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Defence Minister on the importance of Defence Science and Technology

Mr Luff was speaking on the second day of the ‘Investing in Science: Securing Future Prosperity’ conference at Chatham House in conjunction …

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Mr Luff was speaking on the second day of the ‘Investing in Science: Securing Future Prosperity’ conference at Chatham House in conjunction with the Royal Society, Nature and the Institute of Physics.

In his speech Mr Luff spoke about the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) and the Government’s approach to Science and Technology in that context. He said:

I want to concentrate today on the MOD’s Science and Technology side of the house which deals with research itself. Research to improve our understanding of threats and opportunities. Research to generate or adapt technology to provide our Armed Forces with improved equipment, ways of operating, and countermeasures. Research to be an intelligent customer when we buy capability.

Stressing that this does not include the MOD’s spend on Development - the ‘D’ of R&D (Research & Development) which is tied to our individual equipment programmes and is, incidentally, a good deal higher, Mr Luff continued by saying a few words about his own approach to Science and Technology (S&T):

My ministerial title rightly includes ‘Technology’, but broadly defined so that ‘Technology’ includes ‘Science and Innovation’, to which I am deeply committed,” he said. “Defence challenges need cross-disciplinary solutions from scientists, analysts and engineers.

S&T is about so much more than equipment though. For example, thanks to analytical and modelling techniques developed by the MOD’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory - Dstl - lives are being saved by improving the way we deliver fast, effective treatment to those who are injured on the front line.

So I take Defence Science and Technology very seriously and it was a priority issue for me in the SDSR.

Addressing the SDSR and S&T funding issues, Mr Luff said:

As you will appreciate, we didn’t start the SDSR with a clean sheet of paper. We had to face the reality of existing contractual and operational commitments, the financial pressures facing all government departments, and the £38bn ‘black hole’ in the Defence Budget.

It was absolutely imperative to have some underpinning principles. We had two: protecting our mission in Afghanistan; and setting a path to a coherent and affordable defence capability in 2020 and beyond.

As part of that, our challenge - indeed, moral obligation - is to acquire the right equipment for our Armed Forces, at the right time, and at the right cost.

Mr Luff continued saying that because of the priority we place on S&T we have avoided major spending reductions, and expects to see Defence S&T rise slightly in cash terms over the Comprehensive Spending Review period:

This is not perfect,” he said. “I would like to see the S&T budget rise in my Department - not least to compensate for the big reductions made by the last Government. But this is as good a result as anyone could reasonably expect.

Mr Luff said that Defence S&T fared better than most for three important reasons:

  • first - because advanced military research and development gives us a critical advantage over potential adversaries, and is saving people’s lives.
  • second - S&T can help to deliver better value for money.
  • third - S&T can lead our economic recovery.

Discussing Defence S&T priorities Mr Luff said:

Afghanistan remains our main effort in Defence, and today’s modern soldier is more technologically-enabled than ever before. For instance, our counter-IED capabilities build on our experience in Northern Ireland and underpinning technology development.

Civilian scientists and analysts are also embedded with our Armed Forces on operations. They develop and integrate improved protective measures and mission-critical capabilities.

They are integral to the rapid procurement of these capabilities, through the Urgent Operational Requirements process - UORs. And this deployed element is supported by a well-established 24/7 ability to reach back rapidly for advice and support to the UK research community in both Government and industry.

But, Mr Luff said, we need to balance the immediate application of expertise on today’s battlefields with long-term research focused on potential future conflicts:

We decided that our investment should concentrate on developing capabilities and countering threats in priority areas such as autonomous systems, sensors, new materials (including nanotechnology), cyber, and space.

And innovative techniques such as horizon scanning will help us to anticipate technological shocks, and to spot opportunities.

Mr Luff said that for real defence success we must ensure that ingenuity translates into combat edge in the field:

In the past, and there is a very important change here, industry often looked to Defence to lead the way, with many of the most advanced projects coming from defence research and even space research.

And we will continue to look for opportunities where investment in Defence S&T might benefit the wider economy through spin-out into commercial markets.

But, for all our successes, the frequency of Defence S&T ‘Eureka!’ moments is reducing. We must therefore engage more effectively with industry, SMEs [small and medium enterprises] and universities, well beyond those normally involved in Defence, to produce the next generation of military equipment and technology.

One of the ways we do that in the MOD is through the Centre for Defence Enterprise in Oxfordshire - run by Dstl - which seeks to stimulate wider entrepreneurial interest in the defence sector and search for innovative products. Research contracts worth over £10m have been awarded since May 2008. And 60 per cent of those are with SMEs.

On the plans for the future Mr Luff said:

Earlier this month I announced plans to publish a Green Paper by the end of the year which will set out our intended approach to Defence and Security Industry and Technology policy. There will then be a formal public consultation in the New Year.

The results will be published next spring in a White Paper that will formalise our Defence and Security Industrial and Technology policy for the five years until the next strategic review.

It’s everyone’s chance to ensure we’re asking the right questions in the Green Paper and offering the right solutions in the White Paper.

Looking further ahead Mr Luff said we have three main challenges:

First, we in Defence and Security need to find better ways of working with the people who know what potential opportunities and threats will emerge in the next two decades - people in our excellent universities.

Second, how do we get the balance right between the here and now and our future needs? We will also address the needs of Equipment and Support against the needs of other areas such as personnel and training. At the same time we need a balance between our S&T investment in developing ‘products’ with our investment in improving our intelligent S&T customer function.

Third, the unpredictability of the future, especially in the post-Cold War era, is often a real barrier to major private investment in R&D.

In the coming White Paper, I want to know how we can address this.

In conclusion, Mr Luff said:

Defence S&T is essential to the fighting edge of our Armed Forces. Our approach is practical, not least because we are engaged in a bloody fight in Afghanistan that remains our main effort in Defence.

We should also never lose sight of the contribution that Defence S&T can make to our future.

See Related Links to read the full text of Mr Luff’s speech.

Published 24 November 2010