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The infantryman helping the military get its digital house in order

Fri 31 Jan 2020 | Major-General Tom Copinger-Symes

Ahead of his keynote at Cloud Expo Europe, Techerati interviews UK Strategic Command’s new Director of Military Digitisation

Digital and information technology have changed the nature of defence for good. Today’s battlefield is an information battlefield, one that favours those who process information quicker and more securely than their rivals. All strands of the armed forces, including their partners and allies, are reliant on technology as an avenue for real-time cooperation. The efforts of their enemies, on the other hand, are directed towards undermining the new cyber avenues upon which military operations and intelligence depend.

The changing face of warfare is forcing nations to adapt and cultivate what the Ministry of Defence calls an ‘Information Advantage’. In a guidance note explaining the concept, the MoD writes: “Information, in all its manifestations, must change the way we execute business and prosecute warfare, both at home and overseas in an era of constant competition.”

What does this mean in practice? Defence departments must become agile outfits that make digital technologies central to the way they operate and fight. To use the vernacular of the tech economy, they must “digitally transform”. The man leading the UK military’s digitisation is Major-General Tom Copinger Symes CBE, a seasoned soldier who has served in numerous tours, most recently as commander of a battlegroup in Afghanistan.

“Our safety, our values and our way of life are being threatened by a range of actors, both states and non-states,” Tom says. “History tells us that unless we adapt and transform we will slip backwards and ultimately lose the race.”

New domains

The Director of Military Digitisation is a newly-carved role and Tom is its debut appointment. You can broadly divide the role into two components, or fronts. On the one hand, Tom serves as the “military conscience” for Defence CIO, Charlie Forte, and his leadership team, reminding them “what we do and how we operate and fight”. The soldier explains emerging military concepts like “multi-domain warfare” while conveying how the Defence’s traditional “values, ethos and latent energy” can be harnessed as a resource to effect change.

Join Tom at Cloud Expo Europe, 11-12 March 2020, ExCeL London

The new battlefield: Defending the nation in a digitalised world
12 Mar 2020, 14:15 – 14:40
Main Stage

His, secondary, external role is to be the “digital conscience” for senior military leadership alongside Forte, explaining to the upper echelons of the military how IT can modernise and transform the way it fights. It’s not a battle they fight alone. To inject a dose of digital thinking, Tom has formed a band of “digital ninjas” (officially titled ‘The Defence Digital Service’, after the US initiative of the same name). The idea is to get a full range of perspectives and cross-pollinate thinking. Forte informally refers to Tom as “connector-in-chief”. What exactly does he join up? “People, ideas, problems, and solutions.”

Swapping out the frontline for a suit-and-tie desk job is quite the career change, but Tom says he leapt at the chance to influence the highest levels of Defence: “When I turned up there was no staff, no PA or EA, no office – not even a desk. So having just been commanding an Army Division of 30,000 soldiers it was a bit of a shock!” Five months in there are now seven staff under Tom’s command. It’s a different temperature to the heat of battle, but Tom says he was attracted to the idea of “working in a different climate” to the one he had become used to.

While Tom has military credentials in abundance and experience working alongside some of the Army’s “cleverest and most technical soldiers”, the ex-Commander is the first to admit he’s not what we in the sector call a “technologist”. A significant portion of his first five months in charge has been dedicated to a crash course in all things digital: “Every day is a school day for me — learning new skills, new language, new ideas,” he says. “It’s a full-body workout.”

Then again, it’s a misnomer to think that successful digital leadership requires a degree in computer science. A broad command of tech is necessary, but such knowledge can be crammed – unlike communication and leadership skills cultivated during a lifetime of military service:

“I am here principally for my understanding and experience of how we fight, with plenty of specialists in support. [The role] is about communication across multiple cultural and organisational stove-pipes, building a network and aligning people behind a common vision, and increasing our confidence and our appetite for risk,” Tom says. “It’s ultimately about helping us learn, adapt and win – and those are things I’ve done for the past 30 years.”

Checklist

A key digital step-change for the military is the positioning of data alongside ships, weapons, and personnel as a key strategic asset. The value of data can only be unlocked with infrastructure, equipment, skills and culture. But demand for these is only “stimulated” once data is recognised as the essential unit of modern warfare. “Experience tells me that cultural change is always the most difficult thing to achieve,” Tom explains.

The first step to effecting cultural change is to be receptive to internal needs. To stimulate digital demand and to ensure new IT programs truly serve military needs, Tom has forged a small team which “represents the needs and aspirations of ‘users’” across Defence. Its mission is to deliver “a coherent, prioritised and end-to-end demand signal for Digital and IT capabilities across the battlespace.”

Investment in these components is ongoing and deciding what you need is only the start. Every touchpoint that produces and requires data needs to receive and transmit it without friction. The ultimate goal is a military that is both digitally integrated across land, sea, air, cyber and space domains and interoperable with Allies and cross-government partners.

“[We must ensure] seamless connectivity between the operational technology on our fighting platforms, via our digital backbone, to our HQs, our bases and our supply chain – so that data can flow freely from the core to the edge and back again and across the different domains in which we fight.”

We often talk of the “the network edge” and the rising importance of data processing closer to the user. It’s perhaps appropriate to remind ourselves what the network edge means in the context of the military: systems on the frontline that soldiers rely on to stay alive. The Defence’s new director of Military Digitisation knows and understands these extreme conditions well: “Intuitive use of information is especially important in warfare, when you are usually tired, stressed, scared, wet and cold (or hot and thirsty) and easily distracted by bits of metal flying past your head!”

Information has always been the currency of defence. But in today’s digital world, a nation’s security lives or dies on its ability to transform data reserves into a competitive advantage. Information and the digital technologies that orchestrate it are not simply tools, but instruments of power – one our Defence cannot wield unless it is fully-digitised. “Overcoming institutional inertia and accelerating Defence’s transformation is essential to deliver our purpose,” Tom says “To protect our people, to prevent conflict, and ultimately to allow us to fight and win if it comes to that.”

Experts featured:

Major-General Tom Copinger-Symes

Director of Military Digitisation
UK Strategic Command

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