2010/11/23 - Defence Science & Technology

Speech delivered by Minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology at Chatham House, London on Tuesday 23 November 2010.

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

Thank you Roger [Dr. Roger Highfield, Editor, New Scientist] for that challenging introduction - I’ll try not to be too vague as Ministers always are, but vague and exciting

Thank you Brian [Professor Brian Cox OBE] for those thoughtful comments.

Thank you for taking us back to those heady years of the Apollo Mission with your remarks, and I was given this oft-quoted quote from Einstein; “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is to not stop questioning.”

I am grateful to Chatham House for hosting this very timely conference.

We published this country’s first ever SDSR - Strategic Defence and Security Review - last month, and I want to say a few words about the Government’s approach to Science and Technology in that context.

It’s timely as well because we have to start putting into practise what the SDSR said about Defence Science and Technology, as the hard work now begins.

Implausible scenarios, future weapons, and cool gadgets, are the stock-in trade of any James Bond film, and are all very exciting.

But they are mere by-products of a practical approach to Defence S&T, where exploitability is far more important than style, particularly when the effectiveness and safety of our Armed Forces is at stake.

Before I do, let me be clear about terminology.

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 counter-measures.

Research to be an intelligent customer when we buy capability.

It does not include the MoD’s spend on Development - the ‘D’ of R&D - which is tied to our individual equipment programmes and is, incidentally, a good deal higher.

Let me also say a few words about my own approach to S&T.

My Ministerial title rightly includes ‘Technology’, but broadly defined so that “Technology” includes Science and Innovation, to which I am deeply committed.

This stems from a personal interest in science and engineering - if I had my time before politics over again, I think I would have been a civil engineer.

But it’s also because Defence challenges need cross-disciplinary solutions from scientists, analysts, and engineers.

As the Science Minister, David Willetts, who spoke to you yesterday, said earlier this year,

“A very important stimulus for scientific advance is, quite simply, technology. We talk of scientific discovery enabling technical advance, but the process is much more inter-dependent than that. For example, imaging technology is driven by the demands of astronomers, and then enables those same astronomers to make new discoveries.”

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.

I couldn’t possibly hope to deliver the Equipment and Support parts of my job without it - now, or in the future - and it was a priority issue for me in the SDSR.

Now, 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 £38 billion ‘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.

The doom-merchants assumed that science funding would be a ‘soft target’ across government.

In reality, because of the priority we place on security, the Defence budget is making a smaller contribution to deficit reduction than most other Departments.

And because of the priority we place on S&T we have avoided major spending reductions, and expect to see Defence S&T rise slightly in cash terms over the Comprehensive Spending Review period.

This is not perfect - 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.

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 peoples’ lives as I speak.

It was disappointing to read before the SDSR that some scientists were calling for cuts on public spending on science to come from military research.

If they had properly considered the impact that huge reductions on Defence S&T would have on our men and women in Afghanistan, they would not have been so dismissive of the value of Defence research - at least I hope so.

Second, S&T can help to deliver better value for money.

For example, a revolutionary new form of textile armour on vehicles, called TARIAN, has been developed by AmSafe Bridport and Dstl.

It’s as effective as the current steel or aluminium, but is so much lighter that it reduces fuel use and vehicle maintenance, greatly reducing the cost of operations.

Third, we believe that S&T can lead our economic recovery.

It generates exploitable Intellectual Property which is the key to growth and global competitiveness, particularly the innovation of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises.

And S&T should also underpin the biggest exports drive in decades to promote British innovation and excellence overseas.

What does this mean for our Defence S&T priorities?

As I have 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, and I pay tribute to the incredible contribution that our scientists have made in this area.

Civilian scientists and analysts are also embedded with our Armed Forces on operations - if you go to Afghanistan you will meet them there on the ground doing their business - providing direct advice and support to the commanders on the ground.

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.

For example, engineers at Ferranti Technologies and AgustaWestland - working closely with scientists at Dstl - have led the ground-breaking technical development of a pioneering approach to the problem of ‘helicopter brownout’, when a pilot loses visual references due to dust or sand re-circulating during take-off or landing.

But 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.

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 as Brian referred to.

Microwave ovens, infra-red devices, and liquid crystal displays all started life as Defence projects.

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.

Spin-in now exceeds spin-out.

For example, engineers at Manchester and Cranfield universities, together with BAE SYSTEMS, have developed the world’s first “flapless” plane - the DEMON UAV - that uses hundreds of tiny air jets to control airflow over the plane, manipulating lift and draft without using traditional mechanisms to steer.

Extraordinary in its own right, but the military possibilities are potentially revolutionary.

We must therefore engage more effectively with industry, SMEs, 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 £10 million have been awarded since May 2008.

And 60% of those are with SMEs.

For example, on intelligent textiles, a partnership between a weaver and an electronics engineer - neither of whom had worked in Defence before - is helping to reduce our dependency on batteries.

It’s a really tremendous achievement and I really recommend it to you.

We will build on successes like this, and make our plans to do so as transparent and stable as possible to enable industry to play their part, and contribute and invest with confidence.

Which brings me on to our plans for the future.

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 Technological 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.

I really do urge you all to get involved in the process and make your contributions.

Looking further ahead, I think we have three main challenges.

First, I do not doubt for one moment the benefits of blue-skies and long-term research.

It balances our focus on the here and now, and is the best guarantee that the here and now of 10 to 20 years’ time can be met with confidence.

For instance, a good deal of cyber research has been done in our universities in the last two decades.

But it is only now that cyber has come to the fore as a top-tier security risk.

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.

One way might be Defence-sponsored PhDs, which would be of real benefit to the MoD and universities, bringing understanding of Defence issues to universities, and alerting us in Defence to long-range challenges.

Second, how do we get the balance right between the here and now, and our future needs?

The National Security Council is providing focus and overall strategic direction to S&T’s contribution to national security.

It’s enabling us to take a cross-government approach and engage successfully with strategic partners on S&T issues.

In turn, the MoD’s R&D Board will weigh what it needs for use now against the longer-term requirements of Future Force 2020.

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.

And International Research Collaboration will become increasingly important as a means of maximising the value of the S&T budget.

We will continue our close co-operation with the US on both nuclear and non-nuclear Defence research, and with our other international partners.

And we will co-operate even more closely with France in this field - reinforced at this month’s Summit.

We are committed now to spend €50 million each annually on joint research and development projects. That brings the opportunity for new Defence research money into the UK.

Third, I agree with the physicist, Niels Bohr, who said, “Prediction is very difficult. Especially about the future.”

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.

I also agree with Brian that we must become better at communicating the importance of committing resources to S&T.

People in my area are familiar with and get excited about tanks, ships, and planes.

We must help them understand why technology that can’t be seen or touched is as vital as the platform itself, if not more so.

So the rest of Government, universities, industry and, crucially, the public must have improved access to - and understanding of -the role of science in Defence, if we are to make our case successfully.

And we must help British business commercialise the outputs of our world leading research base.

That’s why the Government will invest over £200 million, through the Technology Strategy Board, to establish an elite network of Technology and Innovation Centres over the next four years.

They won’t just carry out their own in-house research.

They will connect businesses - large and small - new and old - to potential new technologies, making them aware of funding streams, and providing access to skills and equipment.

As the Prime Minister has said, these centres will be “great for research, great for business, and they’re going to put Britain back at the top table for innovation.”

Ladies and Gentlemen, 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.

With your technological help and scientific perseverance, we can find the solutions to the challenges of today, and of tomorrow.

Published 23 November 2010