Insight Innovation

An insight into British Army innovation

The British Army has a long history of innovation, but continues to invest in its innovation culture and processes. Major Adam Coffey RA tells us about the Army Innovation Team’s approach to innovation and the decision to join the IKE accreditation process. 

In 2016 the announcement of the Defence Innovation Initiative by the Secretary of State for Defence placed renewed emphasis on innovation as a way of maintaining our military edge. Since then, the term innovation has been incorporated into almost every vision statement, seniors’ speech or commentary detailing how the British Army can maintain its competitive edge.

In a 2016 report outlining the Defence Innovation Initiative, Sir Michael Fallon said that “British brains gave the world the tank, the fighter aircraft, the Dreadnought battleship, radar and the jump jet.” It is important to acknowledge that novel solutions to specific problems have been at the heart of how the British Army has functioned at the tactical level for decades.

The past five years have seen the British Army commemorate and celebrate many battles and victories, from the battlefields of Waterloo to the global battlefields or World War 2. At the heart of all these battles is an innovation, be it in tactics, equipment or strategy.

Technological and tactical innovation

Although innovation in defence often focuses on kit and equipment, it has been demonstrated repeatedly that technical innovation is often not enough. For equipment innovations to be exploited, they must be coupled and driven by a new and novel tactic, technique or procedure.

In 2016 the British Army celebrated 100 years since the first introduction of the tank. Whilst not the first country to consider using vehicles with caterpillar tracks, the British Army was the first country to use the design in combat, at the infamous Battle of the Somme. This attempt to break the deadlock of trench warfare failed, but the ‘tank’ had demonstrated its capabilities, and further training and development was conducted at pace.

Some 14 months later the improved tanks were deployed with new tactics and procedures that shocked not only the German Army, but the British Army too. Advancing six miles, across a seven-mile front, the new and improved tanks pushed the German Army further back in one action than had been achieved in the war to date. However, it outstripped their resupply train resulting in the attack faltering.

"Now that the Army finds itself less persistently engaged it can be argued that the lack of focus that specific challenges offered has reduced the opportunities the supporting finance to routinely engage with ideas that can be considered innovative."

Continuous improvement is not enough

So, if the British Army has such pedigree in innovation, why did the Army’s Innovation Team select to go through IKE accreditation? Have the halcyon days of good ideas gone? Do we only innovate and start to change when our soldiers are in physical danger?

When the British Army identifies a specific problem, its soldiers have demonstrated repeatedly that they can solve them in novel and interesting ways. A combination of an ‘adapt and overcome’ mentality supported by an interest in emerging technology has had an impact on operations, how we train and how we equip ourselves.

Two decades of campaigning in Iraq and Afghanistan have offered plenty of challenges for the British Army. However, now that the Army finds itself less persistently engaged, it can be argued that the lack of focus that specific challenges offered has reduced both the opportunities, and supporting finance, to routinely engage with ideas that can be considered innovative. It is within this area that people’s attention often turns to solely technological solutions.

A combination of an ‘adapt and overcome’ mentality supported by an interest in emerging technology has had an impact on operations, how we train and how we equip ourselves."

This fixation on the application of technology is not only a British Army problem. A cursory glance at the US Army’s lethality programme, where modernisation focuses on improving range, precision and speed, has similar issues.

Making more of the same equipment, or making it ‘better’, is continuous improvement rather than innovation. Technology should be considered as a means to an end, not an end in itself, while not forgetting that armies equip soldiers to give them a decisive battlefield advantage. We must not forget the human nature of land combat, and whilst combat might be changing, it remains a human endeavour.

Developing innovation as an Army capability

With the announcement of the Defence Innovation Fund (2016) and Defence Transformation Fund (2019), the MOD has committed £960m to pursue innovation. But what is innovation? In its simplest form it is “the successful exploitation of new ideas”, according to Oxford University Innovation’s ISIS Enterprise.

Critically, this should include ideas ‘new to us’ as well as the genuinely groundbreaking. We must recognise that innovation is a continuum that runs from continuous improvement to transformation; continuous improvement provides the foundation, the fertile ground essential for truly transformational innovation to grow.

The challenge for the Army is how we can develop innovation as a capability and realise the benefits of becoming an organisation which is ‘innovative by instinct’. If we are to inculcate a spirit of innovation we need to focus on our most important asset, our people. To reap the benefits provided by an innovative culture we need to invest in them – they are our culture.

Whilst it is easy to cherry-pick examples from across the Army which demonstrate innovation, we can and must do better to exploit the opportunities that an innovative approach offers."

Whilst defence, and by default the Army, is often considered unique due to the core nature of its work – that being “primarily a war-fighting organisation to protect the nation and, if required, fight the nation’s enemies with absolute commitment” – when broken down to its component parts the Army is more similar to many organisations across a variety of sectors than you would expect. Logistics, training, communications, recruitment, procurement are all areas which have the same challenges and opportunities when compared to wider business.

Although it is easy to cherry-pick examples from across the Army which demonstrate innovation, we can and must do better to exploit the opportunities that an innovative approach offers. There are two key reasons for this.

Firstly, defence is an expensive insurance policy for the UK and we must ensure that we represent value for money for the UK tax payer. Secondly, and most importantly, we ask our soldiers to do incredible things in trying circumstances which can, and often do, endanger their lives. It is imperative that they go into these situations knowing that the kit, training and processes supporting them is the best that it possibly can be.

A multi-dimensional approach to innovation

The British Army is already working to become innovative by instinct. Projects on empowerment, training to fail and our commitment to experimentation and development of prototype warfare are just some of the areas where we are embracing an innovative approach. However, investment is still key.

Commitment of financial resources provides an excellent start, but this needs to be matched by similar commitment of leadership and time, genuinely prioritising innovation as core activity, inherent in all we do. This is why we have opted to go through the IKE process. Lots of people have views on what is innovative, or how it could work, but there are few organisations that offer a holistic view from across a variety of sectors. This is why we chose IKE – to offer a holistic assessment of what we are currently doing, and to offer advice on how we can do better.

The Army has the ability to be a world-class innovative organisation: it has all the parts, but it needs tuning. Considering innovation in three specific areas – people, process, and technology – provides a multi-dimensional approach which can be applied across the entire organisation. Of these, our people are the most important, and it is only through them that we can generate the agility, resilience and adaptability we seek.

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