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British Defense Information Technology Faces Uncertain Future

August 17, 2009
By Robert K. Ackerman
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British forces monitor operations in a joint forces air component headquarters. While the British military is building advanced backbone and trunk networks for advanced connectivity among its forces, it is cutting back on the next layer of programs that would provide new capabilities.

Urgent needs and big-ticket items are squeezing out smaller programs.

The crystal ball for U.K. communications and information systems is clouding as military priorities and economic realities are combining to limit high-technology spending. The Ministry of Defence has committed to several large-scale programs that will absorb the bulk of equipment procurement money, and it is reining in overall spending as a result of national budgetary constraints arising from the global economic downturn.

Unlike their U.S. counterparts, British communications and information systems (CIS) programs tend to be fully funded earlier in the procurement cycle. That way, an extensive program such as the Bowman radio effort (SIGNAL Magazine, November 2008) need not face the budget ax deep into the program. However, efforts that have not yet been funded past a certain point are eligible for the chopping block, and it is those programs that are most at risk.

One analyst who specializes in British defense programs offers that any CIS program that is not urgent is being delayed or held back. Funding instead is going to large equipment procurements that have had their spending deferred—and those bills have come due.

This is not to say that all unfunded CIS programs are falling by the wayside. Some will be procured, particularly those that are vital to big-ticket items or are needed by British forces operating in Southwest Asia. But those two categories are dominating British defense spending priorities, and other projects that are not defined as immediately essential are at risk.

Complicating these factors is the possibility that the United Kingdom will have a change in government in less than one year. If a new government is elected, some analysts believe that the British defense budget will change significantly in short order—and possibly toward deeper defense budget cuts.

The United Kingdom is pursuing a path similar to that of the U.S. network-centric doctrine. Calling its effort network enabled capability, the United Kingdom is placing great emphasis on building its military force around networking and its benefits. As with the United States, the United Kingdom is building its network enabled linkage with trunk and backbone systems, and other programs are providing an overlying layer of capabilities.

Large British CIS needs currently are being addressed by several major programs. These programs form the basis for an advanced network-enabled force. The Defence Information Infrastructure (DII) is designed to be the backbone for the Ministry of Defence and the three services. Its first stages, which were incorporated in the first half of this decade, maintained legacy systems while establishing technical standards for future increments. These future increments largely consist of tens of thousands of user access terminals being introduced in stages. The later of these increments also will include the addition of new capabilities and software.

Bowman, which is the main backbone of battlefield communications, is being rolled out and is in the force. The next-level system is Falcon, which is to replace Ptarmigan as the army’s trunk communications system. This system is designed to employ Internet protocol technology to move a variety of data—such as voice, enhanced maps and video—across the network. Falcon’s increments A and C are under development, and versions of them already are providing service in some areas. Increment B has been folded into increment D, but that new increment has not yet been funded.

The Skynet 5 satellite system is the backbone of British orbital military communications. The third and final satellite in the constellation reached orbit last year, and the system already is able to serve ground forces in Afghanistan equipped with the Reacher mobile satellite communications terminal.

The Joint Service Airborne Standoff Radar (ASTOR) entered service in 2008 and has been used over Afghanistan. The airborne system, which also interoperates with Britain’s Nimrod and the U.S. Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (Joint STARS) aircraft, is designed also to be able to move data via Skynet 5.

Outside of these main programs, much U.K. CIS spending has been on urgent requirements for British forces in Southwest Asia, mostly in Afghanistan. That emphasis represents a reversal of previous expenditures, which favored British forces in Iraq until last year.

The United Kingdom is buying individual elements of CIS capabilities to speed them to the front. These purchases largely have taken the form of radios and communication devices along with software, such as for information translation and processing.

Among key next-generation programs that have not yet received funding are the Collaborative Air Battle Management System; the Common Geospatial Toolset system; the Combined Land-Air-Sea Picture capability; the Combined Service Support capability; the Single Integrated Air Picture, which is designed to move logistical data at the tactical level; and the Future Logistics Information System Delivery Project.

Another casualty is new end-to-end fire support software, which is a joint mission management software that is designed to succeed the Joint Effects Tactical Targeting System (JETTS). British forces incorporated a lot of the U.S.-built Joint Automated Deep Operations Coordination System (JADOCS) into JETTS in Afghanistan, where it has served as a gateway through which U.K. fire support could operate in U.S. systems.


A British soldier lays cables atop a protective wall in Basra, Iraq. Most of the new communications and information systems technologies reaching the force are in response to urgent operational requests from operations in Southwest Asia.

The Future Core Networks program, which is designed to provide top-level connectivity, has not received funding. The Joint Asset Management and Engineering Solutions (JAMES), a large army logistics program by Lockheed Martin Corporation, has not received funding for increments 3, 4 and 5. The Future Infantry Soldier Technology, or FIST, has not yet had an effect on the battlefield. It still is in the hangar, as it has not yet made its way into production.

Air defense command and control (C2) and fire support have been put on the back burner, analysts add. Soothsayer—an electronic warfare program for the Army and the Royal Marines—is being cancelled. Even a new combat identification program, which would benefit forces at the front directly, has not received go-ahead funding yet.

Project Helix, the next-generation electronics intelligence platform slated to replace the Nimrod, has been delayed. Britain has opted to employ U.S. Rivet Joint aircraft to incorporate its functionality into the force. Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles that the United Kingdom purchased from the United States will not be sustained for the long term, and no more will be bought.

Project Dabinett originally was to be the next big intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance program, but the ambitious effort has been broken up into several smaller programs. One analyst says that this effectively has killed the program, as each of these smaller programs can disappear without their absence being noticed as much as if the entire original project were cancelled abruptly. “They cancelled the solution, but they didn’t cancel the problem,” the analyst states.

Most of these programs—and many others not yet funded—represent a new layer of information technology capabilities. However, that new layer faces severe financial hurdles before it might come to pass. In some cases, network connectivity is established, but the steps necessary to exploit that connectivity—such as the implementation of enabling software, new capabilities and infrastructure expansion—never are funded.

One analyst observes that many of these programs receive small amounts of funding—just enough to keep them going another year, but not enough to put them into production. This is an approach that has been taken with large-scale programs before, but those programs were too visible to disappear quietly.

And it is this approach that has forced the hand of program funders with regard to major platform programs, analysts say. Since 2003, many of these large-platform programs have been deferred down the timeline. While the government was committed to building them, it put off spending the necessary funds as long as possible, analysts say. Now, those bills are coming due, and they are crimping the government’s ability to fund other smaller programs.

British non-expendable equipment procurement should receive about $17 billion this year, and a total of five programs are receiving a disproportionate share. These five are the Eurofighter, the CVF aircraft carrier program, the Astute submarine, new airborne tankers and the Type 45 destroyer.

C2 spending is targeted to receive about $300 million annually. It was slated to increase to about $1 billion around 2012, but no further increases are on the horizon.

One chance for some of these programs is to be incorporated into the large-scale platforms. However, the deferred funding on those big programs limits their spending flexibility. As needs become apparent, many of these smaller programs may be resurrected within the large projects, but that would not happen for several years. Project MASC—the Maritime Airborne Surveillance and Control program—is supposed to be part of the CVF program. But the first carriers are slated for delivery in 2015, and no movement has taken place on the MASC effort yet.

Another possibility is that urgent operational requirements could spawn new systems if their technologies prove essential to British forces. One urgent operational requirement was answered by Project Overtask, which is a C2 system that was delivered to Afghanistan in 2007. It provided a British extension to NATO networks, which enhance coalition interoperability in the field. This was just a minor capability, however, and it is not likely to expand into a fully capable program.

The bulk of British out-of-area warfighting operations now are taking place in Afghanistan, and the networking demands in that rugged terrain are spawning calls for new technologies and capabilities. However, the process of adopting an urgent operational requirement technology for armywide use could take years—and, again, require unanticipated budgetary support.