."
So information advantage, then, can have a meaning beyond that of digital information collection and analysis. As Nicholls says: “Information knowledge is just influencing people, influencing mindsets, trying to get other people and other nations to do something that's more favourable to your interest."
How Britain can charge ahead
For Fovargue, it's not about technology alone, but about three key areas of focus: adapting and developing technology, investing in people and skills, and updating processes to deal with the digital age we live in. “There is an argument that has been played out around 9/11, and why we did not spot the rise of Osama bin Laden and the extremism supported him by the intelligence agencies," he says. “Because they all approached it in a similar way: they recruited people from the same backgrounds, thought in a similar way."
Beyond diversifying those working in defence to make new, more informed links between the swathes of information gathered, it seems embracing and experimenting with new technologies and processes does put countries ahead of the curve. “What you can't argue with is the British Military's ability to embrace and challenge ideas and concepts, to get out there ahead of the crowd and test itself," Roberts says. “Now that to me is a sign of the strength of British military that intellectually, it is in the middle of a revolution."
It's more than just a shift in technology mindset and appetite for innovation, however, with costs increasing for more traditional military platform investments such as aircrafts and tanks, and costs of digital technologies rapidly declining. If we can use information to promote our interests then it is a significant differentiator for Britain's interests.
The role of companies
Governments are always looking to the corporate world for new perspectives as well as the most innovative new technologies and approaches to solving problems. And in the journey to gain information advantage, the broader context in which certain pieces of information exist is key to drawing useful insights from the data. Fovargue explains: “You can see a role where the Ministry of Justice and some of the services that it delivers to the wider public might be combined with some of the things that Home Office does, some of the things that the Foreign Office does and some of the things that the MOD do to improve a collective homeland security."
“I still think we've got a long way to go to develop our approaches and mindset, and adapt our cultural way of thinking in this uncertain, fluid world; and still break away from some of the established norms and bring that diversity of thought to make better, more informed decisions," Fovargue says. “Technology will do what technology does, it will just keep getting better and people iterate all the time and create new things. But the human component is the bit that I don't think we've quite made the shift in yet."