The privilege of working in defence for two decades has included stints as a technician with the Royal Navy, to being appointed Head of Strategy with one of the primes, and even as a geopolitical commentator and analyst. Mirroring the change and development in my career, has been the change and development in defence, with a significant difference now compared to twenty years ago being the nature and purpose of warfare.
When I enlisted in the Royal Navy back in 2003, two of the key theatres of operations were Afghanistan, and Iraq. In these and similar conflicts, it was typical to engage with the aim of toppling a regime, rebuilding a state, and achieving stability. The widely adopted method to achieving this beyond the initial highly kinetic regime toppling phase was known as ‘counterinsurgency warfare’.
In contrast, fast forward twenty years, and we see U.S. and Iranian tensions at a high, Russia’s continued invasion and occupation of Ukraine, Hamas’ actions and Israel’s response, and a war in Sudan – all occurring within a twelve-month window. That’s a lot to deal with. Though, in summary, what we are seeing is a far greater level of ‘state-on-state’ warfare than at any point that I can recall in the last twenty years. This change in the nature of war has resulted in a huge shift in the equipment needed by our armed forces to defend and protect the United Kingdom, its people, and allies. Suffice to say, this also impacts on the budget and associated costs of doing so.
During the height of the Cold War, in 1961, the world was in a similar position by having to deal with multiple state-on-state and proxy wars at once. To address this, President Kennedy hired a non-traditionalist in the form of Ford’s President, Robert McNamara, who went on to be the longest serving United States Secretary of Defense. In 2003, McNamara became the focus of a documentary film entitled The Fog of War covering eleven lessons from his life. Several times throughout the documentary, McNamara focuses on better use of data to maximize military capacity and capability – something he took to the US Department of Defense from the automotive industry.
It was McNamara’s alternative thinking and reasoning, backed by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson’s buy-in, that ensured the US Defense Department and, notably, its equipment plan was able to deliver against the challenges of the day. What the US possessed in the 1960’s, which is arguably different to the UK today, is a strong will to explore alternative thinking as a means to provide more assurance to its defense ecosystem.
Upon being asked to join a Product Data company with extensive experience in the automotive sector to lead their defence and aerospace business, I went on a fact-finding mission and reviewed cost saving schemes with the likes of Ford, Aston Martin and Rolls Royce to understand the art of the possible. This led to discovering that for automotive protypes and first-of-unit designs, every £1 spent on enhanced data management could result in up to £18.89 in production cost reductions. In cases of avoiding costs, as opposed to reducing costs, every £1 spent on data management could result in avoiding anything up to a further £21.36 in unnecessary delays. Most notable was that for production risk mitigation costs, the earlier the intervention, the greater the time and cost penalty avoided. As we know from the National Audit Office report, it is programme delays and associated costs which are a significant contributor to the £16.9bn ‘black hole’.
The common threads in automotive firms achieving these striking returns of investment are three-fold:
1. Ensuring holistic data-driven decision making on either a programme, whole-organisation or integrated supply-chain level.
2. Assuring quality data, signifying the completeness and accuracy of part-level engineering attributes from early on, enable efficient later design iterations.
3. Data visibility, ensuring the right data is available to the right people at the right time.
More surprising than these figures was the practice of spending upfront to reduce and avoid costs being a ‘norm’ for the benchmark-leading automotive firms. While the model cycle is far faster and more consistent than the norms in defence, the differences are often less pronounced than they first appear, with rolling in-service improvements throughout an extended service lifecycle. For many automotive firms, following a repeatable programme timing plan and product structure template with continuous improvement through many small iterations is standard practice. Nothing unusual. My experiences in defence tell me such practices are aimed for, but as a reactionary measure to a problem. Not as a proactive pursuit. The automotive normal, is the defence industries’ novel. This must be seen primarily as a reflection on culture rather than capability or applicability.
What do these insights inform us, and how can they help the MOD equipment plan?
1. Firstly, being proactive is key; it takes people wanting to solve the problem before the problem occurs. In times of change, the same approach does not suffice; Kennedy knew it, just as much as the automotive sector practices active change management on a daily basis. New thinking should be welcomed - especially if there is a whole sector to learn some exceptional practices from which is willing to support the MOD in protecting the UK.
2. At a sectoral level, over the last decade the automotive C-suite recognised and supported the data revolution, and defence will also require buy-in at the highest government levels – the defence industry is highly integrated and reliant upon a vast ecosystem that needs to pull in a unified direction should it play its part in filling the equipment ‘black hole’.
3. And at a programme level, a pragmatic reallocation of budget to focus on data quality and visibility to enable data-driven engineering can be a significant lever on time and cost overrun without having to increase the number of engineers at a time of skill scarcity.
'What the automotive industry can teach defense players about speed and agility', Quick Release_ (2023)