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How is Information Advantage countering new and emerging threats? (Studio)

9th September 2021 - 12:00 GMT | by Studio

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In the data-rich information age in which we live, the concept of Information Advantage has become a fundamental shift in how the armed forces prosecute warfare.

Brought to you in partnership with Leidos

The UK's Integrated Review (IR) on defence, released in March 2021, highlighted the current security challenges and future threats expected within an era of Great Power Competition and the risk of potential conflict with a strategic competitor such as Russia or China.  

The IR acknowledged the essential role of artificial intelligence (AI), offensive and defensive cyber, and the need to attain an overall "Information Advantage" against a peer or near-peer adversary across the wider battlespace.

Speaking at a roundtable discussion on 'Delivery Information Advantage to UK Defence and Security' hosted by Leidos on 20 August, Air Vice Marshall Johnny Stringer, RAF visiting defence fellow with Rebellion Defence, offered a definition of Information Advantage. 

AVM Stringer explained that it means the 'ability to understand better, quicker, deeper than your opponent, and then make better decisions that allow an array of effects of which only a very, very small part may actually be kinetic and violent.'

Dr Alex Walmsley FRAeS, RUSI Associate Fellow agreed, adding that knowledge is power. 

'It's a case of using information not just as an enabler, but as an actual level of power,' she asserted.

With the explosion in open source intelligence that did not exist 20-30 years ago, militaries can collect vast amounts of data, which is only projected to triple in the coming three to four years. 

The challenge is how to process that data, fuse the various sources of information to give the richest possible picture, and disseminate it in an accurate and timely fashion.

Information Advantage is especially relevant in the so-called 'grey zone' below the threshold of warfare, where every action and reaction can be framed to show intent and effect.

However, here the West is on the backfoot. The ability of Russia and China to weaponise information and develop fake news has become a highly developed skill they can use to control the narrative in a crisis. 

Gary Waterfall, a former RAF AVM and senior advisor to DSEI, said that 'he who owns that narrative, that bit of information, is going to be at a competitive advantage.' 

If a controversial incident takes place, but it takes weeks to gather video footage, bring it to a centre for analysis and then dispel it as a myth, the information advantage has been lost – fake news has already had its impact. 

Al Potter, Leidos UK's director of national security and defence, said a shift is taking place where the technology is becoming available to process this information 'at the edge where it is collected.'  

He added that this was important because the vast volumes of information can be dealt with faster.

'You're always on the back foot if you're collecting, analysing and then reacting, as opposed to looking for trends, like people setting the narrative, spotting that being done, and then countering it and getting back to your phase zero operation stuff. Then you can start to gain that narrative and control it the way you want. You can only do that if you're ahead of the curve, not behind.'

Stringer said that because of the need to pass around information securely, reliably and at scale, a digital backbone for UK defence forces was 'non-negotiable'. 

But the development of an entirely digitally networked force that can seamlessly transfer large amounts of data end-to-end was a long term project that will take time to become a reality. 

You can start to gain that narrative and control it the way you want. You can only do that if you're ahead of the curve, not behind.Al Potter, Leidos UK's director of national security and defence

This presents difficulties for the UK military and others because, in the meantime, it will mean a blend of analogue and digital. 

Waterfall said while defence was in touch with the information age and was trying to gain Information Advantage, they've 'got to have their VHS tapes and their Giga drives', with the requirement to ensure the information was as relevant in one as it was in the other. 

Potter said the commercial realities around protecting the digital backbone was that procurement had traditionally lived in big stovepipes – but this does not reflect the technology powering Information Advantage. 

'It's very much layered shared services to be all to link all that together with open standards – we have tried that before: demanding a standard and try to get everything to work together, and it doesn't work. But open standards or setting standards won't just do it on its own. You have to have companies that actually can integrate it all,' Potter explained. 

'There is going to be a very big shift, I think, in how things are bought and how they plug together. And then once you have got that, where it works,' he added. 

While the traditional defence original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) will still have the role and place within the defence industrial landscape, the key to achieving Information Advantage will be by harnessing the whole supply chain, especially the subject matter expertise at the lower small to medium-size enterprise (SME) levels. 

This means there is a choice for defence forces to choose commercial-off-the-shelf technology or bespoke technology as both offer different advantages and disadvantages. 

Walmsley said that although most countries wanted bespoke systems, there were constraints in terms of affordability and the time it takes to introduce newly developed systems into service – and the risk that presents.

Potter said that Leidos has adapted to the new conditions and requirements for defence and adopted a set of software factories. He said that the company could develop a bespoke product relatively quickly from two weeks, two months or two years depending on size and scale, but the customer owns the Intellectual Property (IP) the moment that development was finished. The US Air Force help devise this model through its Kessel Run Experimentation Lab design. 

The concept of the software factory is that it pulls together expertise to become coding centres of excellence and rapidly generate products using modern software development techniques and with a focus on maximising speed whilst keeping quality and maintaining security. 

Leidos believes this setup is unique because it delivers agile software to governments at less cost than other SMEs and faster than traditional major OEMs that are too focused on platforms and have slower procedures. 

Potter said that the change over the next ten years was that the defence customer would own the IP for work that companies do for them. But this means that governments can change suppliers if they see a better product on the market. 

'I think businesses are going to have to shift their thinking around that to be able to cope with multiple changes of companies and customers that you are going to work for,' Potter said. 

However, Walmsley pointed out that while larger firms could survive without their IP, other smaller firms have not reached that stage and 'the protection of IP is ultimately all the SME has.' 

She added that there is a 'sort of SME fallacy' that the UK government has that the SME will solve everybody's problem, which is the basis for the Digital Foundry put forward in the UK's Integrated Review designed to create an ecosystem of digital innovators and developers. 

Furthermore, Walmsley said that pace needs to be injected into the acquisition process because innovative SMEs are coming up with new technologies and capabilities that may not survive because they are waiting for an MoD contract and can't hang on or just go elsewhere. 

The emphasis for the UK has to be on widescale experimentation where funding was placed into risky projects and technologies and accept that there could be failures. 

Stringer highlighted the culture of the Pentagon's DARPA, which invests in programmes to push the boundaries of what is achievable. He said there would inevitably be failures, but the 'lessons and value of that experimentation' will allow defence to 'succeed at pace in future'.

While the scale of the challenge is not insignificant and the pace of technology rapid, the panel members were broadly optimistic the UK armed forces have set themselves on the right path.  

‘Now we've got the intent, we know what to do with it. So that gives the people who are going to procure the technologies that are going to replace those legacy systems a really good steer on where they're going. And I don't think they've really had that before,’ Potter concluded.

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