Defence Doctrine and how working with industry can bridge the (increasing?) gap between concept and capability

“less invention, some innovation but more integration”

The recently released 6th edition of UK Defence Doctrine (JDP 0-01 dated Nov 22) is, as usual with publications of this nature, an interesting read whether a scan to check the direction of travel or a deep doctrinal analysis, pulling some less well-thumbed reference materials off the shelf.

Image credit © UK MOD Strategic Command

Beyond the enduring tenets of “Mission Command”, the “Manoeuvrist Approach” and “Integrated Action”[1] (evolving from and replacing “Joint Action” which was very focused on the enemy, to now being more focused on the audience) all set within a strategic context that “is increasingly complex, dynamic and competitive[2], there are some points of particular relevance for commanders and communicators, which strike me as:

  • that “without seeking confrontation, the UK, along with our allies and partners, needs to enhance resilience and strengthen deterrence and defence[3] which sees an increased role for persistent engagement and partnering, often carried out by small teams as part of the “engage” function described as a “forward deployed posture to assure influence, to deter and to reassure. Activities that establish and maintain the human networks, enhanced through digital connectivity[4] and including permanent bases, defence attachés and overseas exercises.
  • that to the Diplomatic, Military and Economic instruments of national power has been added Information: “the information instrument of national power is the application of the UK’s institutional narrative using information activities (including strategic communication) in support of national interests. Information activity is underpinned by information technologies[5]. The Information instrument also underpins the other three, showing how key the messages are and how fundamental underpinning systems and networks are, and hence the delivery and sustainment of these networks including against cyber-attack (as illustrated clearly with regard to Ukraine) or even direct attack.
  • That JDP 0-01 sits comfortably alongside, and emphasises, the approach of Multi-Domain Integration (MDI)[6], including the ideas of information dominance and the pursuit of integration and the need to “sense, understand, plan and then orchestrate combinations of activities across operational domains in concert with the other instruments of national power, NATO and other like-minded allies and partners[7]. This again emphasises an extended and increasingly critical network fixed and deployable and, noting working with Allies and Partners, the need to operate across several security domains (for example national secret, NATO secret and unclassified for civilian agencies and open-source information).

Looking back to early 2021 (and thus before the illegal invasion of Ukraine by Russia) when MDI was being discussed, I found this in my notes from a briefing by the MOD to industry:

  • Russia is a land power and is weighted in that domain. In competition and armed conflict with Russia, the large continental land mass affects the MDI requirement as does the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO) considerable geostrategic land depth to Russia’s west
  • “The domains of space, and cyber and electromagnetic, although mostly unseen, are already part of the competitive battlespace; more of the contest is virtual and involves information”

And so it has proved, with the invasion and defence of Ukraine. Whilst you should not seek to fight the last campaign, the lessons from such a world order changing campaign are vital and whilst most of the direct action has taken place within the borders of the sovereign nation, action beyond with training teams, the defence industrial base powered up and commercial companies now a clear part of the information domain are a clear illustration of the combination of hard and soft power and the integrated approach. In the communications and information space, commercial satellite communications companies have been “attacked” but continue to deliver critical connectivity enabling direct action, intelligence gathering, the machinery of government to operate and welfare for uniformed and civilian personnel. Surveillance from space has been a fundamental part of the campaign, illustrating actions and atrocities thus enabling attribution so the global community, where free access to the internet allows, can see the reality of the campaign and get some sense of “right and wrong”. These are game-changing lessons taking the grey-zone and information dominance from a pseudo academic discussion into a daily mainstream activity.

In the last year, influenced to some degree by events in Ukraine, the UK MOD have been taking doctrine and operating concepts and carrying out what it is hoped are joined up developments in the front line commands including: the Commando Force (now not “future” as I keep being reminded by former-Royal Marine colleagues); Future Soldier (which is clearly still future, albeit some of this is coming at pace, mainly the Army Special Operations Brigade – the “Rangers”); Carrier Strike Groups deploying at significant reach including into the Asia-Pacific regions and the long term forward deployment of vessels;  and finally the RAF with new ISR and combat platforms (Poseidon and Lightning II) and looking to return to Agile Combat Employment (or agile basing, seemingly akin to the old Harrier Force in Germany but rather up-gunned).

However, the UK’s strategic and tactical air transport and rotary fleets, fundamental to “Global Response”, remain somewhat poorly connected compared to our US allies. This was something I found odd twenty plus years ago commanding the Parachute Signal Squadron in 2001 for two “first in” tours into Macedonia and then a couple of months later being on the first aircraft into Kabul to set up the initial NATO mission. After this we pushed requirements for Airborne C2 into the “speed bump” littered chain of command and an Army focused on Bowman conversion and armoured manoeuvre. I suspect connecting support and firepower aviation and air assets to ground forces remains, in some places, unresolved.

And so to the “new” Space domain and the creation of UK MOD Space Command bringing some coherence in terms of Protecting and Defending Space. 2022 saw a number of national and defence papers which, whilst somewhat “glossy”, presented new phrases to describe often long accepted ways of doing business to an expanding “space aware” or at least “space interested” audience. This seeks to mitigate the lack of MOD depth of experience in several key areas, the result of acquisition approaches which made eminent sense a decade or so ago both financially and capability wise. Whilst the National and Defence Space Strategies have faced some criticism from the House of Commons Defence Committee[8] and the Science and Technology Committee[9], they have raised the profile of areas such as dual use, the need to work with allies and industry and the need to mitigate threats from a number of state and non-state actors. The initial MOD Space Capability Plan lays out an approach to space based capabilities including those vital to users: Position Navigation and Timing (PNT), Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and, of course, Satellite Communications (SATCOM); and provides a roadmap for some R&D and “proof of concept” work.

But all this is a bit “jam tomorrow” rather than getting the tempo up in what the Chief of the General Staff – General Sir Patrick Sanders – terms Op MOBILISE[10], getting the Army a bit more match fit – “we are not at war – but we must act rapidly so that we aren’t drawn into one through a failure to contain territorial expansion”. However it would appear from many reports and commentary that the UK may struggle to deliver a full Armoured Brigade Combat Team (BCT) with ISTAR and fires alongside the armoured elements, since the troubled AJAX programme hasn’t delivered, BOXER is coming at pace to be somehow stitched into a coherent capability alongside the potentially increasing number of CHALLENGER 3 (I remember some junior officer debates about wheels vs tracks, mobility vs protection and protected vs armoured discussions but no matter..) and of course it will all at some point be digitally enabled. So, turning to communications, the MOD cannot afford to wait for the large programmes that could, potentially, deliver future legacy capability. The MOD could leverage what is already paid for and quite often already in the hands of the user, and better integrate it; meeting much of the requirements of the “exquisite” programmes but far faster and far more affordably. That isn’t to say that the Army doesn’t need a complete new radio and battlefield broadband network – it does – and these are likely major programmes, but there are ways of doing things incrementally. As a nation we maybe also need to look more at what others are doing and do it, rather than as is so often the case producing our own bespoke or tailored solution that we then spend time and money making interoperable with allies and partners.

So whether this is about Deep Recce Strike (DRS) or Global Response or armoured formations, there are systems and services out there to meet MOD needs. Small form Satellite Communication terminals and increasing bandwidth options that can be integrated for resilience (mitigating some of the positive and less positive lessons from Ukraine – an essay by itself); the ability to switch to local networks where available; or connect small teams on combat radio or mobile ad-hoc networks (leveraging much in service equipment and recently fielded Multi-Mode Radios delivering far more punch to individuals and almost immediately showing how the overly complex more traditional communications laydown for a conventional force can be “delayered” and extended); integrating Uncrewed Air Systems (UAS)/ drones to pass video or images rapidly “up” the chain and to flanks by leveraging satcom where appropriate and compressing and selecting data.

There are places where some of these types of systems have been fielded and tested: the Army Special Ops Brigade (ASOB), composed of four 300 strong Ranger Battalions based around 11 person teams, has been operating for over a year engaged across the globe in over 60 countries ranging from the Arctic Circle to the hotter climates of Africa, the Middle East and south-east Asia; the Commando Force based around 12 person teams, operating at range and able to leverage the fires, ISR and logistics support of the embarked force and maritime units; and 16 Air Assault Brigade Combat Team which has been flexing its muscles in eastern Europe, Belize and wider – getting back to basics with parachute insertions, but also improving its strategic and tactical connectivity.  Along with the Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) units, 77 Brigade and Information Manoeuvre Groups, and the associated enabler slices of EOD teams, medics, engineers and logisticians, this shift to a more persistently engaged land force has required reorganisation and re-skilling with more “bands of determined people” deployed more widely and for longer periods.

These teams are operating with less layers of command and less close support, and have to be connected to the homebase, allies and partners and, of course, each other. In reality, they all need different, or additional, capabilities to those provided by “core” programmes. Whilst their equipping to meet some of their requirements has been done to some degree, it has in many cases required some prudent staffwork, use of “underspend” and, where it can be found, some commercial flexibility.

Image credit © UK MOD Army Webpage “Ranger Regiment One Year On”

So, after all this discussion – why “less invention, some innovation but more integration”? It really is simple:

  1. we have been shown the power of an innovative spark and the power of integration, in spades, by the Ukrainians who have achieved the sort of advances in the current conflict that have changed the game as much as radar and the bouncing bomb did in World War II. They haven’t invented but have leveraged commercially available hardware and software, at pace and to great effect.
  2. almost everything needed to radically improve defence, and to do so affordably, in the short term exists – either with allies, with industry or in the hands of service personnel now.
  3. it is cheaper, and quicker, and energises the defence (and wider) supply chain.
  4. less high-profile shiny kit demos, less stove-piped discussions, more “ownership” from defence of the “use case” or “mission-thread, identifying the gaps (mostly already known).
  5. more flexibility from commercial people and process, whilst recognising money needs spent wisely and capability needs to be supportable and face increased complex threats – but more akin to Urgent Operational Requitements (UORs); defence was good at this a decade or so ago. Really good.
  6. rename some of the many “innovation” teams to “integration teams” – get companies round a table who have skin in the game and capabilities in service somewhere, push to demonstrate integrated capability in fast sprints, field it, tweak it, field, scale.
  7. while people wait for the big programmes (including invention and innovation for the R&D communities to work on – smart waveforms, new processing techniques etc) for tomorrow’s war – let’s get our collective sleeves rolled up for todays campaigns that could tip over into conflict more rapidly than we could care to think.

Always happy to get round a coffee and a white board!!


Neil Fraser
Director – Defence and Space Programmes
Get in touch:

[1] Integrated action can be described as the audience-centric orchestration of military activities, across all operational domains, synchronised with non-military activities to influence the attitude and behaviour of selected audiences necessary to achieve successful outcomes – JDP 0-01

[2] JDP 0-01 p4, 3 JDP 0-01 p4, 4 JDP 0-01 p46, 5 JDP 0-01 p10

[6] Multi-domain integration is the posturing of military capabilities in concert with other instruments of national power, allies and partners; configured to sense, understand and orchestrate effects at the optimal tempo, across the operational domains and levels of warfare

[7] JDP 0-01 p17 referring to MDI