Overcoming the barriers to delivering software-centric capability



The UK Government envisions its future defence-industrial base as a partnership between ‘smarter’ government customers and an ‘ecosystem of scientists, researchers, inventors, and innovators.’[1]

Traditionally, the evolution of military capability has been determined by the incumbent’s hardware design choices, yet future defence systems are increasingly dictated by software considerations.

To alleviate the challenges associated with the delivery of complex digital procurement programmes, the role of the System Integrator must evolve to bridge asymmetries and empower the Smarter Customer to succeed.

The need for specialists

"The Army are working on what we need and how we can retain the right skills in a marketplace that’s highly competitive and evolving quickly. We’ve experimented with apprenticeships in the DevSecOps world, but ultimately many leave us for better paid roles. The result is we are currently dominated by 'As A Service' contracts, but is that the right model?"

Brig S Crossfield, British Army [2]

Technological innovation is intrinsically tied to the efforts of a vast array of scientific research and engineering activities distributed across myriad commercial entities. These ‘technology systems’[3] are highly inter-dependent, complex, and extremely challenging for government to govern and integrate into existing ecosystems.

How is new technical expertise being generated and shared, by whom, and where can it be applied to defence problem sets? These questions are grow in importance as the delivery of future digital capability becomes increasingly dependent on the effective orchestration of these complex commercial technology systems.

The industrial base is responding, but dependency on more specialist software-centric expertise, rather than capital-intensive industry or generalist consultancy, is growing. The key challenge for government customers, then, becomes one of ‘finding the right expert’ to deliver material value to frontline operators at pace.[4]

The evolving role of Integrators

"Things get sold because they’re well marketed, not because they’re technically superior or meet some technical thresholds."

See interviews conducted by A Bowne, NCMA [5]

The underlying logic behind the government’s ‘smarter customer’ aspiration is that when the knowledge of government teams meets or exceeds that of the supply chain, they are in a better position to limit historically identified poor behaviours in digital procurement programmes, such as vendor lock-in and high costs of exit or change.

The role of a systems integrator (SI) is the key to ensuring customers can succeed when there are high degrees of uncertainty and risk. A SI should not slow down the delivery of value. Rather, they should alleviate some of the challenges government customers will face in delivering complex technology projects.

These challenges are, principally:

01. A rapidly changing technological landscape, creating performance and obsolescence risk.​

System integrators must create the conditions for component change whenever it is deemed necessary and ensure management of obsolescence through long term technology planning, not bespoke contracts for unsupported components. ​

02. Requirements that are either too explicit or too loose.​

To drive a better performing and more cost-effective solution, integrators must take a tailored approach to procurement of components on the merit of the individual requirement.

03. Historical instances of ‘vendor lock in’ leading to a high cost of exit and contributing to an unaffordable Equipment Programme.​

Commercial openness should be prioritised to the same extent as system openness. The industrial base’s incentive to succeed should be partly based on the possibility of replacement.

04. Poor contractor behaviours leading to a lack of trust and collaboration.

Collaboration and good behaviours must be driven by the integrator with technical expertise and conviction. SI's should support with building non-traditional supplier-customer relationships to build robust supply chains. Equally, government must be bold and work with SI’s who accept risk when incentivised to deliver against difficult challenges, not contractors who mitigate through ‘risk sharing’.

05. Lack of ownership or accessibility.

Historically, issues arise where the government owns its code but is blocked or delayed from accessing it by a contracted DevOps function. Government ownership is a necessity to drive better value and operational capability; SI’s should ensure the customer owns its source code with immediate and easy access to its hosting environments.

Building the industrial base

"What we’ve got to do is actually pick some winners."

Gen. CQ Brown, U.S. Air Force [6]

An understanding of recurrent and new informational asymmetries in the defence-industrial base can critically inform the development of innovation management, knowledge creation, and communication strategies within the enterprise. These strategies will be critical to realising defence initiatives like Multi-Domain Integration in the UK or Integrated Deterrence in the U.S, which are dependent on cross-sector collaboration across multiple geographic and military boundaries.

Integrators have a responsibility to bridge knowledge asymmetries, drive good behaviours, and champion ‘smarter customers’. Equally, the government must back the best athletes who are delivering and let them get on with creating value. Those who can’t, should be penalised.


[1] See Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. (2021) https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/975077/Global_Britain_in_a_Competitive_Age-_the_Integrated_Review_of_Security__Defence__Development_and_Foreign_Policy.pdf

[2] Brigadier Crossfield, Stefan. (2021) https://defencedigital.blog.gov.uk/2021/07/30/three-of-many-challenges-for-becoming-a-digitally-transformed-british-army/

[3] Carlsson and Stanciwicz. (1991). On the Nature, Function and Composition of Technological Systems. Journal of Evolutionary Economics.

[4] See HM Government. (2021). ‘The Consultancy Playbook’, p. 16. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/987126/The_Consultancy_Playbook.pdf

[5] See interviews conducted by Bowne, Andrew S. 2022. National Contract Management Association. https://www.ncmahq.org/Shared_Content/CM-Magazine/CM-Magazine-July-2022/Innovations.aspx

[6] Gen. CQ Brown, speaking at the 2022 Reagan National Defense Forum. See: https://www.defensenews.com/industry/2022/12/04/air-force-chief-military-must-pick-some-winners-among-startups/