The UK defence acquisition process is out of date and dysfunctional, a paper published by Risk management consultancy Redstone Risk on 6 March 2023 has asserted.
Titled ‘Unwrapping the Riddle of Defence Acquisition in the United Kingdom’, the report outlines the fundamental changes Redstone says are required to optimise defence acquisition in the UK. It comes amid an inquiry by the UK House of Commons Defence Sub-Committee into the UK Ministry of Defence’s equipment procurement process, which was launched on 26 January 2023.
While acknowledging that defence procurement in the modern era is extremely difficult, the Redstone paper asserts that the current ‘whole life approach’ to defence acquisition – starting with requirements, moving through procurement and support, then concluding with disposal – while “sensible, even elegant”, on paper, is actually a major part of the problem.
“The dominant focus on ‘requirements’ is dysfunctional and seldom found in non-defence acquisition practices,” the paper argues, noting that “initial guiding user requirement can become irrelevant over time”.
Additionally, the “focus on requirements leads to management becoming besotted with outputs rather than the military effects or the outcomes being sought”, says the paper, adding that “often, senior leaders conflate system ‘output’ and ‘outcome’, believing them to be one and the same. They are not.”
The paper further noted that the management of risk “is often based on outright financial risk value, as opposed to the effect a risk may have on capability outcomes”, whereas the largest financial risks “are often not the ones which have the greatest effect in delivering the right equipment”.
Focusing too much on requirements and outputs also “leads programme managers and oversight communities to value certainty over ambiguity, at a moment in history where uncertainty and disruption allow for rapid technological research, development, adoption and insertion”, the report noted, calling this a “profound error”. Instead, an effective acquisition system “has to allow for continuing technological refreshment and overhaul, through life, or risk redundancy or the disaster of battlefield overmatch”, it said.
Lastly, the report noted that “woolly thinking around requirements, technological certainties and outputs over outcomes pervade governmental and defence commercial decision making”, thus becoming the norm and “bequeathing us, perhaps, the same acquisition results today as we had yesterday”.
Redstone’s solution to these ills – what the report terms the Redstone Way – is effectively a much more fluid approach to defence acquisition, in which change is prioritised over certainty and outcomes or effects sought are continually recalibrated.
The report concedes, however, that “such a change in emphasis requires a rework of financial planning, its permissions and, ultimately, the budgeting process itself”.
Central to Redstone’s solution is its concept of an ‘Investment Ladder’ that gives greater flexibility to the adoption of novel technology improvements to defence acquisition. “The significance of the Investment Ladder allows for a smart overview and active management of known and mature contributing technologies for a capability – the Body – when integrated with disruptive or emerging 21st Century technologies – the Mind – enabled by a change management process and budget focussed overtly on a culture of technology integration and maturation for defence effects – the Spirit,” the report explains. It argues that a “shift in focus from outputs to outcomes or defence effects is powerfully transformative culturally when aligned to decision making taken through the Investment Ladder”.
Redstone claims that a key advantage of its approach is that it “bakes in agility, early technological adoption and best pound-for-pound spend of risk mitigation, leaving decision-makers empowered through the data and fleet of foot when it comes to maximising capabilities for the taxpayer”.
As refreshing as it is to see the proposing of a new approach to defence acquisition, Redstone’s acknowledgement that “generating effective defence capabilities in the modern epoch is hugely challenging” will remain a prevailing factor. There are so many issues that complicate defence procurement from the strategic and economic perspectives – such the degree to which sovereign capability and jobs are maintained in country, the framing of capabilities in concert with allies, and the budget available at any given time, to name but a few – that fresh thinking on the subject, though potentially enlightening, is unlikely to present any true panacea on its own.
That said, Redstone’s attempts to ‘bake in’ agility and flexibility could certainly go some way to mitigating one of the main problems with modern defence procurement: such is the complexity of the platforms being procured that during the lengthy periods taken to get them into service the threat environments they are meant to address frequently change.