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The SOS we’re not hearing: part one

Darryn (Daz) Rawlins, Managing Director, Thales Training and Simulation, UK writes about how closer collaboration, both on customer and supplier sides, can bring new opportunities to strengthen national security.

How closer collaboration, both on customer and supplier sides, can bring new opportunities to strengthen national security

My last two articles have been pretty niche – training the next generation of combat pilots and how the concept of the digital twin could speed that whole training process along. This time, I’d like to talk about something much broader. Something that currently affects almost every company working in the defence industry. And something that only we, as an industry, can collectively solve for our customers. And that something is closer collaboration.

About nine months ago, I was hosting an Air Officer at Thales in the UK’s Crawley hub. At the end of the briefing, he took me aside and remarked how impressed he was by the technology he’d seen and the people he’d met – as he always was whenever he visited technology companies and suppliers in our industry. “But Daz,” he said, “what I find frustrating is you defence contractors don't talk to each other. You’re often competing for the same business, so you're reluctant to collaborate along the same capability sectors. And that’s a problem for me.”

I can relate to this. In previous lives, as a Squadron Commander and as Head of Requirements for UK Military Flying Training Systems, and now as MD of Thales Training and Simulation, UK, I’ve become well versed in the needs and desires of users, procurers and defence suppliers.

More recently, a colleague was talking with another Senior Officer who echoed a similar concern that original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) in our industry don’t practice a systems-of-systems (SoS) approach to everything they do. Both of these comments got me thinking about why things are the way they are. How have we ended up in this situation where the end customer who’s paying us to provide highly specialised services and solutions is not satisfied by the end result, or the level of collaboration? And more importantly, what can we do about it?

First though, I’d like to clarify what I mean by SoS. If I was explaining this to my business, I’d launch into a passionate speech about digital eco-systems and collective training, however, perhaps an everyday example of a successful systems-of-systems approach could be where a smart house with solar panels integrates into a smart grid. The homeowner uses electricity from the grid, but also feeds the grid for some of the day. So the interface between customer and utility company is smart enough to read energy data in real-time, then talk to the electrical grid’s operational centre so it can adjust and regulate the energy supply in the network, and generate an accurate bill each month. Smart lights, smart locks etc could be seamlessly added to the SoS as required. In essence, an SoS approach means the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

A status quo designed to fail?

So how have we ended up where we are? For me, the dichotomy is down to competing aims. On one side we have the defence contractors and OEMs, commercially-run organisations that have to turn a profit to survive. To do that means maximising workshare and margins, fearlessly protecting any company IP that provides a competitive edge, and, due to the nature of procurement, competing hard for every relevant defence contract opportunity that comes along. In other words, there’s little-to-no incentive to collaborate when you pitch contractor against contractor.

On the other side, we have the non-commercially orientated military organisation (the end customer or procurer), who’s simply looking for the best possible product or solution, for the best possible price, to be delivered within the best possible timeframe. And any large-scale defence project will involve working with numerous different specialists, each responsible for their own constituent parts and each using their own systems. This sounds fine on paper, but if you have competing systems unable to talk to, or integrate with each other, well, they all become irrelevant unless true systems-thinking is embraced. Yet interoperability…the mystical 9th Defence Line of Development (DLoD) – a key objective of armed forces for decades – is becoming increasingly important at a systems level as technology becomes ever-more sophisticated and we move towards multi-domain operations, whether that’s air, land or sea. Put bluntly, if your SoS isn’t interoperable, you’re in trouble.

Competition breeds innovation…

I think it’s also worth highlighting that in most sectors, competition is a good thing. It encourages innovation, improves efficiencies, and reduces costs – we’d consider all of these things good for consumers and end customers. But you have to ask the question: when it comes to the national defence sector, who benefits from an ultra-competitive landscape? I’d strongly argue that if interoperability and SoS are compromised, it’s certainly not the end customer.

And there are other forces at work that might hinder SoS. For example, since Covid we’ve seen OEMs, keen to make up for lost profits due to the pandemic, start moving into more and more sectors they traditionally left to specialist partners. This land grab for workshare is a threat to specialist organisations who have no choice but to circle their wagons and protect their IP. Again, this is hardly conducive to a together-everyone-achieves-more (TEAM) approach.

…but often at collaboration’s expense

So if the senior bods on the customer side are asking us why we can’t get better at talking to one another, we have to listen. And I suppose to answer that question we have to ask ourselves, to what extent is it in our interests to talk to each other? I can’t speak for the industry, just from my own experience. For me, Thales in the UK has always been OEM-agnostic. We’ll work with any OEM on any project, as long as we feel we can add a decisive technological edge; help build a future we can all trust.  And one recent example is our inclusion in the Team Tempest programme. We’re one of seven innovation partners joining BAE Systems, Leonardo UK, MBDA UK and Rolls-Royce to collaborate with the Ministry of Defence to work on developing the next-generation combat aircraft.

Testing times ahead

The easiest way for these seven companies to successfully integrate with the main four, is if all parties embrace a SoS approach. I think it will probably test the industry's resolve and determination to come together in a collaborative way like they've never had to before...oh …and protect corporate IP!  Yes, we've had joint ventures, consortiums and partnerships, but nothing that has to address the scale of Future Combat Air System (FCAS) which Tempest will operate in. It’s a lot of people and a lot of organisations, with a lot of constituent parts and a lot of complex systems. And in part two, I’ll look in more depth at what I think we can do as an industry to help everyone, on both sides of the buyer-provider coin, win.