MOD technology chief Paul Stein

The MoD claims it is more accessible to technology SMEs thanks to its top scientist’s drive to interact more successfully with industry.

One might expect the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD’s) top scientist to be a vaguely shadowy figure, hidden away in his Whitehall fortress and feeding the press only the most enigmatic titbits.

Paul Stein, the MoD’s director-general of science and technology, defies this expectation. Amiable, chatty and occasionally prone to ask his press handlers for the correct military terminology, he is more high-technology chief executive than Dr Strangelove, preferring the language of the business world over the sometimes jargon-heavy discourse of the defence sector.

This is no accident. Prior to joining the MoD, Stein was managing director of Siemens research arm Roke Manor — the company behind the HawkEye technology familiar to cricket and tennis fans — and he was brought on board in 2006 as part of a drive to engage more successfully with industry.

While roughly a third of the £500m budget Stein wields is spent on the highly classified projects carried out by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), much of the rest goes to industry and academia. While established industrial partners still have a major role to play, part of his brief has been to make the MoD more accessible to companies who have not dealt with it before.

Tapping into the expertise that lies beyond the traditional defence industry is, he said, something of no-brainer: ‘We have a massive economy… of which our world of defence is a pretty small slice [it accounts for around 2.3 per cent of GDP]… so we’re obviously keen to tap into the science and technology investment in the rest of the economy as well as the bit that serves defence.’

Last year, in an effort to address this and change the perception that some had of the MoD as closed club, Stein helped to launch the Centre for Defence Enterprise (CDE): a kind of one-stop shop for people with good ideas.

‘If you’ve got technology that you believe could have valuable defence applications… and you haven’t spoken to the MoD before, you simply go to the CDE website and submit your proposal,’ he said. Once submitted, the CDE promises to make a decision on your technology within 15 days: a remarkable turnaround for an organisation that used to take months to make a decision. ‘Defence was seen as this stodgy organisation that took months and months to make up its mind and we’re showing that we can be a lot more agile and we can do things quickly,’ added Stein. ‘It’s challenged the department: we’re asking the DSTL to assess these proposals in 10 days. These are quite short times in defence so it’s created a sense of pace that has been very healthy.’

One company that has already benefited from this process is Hertfordshire University spin-out d3o. The Hove-based company has developed a gel that hardens in response to shock and has previously focused on the sportswear market. Following an approach to the CDE, d30 is now under contract with the MoD and is investigating potential applications of the material within soldiers’ helmets.

The CDE is just one element of what Stein claims is an altogether more agile MoD — one that, contrary to some media reports, leads the world in its ability to respond rapidly to operational requirements. ‘If we have an urgent need in theatre, we have a means for effectively bypassing all the usual bureaucracy and quickly procuring something that can be delivered urgently to theatre when it’s needed,’ he said. ‘We’re quite proud of that process and the [US] and French particularly look at us quite jealously because their own bureaucratic systems don’t let them move at the pace we can move.’

While meeting these operational requirements eats up between 90 per cent and 95 per cent of Stein’s budget, it is the destination of the remaining five per cent to 10 per cent that is perhaps most intriguing. ‘A lot of defence technology is necessarily conservative; people are trusting their lives to this equipment,’ he said. ‘But it’s also important that you set aside some resources for looking to the future.’

Earlier this year, in an effort to take a leap beyond the incremental advances that typify progress in defence technology, the MoD said that a portion of its budget would be spent on pursuing a series of five capability visions that would investigate step-change advances in areas ranging from lightweight infantry systems (see cover feature) to advanced cyberwarfare technology.

Once again, the world beyond the traditional defence industry is a rich source of inspiration. For instance, under the ‘future protected vehicle vision’, which is exploring the concept of battle tanks a fraction of the weight of those used today, engineers are investigating the possibility of using the kind of hybrid drive trains more readily associated with the automotive industry. Stein suggested that, by using an onboard electricity generator to power hub drives mounted in each of the wheels, it may be possible to develop entirely new vehicle architectures. ‘You can put the wheels or driver wherever you like because you’re not constrained by the need for mechanical linkages between driver and the rest of the vehicle,’ he said.

Another promising development is so-called glass cockpit technology, which would replace an optical periscope with a bank of display screens. Combined with night-vision cameras, such systems would make driving at night no different to driving during the day. The technology could also enable soldiers to reverse at high speed. ‘If you get stuck down a blind alley, [you] can just switch into rear view and drive out backwards without having to physically turn the vehicle,’ said Stein. Another intriguing possibility is the use of flexible display technology to develop adaptive camouflage that could enable future tanks to blend into their surroundings.

While alternative energy sources could play a role in enabling new vehicle architectures, another of the capability visions addresses more fundamental concerns relating to energy. ‘The cost of fuel in theatre is very, very high,’ said Stein. ‘While you might go to the pumps here and pay a pound a litre for gasoline, by the time you’ve transported it and got it through to a forward operating base [FOB] somewhere in the outer reaches of Helmand province, it costs a lot more than a pound a litre. The so-called fully laden burden costs can be more than 10 times and sometimes as much as 40 times the starting price.’

To address these challenges, various technologies are being considered for different areas of the armed forces. In the air force, for instance, the steady march of biofuels into the commercial aviation industry is being regarded with interest. ‘Whatever the commercial world does, we’re going to probably tuck into line behind it,’ he said. ‘Are we going to invent special technologies for defence use? I think that’s pretty unlikely. It’s more a case of looking at the military utility of biomix blends.’

At sea, however, there’s a bit more scope for doing things differently. ‘When we’re talking about ships, there’s a whole range of things we can do because we’ve got a larger platform on which to store fuel,’ he added. ‘Potentially, we could look at hydrogen, electric ships, various chemical processes that effectively store electrolytes that are consumed as electrical power and then recycled again at the end of their mission… Some of the container industry has even gone back to sails. It may only gain you a few per cent but it’s worth having.’

For ground forces, issues of self-sufficiency and energy security become more important. ‘If we could make an FOB self-sufficient in energy, then it would reduce the logistics burden of the chain leading to it,’ said Stein. Hydrogen, he added, is an attractive option as it could be made in theatre using electricity generated from portable solar or wind energy systems.

The last two capability visions are highly classified and even more forward looking. One is developing unmanned combat aircraft that could be launched and recovered from the back of a small ship, while the other, dubbed ‘electronics defeat’, is looking at the emerging cyberwarfare threat.

Picking his way through these areas with care and reflecting on the path his career has taken, Stein left The Engineerwondering what other strange technologies are being developed behind the locked doors of the MoD. ‘It’s a very different world. It’s a world where… I get to see and manage a whole spectrum of technologies, the like of which I hardly knew existed when I was in industry,’ he said.