Rishi Sunak’s Autumn Budget and the importance of innovation to save the public purse.
Rishi Sunak’s autumn budget places innovation back at the top of the UK agenda, ‘funding the fastest increase in R&D spending ever. This should be welcome news for all sectors, particularly in Defence which should benefit from an increase in homegrown innovation. But national security is expensive and can present dilemmas: which Defence projects should receive money and which should go without?
These dilemmas came to a head in the spring when the Government published its Integrated Review. This was the UK’s first comprehensive security strategy for six years, and the first all-of-government statement on foreign and defence policy since Brexit.
These dilemmas came to a head in the spring, when the Government published its Integrated Review. This was the UK’s first comprehensive security strategy for six years, and the first all-of-government statement on foreign and defence policy since Brexit.
Some commentary on the Review made defence procurement sound like a Formula One circuit, and in a way it is. Race team managers must make choices with tyre wear and pit stop strategies: Changing wheels costs time upfront but will pay off after with faster lap times (especially in anticipation of wet conditions). Modern technologies – think cyber, quantum, lasers and autonomous weapons – are the new tyres on offer for Defence in the 2020s, and procurement chiefs must choose which of them to buy into, based on which they think will prove worthwhile in a decade or so. They can also stick with the old and trusted equipment that service members know and has been rigorously proven in battle over many decades. But the ‘Formula One’ model of defence procurement misses something: the best advances in technology don’t replace old with new for twice the price. They make proven concepts work better, often for only a minimal extra cost.
The Americans know this. Their A-10 Warthog ground attack aircraft, in service since the mid-70s, has received upgrades almost every other year: new technology doesn’t replace it, rather it adapts the old system to the current environment. The most recent additions are advanced stand-off weapons (rockets with such a range that their targets cannot return fire) and a redesigned cockpit. They should allow the Warthog to remain part of the USAAF for at least another decade.
Similarly, for the UK, our armed forces don’t face quite the dilemma between the tried and trusted-old and the risky-new that some commentators claim. New tech can allow the old to work better, longer, and with much less waste.
At Advanced Material Development (AMD) we are working with nanomaterials technologies that enable a number of military applications such as cost-effective sensors that can provide a very accurate measure of metal or composite material fatigue. This means that aging equipment no longer needs to be mothballed just in case it is below spec; as the sensors will identify how much stress a hull or chassis has suffered, and how vulnerable it is in the future. This can significantly lengthen the average lifespan of equipment, while keeping safe the same risk tolerance of failure. All this at a tiny extra cost, brought to the armed services by Great British minds and the wonders of new technologies.
The same principle applies when a weak spot is identified. Russia and China have studied the Western way of war in detail – especially the laser- and GPS-targeted munitions unleashed from stealthy airpower which led ‘shock and awe’ campaigns in Iraq and elsewhere. Part of their response involves modernised and very tight air defence systems. Moscow has deployed these capabilities to the Russian outpost of Kaliningrad, meaning NATO fighter jets could be vulnerable if they’re called to action over the Baltic states, which the Alliance is committed to defend. Again, the problem requires new thinking, but not necessarily new equipment: To counter this AMD is developing ultra-thin nanomaterial coatings to be applied to existing aircraft which, both light and inexpensive, will be easy to apply and can help restore ‘invisibility’ to radar, thermal and even audio detection systems.
Sometimes the best solutions are small and simple.
So next time someone portrays defence procurement as requiring the wisdom of Solomon to choose between old-knowns and new-risks, it’s worth reminding them of British success at Formula One. Lewis Hamilton's talent is not just combined with the winning combination of a team making the right choices between old and new technology, but more so because they continually work out how best to bring those technologies together.
And for Rishi Sunak, it’s good to see the defence budget protected. There will always be dilemmas but we at AMD believe that the UK’s leading position in Materials Science may hold the answers.