Circle Opinion

A modern MoD: Making data its most powerful weapon

Chris Empson

Data Security

On 16th March 2021, the British government carried out the largest review into the operations of Defence & National Security since the cold war. The reports that followed (the ‘Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy’ and ‘Defence Command Paper’) were a scathing indictment of the Ministry of Defence (MoD), declaring it an institution that was inefficient, wasteful and no longer fit for purpose.

The government assured that, in the face of growing adversaries and an increasingly uncertain global economy, the MoD needed to change fast – or see its budgets slashed.

One step forward, two steps back

These reports placed MoD in the spotlight, and this scrutiny was only exacerbated by the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The Ukrainian conflict proved the MoD could be an efficient, agile organisation when placed under threat – delivering nearly £4.6 billion worth of additional arms to Ukraine – but its success was a double-edged sword. It showed that the MoD was capable of a rapid response when needed but begged the question, ‘Should we need conflict to move quickly?’.

With the government’s focus now firmly on the MoD’s shortcomings, it was essential for it to self-reflect to successfully grow. The MoD released its own publications – a refreshingly honest accounting of its failings and outlining of the necessary objectives to achieve modernisation. Within this, it was clear that although the MoD had managed to maintain an incredibly capable military for decades, it had been reliant on expensive, proprietary technologies. These technologies were creating a vast amount of data, which although useful, were disparate, unhygienic and difficult to locate. If this data was properly managed and effectively used, it would be the biggest transformation in a century – harnessing digital technologies in a way that the MoD had never done before.

Harnessing the power of data

Though the MoD has the data it needs at its fingertips, it faces numerous challenges to be able to use that data effectively and efficiently:

Data siloes

As of 2022, the MoD employs nearly 220,000 staff, working across Front Line Commands, Executive Agencies and other branches of the military, all of which are creating data in isolation. The MoD must find a way of unifying, cleaning and, where appropriate, aggregating this data to drive the insight and intelligence it requires.

Legacy systems

The world of technology is rapidly paced, causing the MoD to have to maintain systems that are outdated, unsupportable and difficult to integrate to carry out its function. This makes accessing and analysing data far more difficult. As this data underpins legacy systems, it will ultimately need to be migrated to new systems as the MoD modernises.

Data security & privacy concerns

The MoD deals with sensitive and often classified data relating to the security of the nation. Ensuring its security is vital, and a balance must be struck between making data available for analysis while maintaining security and safeguarding it from increasingly sophisticated cyber threats.

Governance & compliance

Compliance with complex legislation is a crucial practice for the MoD. As defence is an international operation, a robust and comprehensive data governance regime is vital. Access, usage and sharing of data must all be governed by a strict set of rules that ensure ongoing compliance with both international and domestic legislation.

Interoperability with allies

In coalition operations, the MoD must collaborate and share data with allied forces worldwide However, ensuring data interoperability with partner nations can be challenging due to differences in systems, formats and security protocols. Programmes such as Future Combat Air System / Global Combat Air Programme require co-operation with MoD’s partners to collaborate, allowing for sharing of data using a common methodology.

Cultural resistance

Shifting the organisational culture towards a data-driven approach may result in resistance from personnel accustomed to traditional decision-making processes. Promoting data literacy and demonstrating the value of data-driven insights are essential to overcoming this challenge.

The path to a modernised MoD

The MoD faces significant challenges in leveraging data effectively. However, it has embraced transformation and modernisation, showing a strong commitment to becoming more efficient, capable and agile. As the MoD progresses, we can be hopeful that its dedication to digital transformation will lead to a more resilient and forward-looking defence force, safeguarding national security and upholding democratic values globally.

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Chris Empson