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UK Defence Innovation: New acronyms and old ways of working change nothing.

Rob Harper
Rob Harper 10 Mar 2021
Writing

We are the lucky ones. We overcame the barriers to entry and are at the point of stabilising and sustaining our growth. However, without knowledge of the system, market entry would have been nigh on impossible.

It is telling that there is still a lingering sense of concern when commenting on these moderately contentious subjects. Will our customers hold it against us? Will they take it personally? Is it lower risk to just pander to them? Three noes from me: I think the environment has changed and continuous improvement is seen as positive.

Background

Last year Will Roper, then head of Air Force acquisition, aired his concerns for companies within the Mid-Tier industrial base who are continuously acquired by established Government contractors. Whilst he recognised the important role of prime contractors, he also noted a trend of generalised delivery. That is, the ability for prime contractors to bid for pretty much anything, even if they aren’t that good at it.

In the UK, understanding the procurement process and having a good bid team is likely to differentiate you more than what you offer or how good your approach is. For a lot of people, a limited supplier base who always fills in the right forms, is low risk and safe – and you get a report out of it.

The higher TRLs and closer to exploitation technologies appear well served. The ‘works’, ‘hubs’ and ‘offices’ are exploitation focused and hungry. For those who are passionate about progress, myself included, it is encouraging.

Much ink has already been spilled about broader procurement challenges. The problem is complex and not much has changed, so let’s laser in on funding innovative research.

Rowden Office Wide

As an SME, how do we view the procurement of risky stuff?

We benefit from it and there has been significant improvements made to accessibility.

So why not keep quiet and leave it be?

Supporting National Security should not be constrained by prior knowledge of a complex procurement system. There should be another 100 Rowdens emerging and strengthening UK technology development.

Things are broken.

These examples combine publicly available information from two separate UK Gov sources:

Company A, given £130k of non-match funded money for technology development. They are a subsidiary of a publicly owned company with a £5bn turnover.

Company B, given £280k. A company valued at £1.8bn and majority owned by a company with global revenue of $15bn.

“every time you say you don’t believe in fairies, a fairy dies”

Every time you give innovation money to a company who don’t need it, a small company sells a lathe to keep trading. Trust me, if these large companies thought these ideas were exploitable and highly profitable, they would invest their own money. Worryingly, it’s probably less paperwork to apply for Government funding than it is to write an internal business case (and remember, you don’t get sales commission if you are spending your own money!).

The Integrated Review.

The review placed innovation and technology development at its core. Rather than provide more abstract commentary, we see opportunities for change, targeting the transition from the EU Defence and Security Public Contracts Regulations (DSPCR) 2011 and benefiting new market entrants.

1. Copy Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) in the UK.

Sbir

Tailor a proven model used by an ally. Define the size of the set aside. Pilot it. If it works, write it into policy.

2. Make investment decisions based on prototypes, demos and presentations, not paperwork.

Small companies can make rapid investments to develop concepts. Ask to see something, even a short presentation. Just because applying for something is easier than it used to be, it doesn’t mean it’s easy for two people transitioning out of their PhDs.

Everything is there to enable hands on techniques within the existing procurement system. It just feels out the ordinary and is often side-lined as being too risky or too much short-term effort.

US Army xTechSearch appear to be nailing the approach.

Usarmy xtech search

3. Stem the framework obsession.

It’s not cheaper, it’s just “easier” and plugs resource gaps. Anything that enables greater centralised control from a smaller group of contractors, will stifle innovation. There are amazing people within the organisations running these frameworks but that’s not addressing the route of the problem. On one research framework, we provide deliverables ten days early to be checked against a spelling and grammar KPI. Whilst they find the odd mistake, I’m pretty sure it won’t move the UK closer to being an ‘AI superpower’.

London westminster

There is an opportunity to enact change and there is an opportunity to retain the status-quo.

The former requires some hard yards against a backdrop of continuous influence and naysaying from ‘trusted suppliers.’ The latter is easier and retains the regulations already provided by the EU.

Only one of those two options will bring the UK Government closer to fulfilling the aims of the Integrated Review and retaining competitiveness.

New acronyms and old ways of working will change nothing.