Armed response

Of all our major industries, the defence sector seems the most impenetrable to engineers and technologists working beyond its boundaries.

To those on the outside, the defence industry is all about closely-guarded facilities, classified documents and top-secret tests. Of course, many companies are suppliers to major defence programmes in sectors such as aerospace or marine, but when it comes to the business of innovative technology, the door looks closed.

That is a problem, as the government acknowledged with the release this month of its first Defence Technology Strategy (DTS). The document sets out an array of technologies as priority areas for the future defence capability of the UK, ranging from the further evolution of old favourites such as radar to gallium nitride circuits. The one thing they have in common is that the MoD wants to recruit the help of engineers, technologists and scientists from beyond the defence sector to achieve its goals in each area.

Closer engagement with universities and SMEs is one of the targets set by the DTS, which calls for the fast-tracking of the most promising new technologies and — in a suitably military aside — the ‘early termination’ of those that won’t make the grade. The role model for the more open, vibrant, entrepreneurial culture the DTS wants to foster is not hard to find. Indeed, the document refers to it when it expresses the wish to ‘create a Darpa-like effect’ in the MoD’s R&D activities. Darpa is the US military’s technology think-tank, which spends its days scouring the world’s technological innovations to see which could give US forces a new edge in the combat zone. It cares not whether the innovation comes from a major multinational, an SME, a university lab or the garden shed of a lone inventor.

One of the ways in which the US agency engages with the wider technology community is its regular Grand Challenge. This sets out a particular area of priority for the military, most recently robotic vehicles that can travel long distances, and invites entrants to come up with a working solution in return for big prizes. As part of the DTS, the UK MoD will launch a similar scheme here. The strategy set out in the new document is interesting on several levels. First, it tells us something about how the military and security situation facing the UK is changing.

Innovative technologies have always played a major role in the defence sector.

The DTS, however, recognises that ‘today the UK faces adversaries whose tactics change rapidly and who employ ever more varied advanced technologies’. In other words, we live in more unpredictable times than those in which the main job was to develop a better tank, fighter plane or submarine than the Russians.

The DTS also continues the theme of the recent Energy Technologies Institute in setting out an overriding national priority and attempting to draw in the widest possible range of expertise to meet it. In both cases, the chance for technology innovators to bring solutions directly to the table of government is to be welcomed.

Andrew Lee, editor