Improving infrastructure on the defence estate
Andrew Fotherby, managing director for defence at Tetra Tech, outlines how infrastructure projects on the defence estate can become more efficient and sustainable.
Last year the Chief of the Defence Staff published the Integrated Operating Concept (IOC), which, in the context of the shifting military landscape, leads us to reconsider the way in in which we manage and deliver capital projects on the estates that support our armed forces.
A long time coming, the new IOC approach has been designed to better serve the way in which the modern soldier lives, works and trains in the digital age.
With commercial technologies and equipment disrupting the economics and character of warfare, our industry now needs to answer the call and adapt our approach to match 21st century capability.
We find ourselves at an inflection point between the Industrial Age and the Information Age, where the ‘front’ no longer lies in some distant theatre of operations but within ports, airfields, and barracks. It sits across the electromagnetic spectrum. It is in space, in our networks and loitering in our supply chains. Operations are continuously executed at distance by malign actors who seek to undermine our national security and way of life, raising questions about our military resilience.
The Prime Minister followed the publication of the IOC in autumn with an additional £16.5bn in funding for the Ministry of Defence (MOD), which was focused on space, cyber, digitisation and AI. However, if infrastructure is meant to create an environment that enables military capability and supports the modern ‘live’ experience (part of the offer made to service personnel), then there are several areas within the commercial sector of the defence infrastructure industry that need to be harnessed to support this approach.
Improving built infrastructure
To achieve maximum value in the long term from the government’s recent funding, the defence industry badly needs to adopt smart and high-performance buildings. After all, there is no reason why the MOD cannot leverage cutting-edge commercial practice in a defence setting.
In fact, at a commercial level, many clients are already benefitting from the implementation of high-end technology and automation in their buildings to improve operations. This makes them smarter, more agile for different ways of working, and reduces running costs, carbon emissions, and environmental impact, in addition to enhancing staff wellbeing.
AI and automation are being used to modernise inspections and anticipate faults to improve safety and efficiency. Uncrewed systems provide 24/7, fully automated condition data for immediate and preventative maintenance in real time, with five times the functionality at one fifth of the cost of crewed systems, and 16 times the inspection rates of traditional methods.
Implementing a circular economy
Consider how we might think differently about the value of our built assets. If we abandoned the ‘take-make-waste’ industrial model and applied circular economy thinking, we could design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems. But is this realistic for the defence estate?
Great efforts are being made to implement modern methods of construction, including designing facilities for off-site manufacture, decarbonising and reducing waste, and implementing net zero by 2050. There are several nearly zero energy building projects being piloted, and there is a more robust approach to the application of building information modelling, and even moves to digital twinning.
But this is not the same as implementing a circular economy. The model distinguishes between technical and biological cycles, with strategies such as reuse, repair, remanufacture or (in the last resort) recycling. With current advances, digital technology has the power to support the transition to a circular economy by radically increasing virtualisation, de-materialisation, transparency and feedback-driven intelligence.
Instinctively, we know what we need to do, but a few big challenges stand in the way for defence. We need to comply with security and counter terrorism measures, especially cyber-security. We need solutions for refurbishments as well as new builds. And we also need to quantify a completely different residual and social value, which supports smart decision-making.
Enhancing delivery and data
A short-term priority for the industry should be to use data analytics more strategically, unlocking the power of information to support our armed forces’ via infrastructure. The availability and demand for data via enhanced cloud connectivity, machine learning, and artificial intelligence – not to mention quantum computing – will allow a new generation of weapons systems and infrastructure that reflect equitable investment in equipment, infrastructure, and people.
However, any application of new technologies must deliver business value by aligning their use with an organisation’s strategic objectives, all whilst enabling the operative to fulfil their role as effectively as they can at a technical level.
Data analytics, automation and virtual reality in the decision-making process will better inform the delivery and operation of facilities, as well as optimise usage. Facilities need to be flexible and adaptable in terms of speed and cost to meet the emerging demands of technology, equipment, and systems advancement.
To bring all this together, the implementation of infrastructure planning and delivery needs to be faster. When compared to our international counterparts, it just takes us too long to deliver, and it would seem we are getting slower. Reflecting back on the IOC, we need to recognise that competition is out there globally, not just in the UK.
We must push to collaborate across industries with genuine integration and partnerships. There are organisations in the MOD supply chain that sit uniquely across multiple domains, which could enable international integration across the Five Eyes as well as allow us to co-ordinate across the UK front line commands.
Going forward, to align the delivery of capital projects with the ICO, our industry needs us to become more agile, use data and AI analytics, embrace technological change to solve problems, protect our critical infrastructure, and, perhaps most importantly, play our part in a multi-domain integrated solution.
// Image credit: US Army