Britain's Defence Secretary Ben Wallace walks outside Downing Street in London, Britain, September 15, 2021

‘We must redefine defence’s future,’ says Defence Secretary

Image credit: REUTERS/Toby Melville

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace made a speech at DSEI 2021, outlining the technological capabilities and projects we will see in the future within the UK’s defence sector.

The Conservative MP spent the day at the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) trade exhibition at ExCel London, speaking to innovative companies in the business. During his visit, he warned the UK “can’t afford to stand still in defence”, especially in an age of increasing global competition.

Wallace said: “Our adversaries have studied our strengths and weaknesses. And, over the past few decades, they’ve been progressively whittling down our western edge. Today they are not only challenging us in the traditional domains. They are becoming masters of the sub-threshold.

“No longer limited by geography or lines on the map, they are using bots to disseminate misinformation, hackers to break into global systems and UAVs to target their deep artillery fire. The threat has moved on and we must move with it.”

He expressed that this demands a “step-change” in the relationship between government, industry and the UK’s international counterparts. In March this year, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) published its Defence and Security Industrial Strategy (DSIS) alongside its Defence Command Paper.

“DSIS identifies the sectors where we need to keep its critical elements onshore for their strategic, operational, and supply chain resilience,” Wallace explained.

“That’s a supply chain that sustains everything from our nuclear submarines to ground combat systems, from cryptology to offensive cyber. DSIS seeks to understand and secure the entire pipeline for our long-term requirements. And, where we back an industrial capability, DSIS will enable us to provide it with sustained support.”

He added the strategy aims to keep industry “in the loop”, providing defence firms with greater transparency and clarity about the technology they seek. He stated the strategy will also provide them with insight long before they launch into the market, so companies can research, invest, and upskill to deliver those future technology and productivity requirements.

The MoD has also recapitalised the UK Defence Solutions Centre – working alongside the Department for International Trade – to ensure the department’s judgements are based on objective data, rather than subjective calls and personal opinions.

On Monday (13 September), Wallace launched the National Shipbuilding Office which will oversee all the government’s interests in UK shipbuilding – releasing a 30-year pipeline of government vessels. “Our forthcoming shipbuilding strategy Refresh is a prime example of the new long-term approach,” he explained. “It will provide a major clearer demand signal about what we are trying to achieve with our procurement programmes.”

The MoD also has a raft of competitions and programmes coming up, Wallace said, ranging from combat cloud capabilities to counter-battery radars, from unmanned mine hunters and mobile fires platforms to novel space sensors and its new National Flagship.

DSIS will also challenge industry to aim higher, Wallace explained. “For instance, as we look to grow our digital backbone, seamlessly linking systems, domains and data, it’s time for the defence sector to create the open architectures and digital interfaces that allow us to make decisions at the speed of relevance.”

The MoD is also piloting a personnel security assurance process for its defence supply chains to ensure companies have the right policies and the systems in place to trigger the alarm and prevent a security breach. Once the pilot ends, we will expand our approach to the whole of government, Wallace said.

He added that the strategy will also refine the UK’s relationship with its international partners. “We know we are much better off when working collaboratively with our allies both in terms of economies of scales and in terms of interoperability. We know too that often, these groundbreaking transformational capabilities only come through international collaboration.”

Wallace explained that this sense of international collaboration is already embedded deep within the sector. For example, there is a large contribution from the UK to the US’s F-35 stealth fighter, with the aft fuselage, horizontal, and vertical tails of every F-35 built in Lancashire.

“Critically, our joint approach to long-term engineering, scientific and technical skills has enabled the integration of Shadow, Brimstone and Meteor onto the Typhoon," he explained further. “It has also led to investment in a town like Bolton where MBDA has set up a new factory.”

Wallace envisions DSIS will be a means to share the UK’s “deep” expertise and bolster its national bonds with even deeper relationships with its Allies. “And in doing so we will both promote the future security of the region and enhance our mutual prosperity.”

Yesterday (16 September), Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the Aukus trilateral agreement with Australia and the US, whereby the UK and the US will support Australia in acquiring new nuclear-powered and conventionally armed submarines.

Wallace, however, was quizzed on the matter whereby a nuclear deal between Australia and France was subsequently scrapped because of the new alliance, which has allegedly enraged the neighbouring country. In 2016, Australia made a deal with French Naval Group to build a new submarine fleet worth $40bn (£29bn).

On the French not being included within this deal, Wallace spoke about how only the Five Eyes countries (an intelligence alliance comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK, and the US) “being the most trusted military allies and partners” would have been approached.

He admitted there was “no intention” to undermine the French, having spoken to his French counterpart prior to the announcement. “Of course France would be disappointed, from an industrial point of view. They have lost a contract. Britain still regards France as one of its strategic allies.”

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