The role of data in fighting and winning future wars
Speaking at a roundtable hosted by Pure Storage, assistant head of British Army digital services Mark "Chopsey" Cornell told Berenice Baker how data is the ‘mineral ore’ of fighting and winning future wars.
I run the Army digital services team in Army Headquarters, and we support the army with its software and data analytics needs; effectively, it’s a software house in and of itself.
But within that, we also needed to run some infrastructure, because the enterprise infrastructure support that we were getting wasn't what we needed. So, we run our own on-premises software-defined data centre. About two and a half years ago, we moved to solid state drive (SSD) and nonvolatile memory express (NVMe) solution provided by Pure.
We moved because we were dipping our toe into cloud but what we were finding was, in terms of hardware obsolescence and cost per terabyte, spinning disk storage was not offering us the de-duplication and the ability to move data between different storage tiers like SSD could offer. We were going through a period of upscaling our products and services, and the scalability, power consumption and physical storage requirements in terms of space constraints were all drivers for us looking at a different way of delivering that storage capacity within the army.
There's been a general realisation over the last three to five years that data is the mineral ore of fighting and winning in a future war situation, and therefore there's lots of activity going on there.
Project THEIA: digitalising the army
One of the main pieces of work going on now within the army is Project THEIA, which is about the digitalisation of the army. We're trying to take a less technical focus because we're the technology exists pretty much now to do what you want to do; this is about changing the culture and the behaviours of the organisation.
As an ex-military person, we are a hierarchical structure and data is ubiquitous. How we access that and how we give insights on that in near real time is hugely important. I think, though, that digitalisation of the army is going to be key.
It also means moving our people up that digital skill layer, because at the moment, I think, the army and the Ministry of Defence is probably quite a traditional and conservative organisation. For them to adopt these different ways of working and digital ways of working is probably the biggest challenge.
It's now a behaviour and cultural change to move the human further up the value chain so we are exploiting their skills in the right way, and we're letting the machines and the technology do the heavy lifting at the lower level.
Technology is there to help us. It's now a behaviour and cultural change to move the human further up the value chain so we are exploiting their skills in the right way, and we're letting the machines and the technology do the heavy lifting at the lower level.
There is quite a bit of money in funding defence across the various different disciplines, be it the estate, be it across the personnel branch and things like that. I think what we're seeing always is by bringing some centralised coordination of that – be it a common data platform or a common analytics platform that we can all exploit – you're making that data easily available for multiple customers to ingest, fuse together and get insights out of it.
Most importantly, it has a champion in the Deputy Chief of the General Staff – the second-highest-ranking officer in the army – driving that. And, more importantly, not just driving it forward in that technological piece, saying to the different business units, for want of a better word – you’d understand them as two-star pillars – you have to have this digital roadmap.
The CIO and his Project THEIA team are there to help guide on that, but you've got to start delivering against that and delivering these digital solutions. As a result, there are about eight digital accelerators that are running in their various different business units now that we're looking to deliver in the next six to 18 months.
The role of data in the Integrated Review
In terms of details of the Integrated Review, it's on close hold at the moment. But I am aware the defence chief information officer, Charlie Forte, is very much pushing the whole data piece. We know we retain data in silos; the fact that the army data warehouse exists is because we can easily access data from our source systems, which is what we should be doing.
Under Caroline Bellamy, the new two-star director chief data officer for defence, we're seeing more of an enterprise approach being taken to data and cohering that data. It's not necessarily where that data currently exists; it's about how you provide that enterprise data layer for people to access it. It can sit wherever it needs to sit within the network and infrastructure layer, but it's actually being able to see what's there and access your search, and when appropriate to do so, we've added security.
Not just carriers, tanks and aircraft
What we're seeing now is an enterprise culture starting to be built out of defence digital under the chief data officer (CDO). In the army, we have our own CDO who is working in an army environment to support that centralised piece.
I've been in the army 30 years now as of this January and we've had many false dawns, but I do think the penny is dropping that data is not all about aircraft carriers, tanks and aircraft any more, it's actually about exploiting the data faster than your adversaries can do so and protecting that data from their exploitation.
I think you'll see, both on the cyber side and the data exploitation side, significant investment coming out of what whatever the Integrated Review looks like because that is the direction of travel that everyone is taking. You see the four-star Chiefs of General Staff, the Chief of The Air Staff all talking in this space. Now what we're not hearing so much about anymore is those big capital programmes; that was the last ten years.
I do hold out that we are grasping the digital nettle and driving that forward and accepting that data is the mineral ore of operations in the future.
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// Image credit: MOD