Telecommunications Firm Applies Expertise to Government Practices

September 1999
By Robert K. Ackerman
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The United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence is teaming with industry for more than mere cost-effectiveness.

A telecommunications company is seeking to lead the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence into the information age with its own information technology experience. Beginning with converting the British military’s communications system to a commercial enterprise, the company is extending its menu of services and systems to fit a governmentwide approach to information access.

While this British firm’s approach parallels a growing worldwide trend of applying commercial solutions to defense communications requirements, the company regards this arrangement as a two-way street. It seeks military input to help plan for future communications systems and services.

The company, BT Defence, works with U.K. defense, security, intelligence and foreign policy organizations. Headquartered in London, it also supports the U.S. services based in the United Kingdom. The past three years have seen considerable growth in the group’s business, and it is looking at reorganizing and reorienting for closer collaboration with its entire client base. This especially applies to work with the Ministry of Defence on new projects, says Pete Slinger, deputy general manager of BT Defence.

Slinger sees a strong inclination on the part of Ministry of Defence officials to say, “Don’t just tell me what you can do for me; tell me about how other people are using your technology … that I can learn from.” This translates into applying experiences from the private sector to the public sector. Slinger says that the company’s relationship with the ministry is long standing, and he adds that BT Defence is trying to elevate that relationship to a level where it can shape the firm’s activities and services.

Many of the company’s activities grew from recent initiatives launched by the administration of Prime Minister Tony Blair. The administration’s strategic defense review set a new agenda with its realistic and pragmatic view of objectives and goals, Slinger states. Its emphasis on “doing things neater” in procurement and logistics management has generated practical initiatives that have opened up many opportunities for BT, especially in logistics and information management—“how we can wire up the defense community,” he says.

Slinger describes how a wider government agenda, characterized by Prime Minister Blair as “joined-up government,” aims at improved service to the citizens, especially by smoothing business procedures between individuals or organizations and diverse government departments. Slinger expects that this emphasis on “information doing the work” also will affect the defense sector.

The Defence Ministry’s major contribution to this is its smart procurement initiative, which seeks to create synthetic environments, an electronic commerce capability, and an improved supply chain, for example. All these efforts focus on digitally shared information, and BT is well-positioned to help fulfill these needs, Slinger says.

The company is the prime contractor for the Defence Fixed Telecommunications Service, or DFTS. This system, which provides basic wide-area communications, relies heavily on the commercial infrastructure. Slinger notes that the firm, working with the Defence Ministry’s transition team, has recognized a need to do more with the infrastructure. New programs in the pipeline already have an information transfer requirement that often includes an information content environment. Issues such as security, information sharing and safeguarding are emerging.

“DFTS is very much a base for us to build new systems and new services working alongside the Ministry of Defence,” he declares. This goes beyond filling a requirement to actually scoping the requirement and determining what it should be. As an example, he cites how, for the DFTS operational requirement, the ministry originally discussed technologies along with rationalization and cost optimization. Now, the ministry focuses on partnering, initiative, knowledge transfer and services. The lessons learned have surprised some BT officials.

“We are learning that it’s not what we thought it was when we went in, but in a positive sense,” Slinger relates. “There is much more to do—just in the very process of working closely alongside the ministry. In that process, we are capturing much more in terms of requirements that we need to take back to BT and say ‘we have to move in this direction. Let’s make sure that we have the capability ready for them’ to be able to fulfill their needs.”

Slinger continues that this expertise is being transferred to other programs. This includes support for Lockheed Martin in one of the project definition studies for the Skynet V system, the next generation of British military communications satellites. The effort features several interesting elements. One, according to Slinger, is that the ministry “is passionate” about having Skynet V and DFTS interoperate seamlessly. This includes end-to-end management with operation being transparent to the user.

Slinger adds that the company also compares Ministry of Defence requirements with trends in the United States, where requirements tend to focus on the need for greater amounts of bandwidth for users worldwide ranging from battlefield participants to logistics managers. This trend also applies to the United Kingdom, which, like the United States, is moving toward greater global participation in peacekeeping operations. This requires interoperability between DFTS and Skynet V, not just at the technical standards level, but also with “the look and feel” of the service, he says.

The biggest hurdle facing BT involves the “joined-up thinking” that must be done within both the Defence Ministry and industry, Slinger offers. Often, the ministry suggests that it does not want to invent a new solution to an existing problem or requirement, but instead prefers a total requirement—both near-term and long-term—that is specified in the overall program requirement. The program’s 12- to 15-year time frame represents a changing time dynamic to which the company must respond. Accordingly, it must be able to respond to an uncertain final requirement. It also must inject new technologies and capabilities at intervals throughout the program’s lifetime, during which advances can come faster than the ability to predict them.

These technology issues, which may arise in the 2004 to 2005 time frame, can include items such as defining the precise nature of asynchronous transfer mode (ATM), the management systems and management protocols. These must be planned in this time frame. Ensuring the optimum chance of technical interoperability with the ground segment is a thorny issue, especially when current standards are not likely to be in fashion during the operational period. Another problem is trying to predict which applications will be in general use several years from now.

“Technologists tell me that a great deal is possible and that a great deal is already happening,” Slinger says. “Their principal difficulty is choosing from all the options that are available to them so that we have a managed risk and limited exposure.”

Slinger relates that the company is working with two other British defense firms to create synthetic environments in new U.K. weapons platform programs, both of which likely will incorporate ATM technology. One is the Apache helicopter program, which is incorporating a version of the U.S. attack helicopter into British forces. The other is the future offensive air system, or FOAS, which is still in the early stages. Slinger allows that the synthetic environment effort is helping the entire collaborative activity at early project stages. For example, the FOAS program may become involved with Skynet V, as the satellite communications system could be integral to the project’s battlefield success, depending on the configuration chosen. The synthetic environment may conceivably help decide that configuration.

A joint U.K. industry/Defence Ministry body, known as the synthetic environments management board, has created a model comprising nine local area networks. The model demonstrates how synthetic environments can apply at all stages of a program’s life cycle. These would begin at the time of initial user requirements analysis and optimization and trade studies, through collaborative procurement work, and through actual implementation and in-service support.

While some of these efforts involve the use of ATM, the company is not putting itself in the position of having to pick a winner. In the ongoing contest between ATM and Internet protocol, BT “is backing as many horses as we can reasonably see,” Slinger allows. The company has partners in both camps, and he adds that the two technologies “may well coexist for a substantial period of time.”

The firm has been selected as one of the final three bidders to develop proposals for a defense electronic commerce service, or DECS. This initiative aims to promote smarter ways to manage the procurement supply chain and provide service support. Slinger characterizes it as a “start small, think big” program, where its aspirations are pragmatic. He notes that the ministry has been through several individual service programs, and the DECS effort must integrate legacy programs en route to establishing a pervasive electronic commerce system. It is designed to allow online procurement, including catalog publishing and ordering. This would extend past prime contractors to include their key suppliers, which could total 40,000 small and medium companies. Other bidders include EDS and Cap Gemini, with a contract likely to be awarded in December 1999 or January 2000.

The company’s defense work is not limited to the U.K. Ministry of Defence, however. Along with two industry partners, it is working with the U.S. Air Force on implementing the defense information systems network in Europe and in the Pacific region.

The company performs considerable work on the U.S. forces’ infrastructure in the United Kingdom. A major element involves the progressive rollout of the fiber infrastructure, beginning with U.S. air bases at Lakenheath and Mildenhall and extending to small er locations. Most of this work features a proprietary blown fiber technique that the company seeks to implement in the public network. When new administrative or ancillary buildings such as shops and personnel facilities are constructed, they are incorporated into the new infrastructure as they adopt more advanced information activities. The ongoing effort has laid thousands of kilometers of fiber.

While the firm is charging ahead with its defense service program, it has not avoided all speed bumps. The biggest impediment to many company plans has turned out to be the year 2000 (Y2K) bug. Slinger notes that Y2K planning has taken up a considerable amount of the company’s focus on a day-to-day level. This includes ensuring adequate Y2K communication with customers, testing, alerting to needed upgrades, and replacing equipment where necessary. “We’re very much the messenger rather than the originator of the message,” he allows.