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Reflections on AI in Defence – Atlantic Future Forum 2022

We recently had the pleasure of attending the 2022 Atlantic Future Forum (AFF), an event convened by the UK Government to strengthen the defence, security, technology and trading relationships between democratic nations. 

The event came at a pivotal time, with Defence arguably undergoing a ‘COVID moment’. Against a backdrop of war in Ukraine, plus heightened tensions in countries like China and North Korea, defence capabilities need strengthening in an increasingly uncertain world.

Yet this isn’t a new realisation. A lack of access to structured data, uncertainty around Force Readiness, and the need to boost resilience and offensive capabilities were highlighted at AFF back in 2018. Since then, our adversaries have doubled down on developing and deploying cutting-edge technology, often leveraging the advantages of military-civil fusion and dual-use technologies.

Thankfully, AI and ML can – and already is – solving these problems and starting to claw back advantage. There is broad recognition that significant progress can be made with widespread adoption. We’re seeing SMEs achieve success in other industries where the same, often life-critical, problems persist. AI can help solve these problems safely and at speed, as we’ve seen in the NHS.

AFF also highlighted how procurement must reflect the proliferation of SMEs providing impactful, low-cost technology. Defence procurement is bureaucratic and, to an extent, favours those who know the system. Although this is understandable when buying large, long-life platforms, these complex, lengthy contracts are tricky and expensive for smaller, innovative companies. These SMEs produce proven, connected and cheaper platforms or software – the very systems that the Ukraine conflict has shown to be vital. We need a new model that enables small firms with cutting edge technology to quickly secure their position in the military sector and deliver immediate value. We’re seeing great strides towards this through DASA and other initiatives – and in many cases, SMEs and Primes are proactively teaming up to offer Defence a ‘best of both’ solution – but challenges remain.

Although senior MOD leaders are enacting change, a clash of cultures and language remains. For example, in the Defence world, ‘failure’ equates to mission failure, an unacceptable outcome, often involving loss of life or materiel. By contrast, in innovation, ‘failure’ is a mandatory step towards mission success, designed to be as low-risk, low-cost and self-correcting as possible. Service Personnel show huge levels of courage and trust on the Front Line, accepting losses and risks in order to achieve mission success. They must be equally courageous and trusting with procurement.

In a panel session focusing on the power of technology collaboration, key figures from the UK Defence SME ecosystem joined our co-founder and CEO Marc Warner, who addressed the need for courage to push through new ideas and technological change in defence. There is huge potential to be unlocked, as Faculty has demonstrated through our work with the sector to date. 

Senior leaders must embrace agile and innovative working with AI companies to realise these benefits across the Whole Force. It is only through collaboration, transparency and trust that we can realise the full benefits of AI, maintain a competitive advantage over our adversaries and keep citizens safe. With collaborative partnerships built on an ethos of trust and transparency, we’re set to see significant change being brought to defence operations in the next few years.

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