Marching to the beat of digital transformation

Marching to the beat of digital transformation

Brig. Stefan Crossfield & Major General Collyer share the British Army’s digital transformation progress so far, the challenges encountered and next phases

If you’ve ever lived in the UK, you’re probably familiar with the variety of cinematic British Army (BA) adverts that grace television screens. Whether honouring the fallen, conducting recruitment drives, or highlighting the coalescence of soldiers and emerging digital capabilities, each advert is nothing short of inspirational, suggesting a sense of close-knit community and belonging.

These adverts have become a type of national institution for Brits, a source of pride. And now, they are starting to detail the future of the British Army as well as the evolutionary steps needed to meet this future, including the BA’s digitalisation journey.  

Last time we spoke with Brigadier Stefan Crossfield – Head of Information Exploitation, Chief Data Officer, and Deputy CIO for The British Army – he was outlining the onset of Project THEIA, the BA’s digital transformation programme that began in 2021. 

A year on, significant progress has been achieved. So, we caught up once more with Brig. Crossfield to discover more about where the project is taking The British Army next.

Project THEIA: progression of British Army digitalisation journey

Back at the tailend of 2020, The Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced the Army’s intention to ‘double-down’ on embracing new technologies and enhancing operational facilities via a digitalisation programme called Project THEIA (pronounced thay-a). 

According to the MoD, the aim of the project is “driving digital transformation in the British Army to outcompete adversaries, integrate with partners, and operate with maximum efficiency”. By 2023, the programme will have been in operation for two years and moved forward significantly, altering the fundamental structure and cohesiveness of the BA.

“Project THEIA is an accountancy programme in the Army programme of record, which means it's not got a lot of funding. That's because it's a federated programme of change, which is providing the coherence mechanism across the whole army to deliver digital transformation,” outlines Crossfield.

“The intent is to take us from being a predominantly industrial-age organisation – which is what we are now – to being an information-age-ready army, which we'll need to be to compete against our adversaries, deliver our efficiencies in the future, and also partner better with industry, international partners and all other partners. 

“It's built around a very small programme office, and its function is delivered through three principal aspects. Firstly, accelerators, which are programmes that we’re seeking to favour and drive hard so that we can learn lessons from them, scale them, and reuse them across the whole of the Army.”

The second aspect is the utilisation of an “enabler approach” – in other words, focusing on those things that enable digital transformation, like skills, operational changes and adoption of the cloud. The third aspect is catalysts, which comprises the technologies that the Army is looking to favour first.

So, in the time that’s elapsed since the programme’s onset, how far has it come?

“The programme is now entering that second epoch – or second phase, if you will – where it's beginning to focus on accelerators in particular, which are about delivering actual change in the hands of the users,” Crossfield says.

The rest of the digitalisation journey – which phase next?

THEIA was always designed to have three core phases. Each phase signals the next steps required to align with the overall aims and features different elements of the Army. 

“The first phase was about establishing the programme, which, in very simple terms, was making the army, defence and our wider partners aware that the programme existed as this controlling mind, the cohering function and centre hub for a federated change,” says Crossfield. 

“We aren’t delivering the change. You can't deliver change in a nearly 400-year-old organisation that has 75,000 military people in it – 150,000 people in total. Lots of other people are going to have to deliver the change, but it is the cohering, the hub at the centre. That first year went well, but we have struggled in a couple of areas that we've now resolved.”

From Crossfield’s perspective, the two most pressing struggles have been around resourcing and delivery. The former resulted from what he calls “a prioritisation war between a complete transformation in the Army and a future soldier, a spending review, and various other things” which initially made acquiring the necessary funding tricky. 

“We've now got the programme fully-funded to deliver the staff it needs, which took us to the end of the first year. The second thing that we need to do more of now is delivery. So, at the end of that first year, having done a programme review and worked with the DCGS – who was our sponsor – we agreed that the programme is now in a position where it really needs to start doubling down on delivery. We subsequently recast the programme, and the term we've used for that is ‘same material, different mould’, which I quite like, because we're not fundamentally changing it, but there is now a real focus on delivery,” he explains.

“When we last met, we needed to wire up the estate in the UK and provide pervasive internet access across the whole of the Army estate while we're on it” – a vast, challenging undertaking – “We delivered the passive element of internet access to every building within the army estate. BT, who were our partner in terms of delivering that infrastructure, wired up those 40 sites and they're going live as we speak.”

Turning rhetoric into reality is the aim of phase two, which means literally putting “useful things in the hands of soldiers”. Simple as that, right? Well, not quite, no. With such a large estate to cover and tens of thousands of soldiers, delivery is much easier said than done. In fact, Crossfield estimates that this phase could last up to two years. 

“We're now working on phase two, which is a much bigger challenge. The next phase consists of about £70mn worth of infrastructure – about one hundred regular sites, a hundred reserve sites, and a whole load of publicly-financed initiative sites. PFIs are privately-financed initiatives, which will be more complicated because we don't necessarily own that bit of the estate, it's in a PFI,” he says.

“Phase two, again, will begin to deliver this year, though. We'll be putting the hardwire infrastructure in the passive infrastructure and turning it on in this financial year. Users are now increasingly connected, but that also means that that bit of the estate is connected as well. This will enable us to start exploiting technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT); we can start moving data around in a better way; we can start collecting data that we couldn't collect from that environment.”

“We now have a view of all those angles and we're bringing them into a single dashboard with an analytics platform sat above it, which will begin to give us those insights about where we need to target activity, whether we could or couldn’t deliver against a particular ask or  challenge that's placed on us.”

Field Army IX transformation programme & partner reception

In terms of digital transformation, Crossfield feels that the Field Army has already travelled a long way down that evolutionary road, “delivering at pace every single two weeks” and dropping software into a whole suite of applications effectively.

“Effectively, we are slowly but surely building a digital picture of the Army's readiness across multiple different fronts,” explains Crossfield. “Readiness for us is across equipment, people sustainment, and soldiers’ readiness in terms of how collectively trained they are.  

“We now have a view of all those angles and we're bringing them into a single dashboard with an analytics platform sat above it, which will begin to give us those insights about where we need to target activity, whether we could or couldn’t deliver against a particular ask or  challenge that's placed on us.”

But how is the Army able to access the information regarding soldiers’ training in a simple yet effective way?

“We've rolled out a whole new suite of My Series applications in the home command environment; individual ‘My Series’ applications for soldiers to do their administration training have doubled in size.

“In the Army Personnel Centre, the career management portal – which was in its infancy when we last spoke – is now the de facto way of conducting career management activity, both for the individual and their career manager (the individual who's the leader of that person and the wider chain of command). The functionality within that portal has meant that endless trips to Glasgow on the Red Eye are fewer and fewer; we're running promotion boards and assignment boards completely virtually, all through that platform.”

The entire career management process can therefore be completed individually, without the need for a Teams’ event. Instead, “the platform runs it and soldiers can then interact with the platform” via scoring, commenting, and reviewing the evidence, and then adding their input. All that’s needed for a result is for these to be completed by a certain deadline.

It marks a “fundamental change” for the BA. So, how has the programme been received thus far by partners of the British Army?

“Our community of interest, which sits every third Friday of the month, is probably the jewel in our crown,” says Crossfield. “On these Fridays, we talk to all of our partners – particularly commercial partners – about what we're doing, why we're doing it, and what our plans are going forward. We also have spotlights on particular partners, where they come and talk to the wider audience about what they're doing for the Army, which has been extremely well received. 

“All of the feedback we get is to ‘keep going’. This is unheard of in defence; normally, we're a bit of an opaque box, it's quite hard to break in, whereas we want to tell you more.”

Though feedback from partners has been positive, marking Defence’s foray into an era of greater transparency, Crossfield is quick to state that it will be post-delivery phase – after the next 12 to 18 months – that the effects of this approach will likely be felt. 

Adoption of the cloud across entire British Army

When it comes to the cloud and its new role in businesses, the word frequently used to describe the transition is ‘migration’, suggesting a monumental shift of data information, services, and capabilities from one place into the cloud. For the British Army’s use of the cloud, though, Crossfield prefers different terminology. 

“As we've begun to deliver, we've realised that we're not migrating, we're adopting cloud, because we won't move everything. And by moving some stuff, we mean that we might be able to exploit our on-prem facilities in a different way. So we haven’t thrown the baby out with the bath water is, I suppose, the best way to put it. Cloud adoption for us is a joint server farm.”

As such, this joint server farm has multi-clouds for the Army to utilise. But how does this impact overall security?

“It's all artificial sensitive. And we learned some good lessons, the biggest of which was the support that we had to provide to the user, the owner, and the application leads because they own it. We're not delivering mono-cloud for them; they own their bit of mono-cloud that's hosting their service, and that's a cultural change, right? To me, that’s the biggest opportunity of the cloud: to culturally change people to become more aware of the importance of being digitally capable, able to manage their own service’s applications, their own hosting computer store.” 

Crossfield continues: “So that's gone. We learn the lessons. We've got a partner at the moment who's helping us design our plan to adopt cloud more broadly for the remainder of what we've got in the Army on-prem environment.”

“That's the army hosting environment and the army data warehouse. One of those is just storing data, while the hosting environment is hosting a lot of applications. It's also got a DevSecOps environment within it as well, which is going to have to move as quickly as we can physically do it without introducing too much risk.” 

And risk is the key word here. Adopting the cloud for certain elements of the digital environment at too quick a pace can introduce gaps that create attack vectors, leaving the system prone to attacks and vulnerabilities. This could prove catastrophic for both the BA and the UK’s national security, so ensuring that the environment hosts the range of applications needed without introducing risk is a tricky balancing act.

“To me, the adoption of cloud is about balancing the risk of going too quickly, causing problems, undermining your ongoing running of the system versus the opportunity of being in the cloud. The security wraps provided by Microsoft and Amazon are world-class – which should help drive quicker opportunities – and they're not going to let that drop; we should therefore trust it implicitly at the moment. 

“We provide a lot of that security via young men and women who are wearing green suits while sitting in a room 24/7, when we’d really rather have them out in the field to deliver war fighting capability.”

Unlike the many outlandish projections of future armies that are being detailed currently, it’s important to recognise that the integration of the cloud and digital capabilities across the army isn’t to reduce the volume of human soldiers, but to enhance their skills and capabilities instead. Adopting the cloud, and the world-class security wraps provided alongside, means freeing soldiers up for more active defensive roles.    

“Cloud at Secret is a bit of a challenge, and defensives are working their damndest to do that. In terms of AI/ML, for example, coming to life in the secret environment, we need a hyperscale cloud – particularly for some of the stuff we want to do with that. But at the official sensitive level, what I'm really excited about is this idea of the Azure service environment. Safire, our analytics platform, is a brilliant platform that’s sat OnPrem at the moment. 

“The potential is huge. And not just in the war fighting space. Futures – the people who deal with designing how we fight in the future – are very engaged in the AI debate. To me, I think we’ll reap more rewards from AI/ML in supporting infrastructure in those other areas.”

Access to the cloud from the battle space will be essential in the future, because the Army will be using the same tools and the same technologies in the battle space that are in the business space – particularly AI.

Critical enablers of digital transformation – the future

When Crossfield started imagining the Army’s fully-digitalised future, he noted that there were five to seven critical enablers of a digital transformation for the British Army – including wiring up all estates, statewide internet access for the Army, skills’ training, and a joint server farm – all of which have since been identified and now need to be delivered.

“We've done a bit of the estate, so we're now going after the really big bit: the army hosting environment. We're writing the plan for that as I speak, with the aim of starting to deliver that transition, the adoption of cloud, in that space at the backend of 2022,” he establishes

“Data's the critical enabler for all of the technologies we want to use. I mean, the best example I can give you is collecting data on our platforms so that we can make really good decisions about predictive maintenance. At the moment, that is done with a memory key and is very unreliable as a result, as you can imagine.”

So what next for the British Army’s digitalisation programme, Project THEIA?

Crossfield concludes: “Project THEIA's come a long way. It's done exactly what we wanted to do in the first phase: it's delivered on intent. We understand where we're going; we've very clearly defined the end state. We're now shifting to delivery, pivoting into working more in the battle space, and supporting our ambitions in terms of NATO.

“We're trying to level the playing field and get the backs all lined up so there's no gaps when all advancing as one.”

 

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