“We need pentaphibians and more Qs that 007s”: Sanders
Head of UK Strategic Command General Sir Patrick Sanders told DSEI attendees that defence needs to fill a technology skills gap to meet modern military challenges. Berenice Healey attended his keynote address setting out the need for new technology skills and witnessed the audible gasp as he introduced ‘pentaphibians’ to military lexicography.
General Sir Patrick Sanders last addressed DSEI in 2019, shortly before Strategic Command was stood up to drive the integration and science and technology agenda for defence. He used his 2021 keynote to address the theme of this year’s DSEI, multidomain integration, and how it addresses the current threat environment.
“We are now facing the twin spectre of emboldened jihadi terrorists, and something not seen since the 1930s are growing, authoritarian regimes that celebrate the suppression of political and individual freedom as a better way to govern,” he said.
He went on to say that what links these authoritarian regimes is twofold; the use of political warfare that aims to win without fighting using non-military recruits, and the fast expansion of the space and cyber domains coupled with disruptive Information Age technologies.
“These technology frontiers include artificial intelligence, advanced computing, quantum technologies, robotics, autonomous systems and commercial space technologies, additive manufacturing and the Internet of Things, along with the new generations of 5G and beyond the mobile communications that will connect it,” he added.
Adapting the acquisition model
Sanders said that UK defence needs to recognise the advantages it has; notably in the last 12 months it has been offered new funding and the mandate to radically adapt the acquisition model through the integrated operating concept. To achieve this, defence needs to make sense of and manipulate unexploited data, for which it needs to work with industry.
“We urgently need to go further and faster together, and in three areas of systems,” Sanders said. “Firstly, development of synthetic environments. Secondly, pursuing the combination of pervasive sensors and edge computing that will enable us to create a military Internet of Things, and realise the potential offered by autonomous systems and intelligent machines.”
He illustrated the need to harness the pace of development in the commercial sector with the fact the processor on an autonomous car has 800 times more processing power than the advanced processor on any military platform, including the F-35.
“We can change this with further development of artificial intelligence and machine learning,” said Sanders.
“Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Alphabet, said recently we're in the early stages, but I view AI as the most profound technology that mankind will ever develop and work on; even more important than fire and electricity.
“The military use cases for AI at this stage are pace, autonomous systems, cyber defence decision support and intelligence processing,” Sanders said. “However, these present a skills gap and defence will need access to fundamentally different skills and talent, and to place equal value and afford the status to computer scientists, data engineers and cyber operators.”
Sanders added that it was clear our adversaries would gain a decisive advantage unless we compete in a more concerted and urgent way in this technology. Investments in military AI should be symbiotic with the growth of AI in other sectors, and it will be at the heart of the future in the UK as a science and technology superpower.
// Isotropic Systems’ multi-beam terminal meshes signals from multiple satellites
The more of these satellite systems that go up, the more it creates the demand for an antenna that can connect to more than one at a time without compromising performance.
Skills gap and future pentaphibians
Turning to the issue of skills, Sanders said the armed forces need to be clear-eyed about what's needed.
“Our current workforce is brave, talented, inventive, resourceful and resilient, but it isn't yet imbued with the culture to pursue multidomain integration, nor to have the diversity of skills needed to be competitive in the digital age,” he said. He added that the MOD is still recognisably a tri-service organisation and doesn’t provide joint education until around the 15 to 20-year point in someone's career.
“We've enrolled Marines to be amphibious – comfortable in two environments. Some of us become triphibians across all three physical environments, but we need to evolve pentaphibians, with the ability to operate seamlessly across all five domains,” he said.
“We’re going to need access to fundamentally different skills and talent, and to place equal value and afford equal status to computer scientists, data engineers and cyber operators. as we do those with traditional skills. I have more need of Q than I do for 007 already.”
To do that, he said, we need to address the skills gaps through more diverse and inward investment. Coding and data literacy should be seen as being as much a core skill as weapon handling and there should be ‘porous’ career paths allowing movement between the military, industry and academia.
Defence and the digital sector
Sanders’ closing remarks touched on the role of SMEs and the digital sector.
“The predominant image of the defence sector is of aircraft carriers and jet fighters,” he said. “As important as these industries are, in a world in which capabilities are moving to the cloud, software and data can be as real as any physical assets.”
Sanders pointed out that the digital sector is growing 2.6 times faster than the wider economy, and the market for military AI is projected to grow from £3.8bn in 2016 to £6.6bn and offer benefits for an economy much wider than defence.
“It'll drive a wave of upskilling across the economy,” he said. “No doubt, UK defence needs to become much more agile and forward-leaning in the space. But industry also needs to take some risks in order to protect and promote SMEs, with companies working alongside each other for the common good where necessary.”
// Main image: Gen. Sir Patrick Sanders delivered a keynote on multidomain integration at DSEI. Credit: Berenice Healey