Complexity – The New Norm

In my role as a senior adviser to Redstone Risk, I dined this month with a senior official from the MoD. He had been busy with a contribution to the updating of the Command Paper which is intended to shape, guide and inform the doctrine, force structure and ways of working of the British military for a generation. Coupled with the ongoing delivery of the Defence and Security industrial strategy, he told me that a key role was envisioned for collaboration with partners: a vanilla term “collaboration” – who wouldn’t welcome such a theme? – but one that will be doing much of the heavy lifting for the British military in the years ahead. Whatever it represents, we had better get it right. The second thought bubble I took away from my time with my dining companion was the strategic significance to UK defence of the Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP) and AUKUS, the emerging non-treaty alliance between Australia, UK and US. The two of course are interlinked, built upon the political, military and commercial centrality of collaboration.

With GCAP, the countries of the UK, Italy and Japan are joining forces to design, develop and deliver the next generation of combat air capability, replacing Typhoon in the UK. The original date for an initial operating capability was 2035, but this seems perilously close to where we are now, with governments still working out how to collaborate upon, and govern, such a profound strategic undertaking. But it is much more than politicians and officials scurrying around. Military staffs from the three nations are locked in work-streams on common (and differing) requirements, doctrinal ways of working and integration across an ever-changing real and virtual battlefield.  Layered onto this complexity is the commercial collaboration between three massive, global, nationally-headquartered businesses in Tokyo, Rome and London: consultants are having an early Christmas helping to work out the commercial protocols, emergent cultures, required behaviours and programme management arrangements for a global programme with extensive supply chains, technological requirements, raw research and systems’ architectures that are in constant flux. A rubik’s cube of infinite faces and multiple possibilities has to be tamed, tuned and solved within a decade.

In this regard, a desire for strategic collaboration has to meet the real-world realities of effective programme management. We need artefacts such as a single master schedule of activities, a proper understanding of the resourcing necessary for delivery, a fully-mastered sense of the issues and risks that need to be interdicted, and the opportunities that emerge – operationally, commercially, culturally – from such a collaboration, and where the critical financial flows fall, and when.  We also need, I believe, to understand how sensitive the business case is to export sales beyond the three national requirements. Put glibly, is our own consumption of next-generation capabilities affordable without exports? This is critical information when we face potential competition from US and European capabilities in the export market in the 2030s, 2040s and beyond.

Likewise, we face challenges with AUKUS. Pillar One activities sit on the provision of nuclear-powered strategic submarine capabilities to Australia for the first time, involving a design and build collaboration between the British and Australians, utilising US nuclear propulsion proprietary technologies. Pillar Two ambitions relate to supposed tri-national requirements for artificial intelligence and autonomy, cyber security and offensive capabilities, quantum technologies, undersea capabilities, hypersonic ordinance, counter hypersonic ordinance and electronic warfare upgrades. This is a shopping list of advanced capabilities, criss-crossed by multiple interdependencies, knowledge constraints and resource pinch-points, both in government, between governments and commercially. As with GCAP, the requirement for un-flinching and honest programme management, flavoured with resource realism, cannot be overstated.

So, back to my dinner. The thought struck me that future capabilities are to be generated through really quite advanced and complex programme management activities and skills. Yet my dining companion cheerfully revelled in his ignorance of governance requirements and programme management methodologies and options. His training and development, after all, had prioritised other things. But in the preparation for and generation of future high-end defence capabilities, the core strategic management competency is going to be an ability to deal with programmatic complexity. Whether or not we have grasped this, the next few years will show.

John Louth

Professor John Louth is senior strategic adviser to Redstone Risk. He serves on a number of UK defence boards as either a non-executive director or strategic adviser and sits on the panel of advisers to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee. His latest book on UK exports was published this year by Routledge. He is a collaborating professor with the University of South Australia in Adelaide.