The government released its Defence Command Paper on 18th July, just two days before the Summer Parliamentary recess. The paper, ‘Defence’s Response to a More Contested and Volatile World’ follows the Integrated Review Refresh, published in March 2023 and considers, more fully, lessons from the ongoing war in Ukraine.
So, what does the report tell us? The Government’s initial analysis in 2021 was broadly correct: Russia remains the biggest danger to UK security, with China remaining a looming threat. However, the war in Ukraine has thrown up some questions over how UK Defence operates now and in the future. Whilst others will focus on whether the size and shape of the Armed Forces are right, here, we will focus on UK defence procurement and some of the necessary shifts in commercial and procurement strategies.
Applying resilience to supply chains
There has been a renewed focus on resilience since the release of the Integrated Review in March which is evident throughout July’s paper. Ukraine is currently fighting for the very existence of their nation, and with that has come a highly motivated, whole-society approach to the war, resulting in a strategy that is both resilient and agile. For example, Ukraine is leveraging its advanced technology industry to turn every citizen with a smartphone into an artillery observer and combining low-cost ‘disposable’ drones with high-tech western munitions.
The UK military has already made steps to improve resilience – for example, the RAF adoption of ‘Agile Combat Employment’, borrowing tactics developed by the US and continually practised by Sweden. However, as the Command Paper acknowledges, we have taken a lean and concentrated approach to our forces in recent years and improved resilience through dispersal and movement will be important.
Resilience can be applied to defence procurement and supply chain, but this requires a unique and holistic approach. Having observed the level of physical expenditure in Ukraine, ‘life of type’ buying and keeping stock in bulk is not necessarily going to work in response to modern day conflict. A solution to this is a dispersed logistics strategy, keeping production lines open, so that production can be accelerated when needed. This will be more expensive and will also require a change in defence’s strategic relationship with industry and necessitates a shift in behaviour and culture across the entire defence, procurement and commercial teams.
The Defence Command Paper touches on this challenge but does not set out a roadmap on how this will be achieved.
There are no ‘quick fixes’ to this challenge
A complete change in approach will not come overnight, and there needs to be an acceptance that we will need to work harder and pay more for improved resilience. Defence is also already looking at how they can get “more” out of the same quantity of ships, tanks and planes and will now have to manage the transition described in the paper, from platform-centric to technology centric. Not only does this mean additive capability and spiral development, but it also takes a forensic focus on some of the more mundane areas to ensure that ‘readiness’ (the sum of availability, capability and sustainability) is increased.
Excellence in contract and supplier management will be vital in maintaining the level of output that we need. There will also need to be a change in mindset and to accelerate the pace of contracting – to focus on moving quickly to ensure that we have the capability deployed into service when needed, then looking at spiral development, enhancing capabilities to match threats on an ongoing basis.
Start with equipping your existing team with skills
Unlocking this challenge can be achieved through using commercial teams to their fullest potential. By upskilling the commercial officers that Defence already has, to deal with the most complex procurements, we should be able to kickstart the process of spiral development and better digitise the Integrated Force. Ultimately, a disproportionate focus on low-cost, low-value procurement will not give us the solutions we need when the next crisis or conflict comes around.
We must view Ukraine as a wakeup call to increasing outputs and improving resilience. If we want to meet the ambitions laid out in the Defence Command Paper, we need to inject best practice and shift the dial on defence procurement.
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