As the British Army aligns with the theme of ‘Achieving an Integrated Force’ at DSEI 2023, this interview with a high-ranking military official sheds light on the Army’s goals, challenges, and commitment to innovation.
DSEI 2023 is set to be the largest in its history, bringing together over 2,800 defence and security suppliers. This year’s theme, ‘Achieving an Integrated Force,’ is at the forefront of discussions, reflecting the British Army’s role in UK Defence’s pursuit of multi-domain integration.
In this exclusive interview with Harry McNeil, the Assistant Chief of the General Staff, Major General Charlie Collins, provides insights into the Army’s priorities, collaboration with industry, training for the digital age, and the significance of DSEI in showcasing the Army’s capabilities and innovations on the global stage.
Harry McNeil (HM): Can you give us an overview of DSEI 2023 and its theme of ‘Achieving an Integrated Force’? How does this theme reflect the British Army’s current priorities and future goals?
Major General Charlie Collins (MJCC): This year’s DSEI promises to be the biggest in its history, showcasing the best of both British and International defence industries. As part of the wider integrated force, the British Army has a critical role in UK Defence’s drive towards achieving Multi-Domain Integration.
Indeed, integration is at the heart of the Army’s new Land Operating Concept. It defines the Army’s role in winning the land battle on behalf of the joint force, delivering as a net contributor of capability able to support all domains – both on and from the land.
But that isn’t the end of the story, and this is the crucial element for DSEI. It’s also about the Army delivering political choice through constant readiness and agility. This can only be through a closer relationship with our partners in industry. Without them, we simply couldn’t deliver.
This resonates with the sentiment that ‘defences don’t fight wars, nations do’. The war in Ukraine has brought this once again into sharp focus. It has highlighted the importance of being able to maintain and scale the production capacity of our defence industry and necessity of assured supply chains at times of need.
HM: With over 2,800 defence and security suppliers participating. How does the British Army benefit from this collaboration between governments, armed forces, and the industry?
MJCC: In simple terms, we can do more if we understand each other better and make a more concerted efforts to collaborate. DSEI provides the ideal platform to explore collaboration opportunities whilst improving our mutual understanding and each other’s perspectives.
Over the years, the UK land industrial base has been hampered by a cycle of feast-to-famine investment, unclear intentions, and a relationship that has not advocated open dialogue and willingness to collaborate between decision-makers and those delivering the equipment and services that we need.
So when we embarked on the largest modernisation plan in a generation following the Integrated Review 2021, we also set about learning from the past and considering how we might best progress in this new era.
We did this through the Land Industrial Strategy (LIS), published last year, which sets the intent, ways of working, and actions by which the Army, wider Ministry of Defence and industry will collaborate to maximise the value from investment in the Army’s modernisation and transformation.
At its heart, the LIS seeks to advance equipment onto the frontline more quickly while ensuring the Army can sustain its effectiveness by retaining access to the industrial capabilities that underpin our ability to operate and fight. Access to these capabilities can only be assured through industry’s clear understanding of our requirements now and in the future.
That knowledge can only come from collaboration. Additionally, by emphasising our willingness to collaborate internationally, the LIS helps strengthen international ties as part of the Army’s wider prosperity agenda while also strengthening our industrial base. By bringing partners and allies into the conversation with industry at events such as DSEI, we all stand to benefit.
HM: The session at DSEI discussing optimising the British Army’s personnel in the digital age. Could you share insights into how the Army is adapting its training methods to prepare soldiers for the challenges of the digital era?
MJCC: It’s clear that our soldiers are already living and breathing in the digital age. Our specialists are increasingly comfortable with and adept at using emerging digital technologies such as AI, and both physical and synthetic training environments are being used now, from initial trade training all the way up to complex combined arms manoeuvre training.
To professionalise this capability beyond our technical specialists, we are creating a skills framework that captures all the skills that our personnel currently have, including digital skills, and are conducting a gap analysis of where we are falling short on future demand.
This iterating framework will help us identify training gaps to allow a constant evolution and adaption in our training, so our people are upskilled appropriately. To specifically develop digital skills, we have created an information and intelligence profession with responsibility for defining the relevant knowledge, skills, experience and behaviours requirements for the Army of today and into the future.
Foundation digital skills training is now available for all Army personnel regardless of specialism. For our technical specialists, digital systems principles are now embedded in all technical training courses, which include civilian industry modules and are mapped to relevant apprenticeships. We are also reinvigorating placements with industry to upskill and collaborate in critical skills areas, including digital.
All of this will ensure that our training remains transformational and will continue to equip our people to meet the challenges of tomorrow. The next step is to put these emergent digital technologies in the hands of our soldiers more quickly and more widely so they can experiment to inform and shape future capability development.
After all, that is a much better way of utilising our people’s skills than having senior officers judge how nascent technology should be best employed at the tactical level. The panel on Wednesday, 13 September, will explore optimising the British Army’s personnel in a digital age in more detail.
HM: A panel discussion will explore The Land Industrial Strategy and its implementation. What are the key challenges and opportunities the British Army faces in delivering the necessary capabilities now and in the future?
MJCC: Without wanting to pre-empt Tuesday, 12 September’s panel discussion, I hope that it is going to shine a light onto some of the ongoing collaboration between the Army, DE&S and industry to implement the Land Industrial Strategy.
Prompted by the most recent Land Enterprise Working Group in July, I think the conversation will explore which areas of our industrial base are the most important to us as the Land Operating Concept emerges, guiding which sectors warrant a specific strategy.
I also expect the conversation to explore the critical lessons we are continuing to learn from Ukraine and how we might address the challenges that they present. No doubt, there will be questions that recognise the (almost) impossible balance between delivery the capability that we need immediately and longer-term modernising, where our financial priorities should be, and the compromises made in selecting rapid acquisition solutions.
I am also looking forward to hearing thoughts on how we build an enterprise that can keep up with the continuous evolution in military capability, an evolution that is made possible by the alarming rate of technological advancement but hindered by constraints in contracting by the traditional approach. It’s going to be a fascinating and valuable conversation.
HM: The International Congress on Soldiers’ Physical Performance (ICSPP) is set to take place alongside DSEI. How does the theme “Future Soldier: Delivering Human Advantage” align with the British Army’s approach to enhancing soldiers’ physical and cognitive capabilities?
MJCC: The ICSPP is the world’s leading international Congress on military human performance, and this 6th iteration will see delegates represented from 20 countries. The ICSPP London theme, ‘Future Soldier: Delivering Human Advantage’, brings together scientific, military and medical experts to exchange ideas, present new data and collectively enable our soldiers to deliver human advantage within the future land warfare domain.
I consider the Army’s people to be our competitive edge, but to sustain and develop that advantage, Defence will need to optimise the human component across the whole force.
As we cease to rely on mass, it will become ever more important to maximise the impact of fewer people throughout the operating spectrum, and soldiers will have to be prepared to transition rapidly between training, operations and warfighting.
It’s a challenge, but human advantage will be realised, therefore, by optimising and enhancing the performance and protection of our people as individuals, as teams and as human-machine teams.
We need a motivated, integrated Land force optimised across the physical, cognitive, psychological, social and behavioural spectrum of performance, and Army are putting in place the evidence-based policies, procedures, ethics frameworks and the underpinning science and technology needed to achieve this.
ICSPP London, with its focus on human advantage, comes at a good time, enabling us to capitalise on a vast, global expertise to support – and hopefully challenge! – our concept of the Future Soldier and our work on the ground to support our soldiers.
HM: As the Assistant Chief of the General Staff, what message would you convey to the participants and attendees at DSEI 2023 regarding the British Army’s commitment to innovation and meeting integrated defence requirements?
MJCC: As a long-standing commitment to innovation, the Land Warfare Centre established the Experimentation and Trials Group (ETG) based on 2 YORKS Battle Group following the Integrated Review in 2021.
‘ETG’ work with the Futures and Programmes Directorates in Army Headquarters to take experimental military and commercial partner capabilities and trialling them force-on-force within major collective training exercises. This sharing of expertise ultimately helps us deliver the correct solutions into the hands of soldiers quicker than we have done in the past.
A typical experiment might see Artificial Intelligence used to reduce the sensor-to-shooter targeting process from minutes to seconds. We are also taking a blended learning approach across the live, constructive and virtual domains, including the use of next-generation simulators and tactical engagement systems.
All of this, in conjunction with rapid procurement and our lessons-learned process, including our insights into Ukraine, drives a real change at the pace of relevance such that we stay ahead of and counter how our adversaries fight.
The Defence BattleLab in Dorset gives Defence and the Army a physical and virtual network to collaborate with industry and academia to deliver the most innovative technology and outputs to meet Defence problem sets. Programme MERCURY aims to solve the Army’s 2035 challenges with industry today.
MERCURY will see the Army collaborating with industry at the earliest stage of the procurement process, supercharging technological innovation through this decade to deliver revolutionary capability in the next epoch.
ARIEL (Army Rapid Innovation Exploitation Laboratory) provides the Army’s innovation accelerator, supporting the delivery of novel ideas into the hands of the user, whether they be related to People, Process or Technology. All of this work links to the Land Industrial Strategy, emphasising true partnerships as opposed to a more traditional transactional engagement with industry.
HM: Finally, could you share your perspective on the significance of DSEI 2023 as a platform for showcasing the British Army’s capabilities, innovations, and contributions to achieving an integrated force?
MJCC: DSEI is a hugely significant event for us in the British Army. With an expected audience of 40,000 visitors from over 110 countries, DSEI provides the perfect backdrop to present to international industry and our allies and partners how far the British Army has progressed in terms of both mobilising in the face of a changing context and modernising to meet the next generation of threats.
Our stands will showcase this progression with delivery agent, customer, user and manufacturer all contributing, presenting a powerfully integrated message. As MinDP stated at the DSEI Parliamentary reception in June, “There’s no substitute for seeing our kit up close and personal. No substitute for meeting the people who are operating it or the experts behind it”.
The purpose of the British Army is to protect the United Kingdom by being ready to fight and win wars on land. This will be evident in spades at this year’s DSEI, but I will return to where I started: defences don’t fight wars, nations do – from the foxhole to the factory – we need to be a truly integrated enterprise.