Insight Defence

The Royal Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office is working to boost innovation across the UK’s armed forces. Its deputy head of operations, Group Captain Simon Blackwell, tells us more.

Rapid development: supercharging innovation in the Royal Air Force

Rapid development: supercharging innovation in the Royal Air Force

The Royal Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office is working to boost innovation across the UK’s armed forces. Its deputy head of operations, Group Captain Simon Blackwell, tells us more.

In 2016 the Chief of the Air Staff directed the formation of the Royal Air Force (RAF) Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO). Designed to push the boundaries of performance for military capability delivery for the RAF, the RCO aims to maximise diversity in thinking and in delivery within a multidisciplinary team.

Defence procurement is not always known for its agility and the RCO team looks to overcome this challenge through innovative and novel solutions to capability enhancement and delivery efficiency.

Rapid development: key RCO projects

Since its inception, the RCO has demonstrated how it adds value in a rapid and agile manner. Projects have ranged from small proofs of concept, such as translation software, the use of drones for force protection or the provision of a new space capability, through to larger and longer projects.

Project ARMA, for example, has delivered world-leading expendable active decoy technology to the warfighter to defeat advanced radar-guided missile systems and is currently developing the technology to dominate the future export market.

Illustration of the technology developed under project ARMA. Image courtesy of RCO

Meanwhile, project SIREN will deliver the next generation of aircraft self-protection flares, designed to counter advanced infra-red guided missiles, from 2020 and beyond. This is being approached through novel provision of a UK industry/MOD flare enterprise based on an agile and sustainable production facility.

Project BOZAL identified the value of employing an Internet of Things (IoT) network of sensors to monitor location and environmental conditions of a wide array of equipment and is currently exploiting this in collaboration with the Royal Navy and the British Army.

Tempest is a proposed stealth fighter aircraft concept for the UK. Image courtesy of RCO

Leading innovation in combat air systems

The Future Combat Air System Technology Initiative (FCAS TI) programme sits under the umbrella of the RCO and is a flagship programme for innovative practice within the RAF. This programme will mature the best emerging combat aircraft technology to prepare the UK to replace the Typhoon combat aircraft at the planned end of its service life in 2040.

FCAS TI is seeking an ambitious blend of global technical partnering as well as national projects to ensure all potential options, including the potential for a new combat aircraft system, are investigated and exploited.

At the heart of FCAS TI is Team Tempest, announced at the 2018 Farnborough International Airshow, a co-funded MOD/industry initiative delivering a portfolio of around £2bn of innovative technical research and development projects.

Overcoming innovation barriers across the RAF

In addition to delivery of its own projects, the RCO aims to provide a challenge function to other RAF departments wherever possible. This includes team members helping to supercharge other projects by supporting project or programme activity that needs to overcome barriers to innovation, such as policy, process and culture.

To make this possible, the RCO operates directly under the boundaries set by the RCO board, consisting of the senior executive commanders of operations, equipment procurement, finance, people and training.

The RCO’s vision is the requirement to ‘enhance the competitive edge for UK air power’. The motto is to Explore, Expedite and Exploit: challenge traditional process, to exploit rapidly evolving commercial/military off-the-shelf technology and to understand, evaluate and manage risk to expedite capability decisions.

It also means the RCO is encouraged to ‘fail fast’: explore ambitious and challenging options and close them down if they don’t prove to be of value. This is an attribute often discouraged in broader traditional defence procurement.

Members of the RCO receiving the MinDP Innovation Award in November 2018.

As a catalyst for positive innovative change within the RAF and the wider defence sector, the RCO has worked tirelessly to produce output that firmly sits within the vision set by its board.

Recently recognised by a Minister for Defence Procurement (MinDP) award for acquisition, the RCO was also awarded the overall prize for innovation from MinDP in 2018.

The work and operating practices undertaken have also been recognised in the broader civilian sector: the RCO is the first UK Defence organisation to be awarded the Investor in Innovations Standard by the Innovation Council and Institute of Innovation and Knowledge Exchange.

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