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August 4, 2020updated 22 Oct 2021 11:33am

The British Army’s CIO on the Internet of Things, “Buzzword Bingo”, and True Digital Transformation

British Army CIO Major General Jonathan Cole discussed digitising the battlespace, developing cyber capabilities, upskilling military personnel and the British Army's digital transformation initiatives at the CIO Town Hall Live forum.

By Edward Qualtrough

The British Army is committed to a digital transformation focused on its people, process and technologies in order to better exploit the data available to the institution, according to its Chief Information Officer (CIO) Major General Jonathan Cole.

Maj Gen Cole was speaking at Computer Business Review and NS Tech’s inaugural CIO Town Hall Live forum. He said that the challenges faced by the British Army CIO were fundamentally similar to those of technology leaders across industry — even if the tools and environment came with some truly unique requirements.

“The Army is committed to a digital transformation programme of its own, but that is inherently linked to the digital transformation being driven at the Defence level,” Maj Gen Cole emphasised, referencing MOD CIO Charles Forte’s 2019 comments about digital being at the heart of the department’s wider transformation strategy.

“And it’s what digital transformation might mean to many other CIOs in all sorts of sectors, which is about being able to optimise our people, our processes and our technologies in order to better exploit the data that is available to us, in order to make us more productive and operationally effective, but also to drive efficiencies.”

He described digital transformation as a team sport across the board driven by the Chief Information Officer, and added that it was crucial to be able to define what digital truly means to an organisation in a meaningful and succinct way.

“One of my challenges would be about helping the board and the business unit CEOs understand what digital transformation actually means to them,” Maj Gen Cole said.

“There is a danger that people play buzzword bingo with lots of words about how they want to deliver artificial intelligence and machine learning without necessarily knowing what it means to their environment.

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“The CIO’s role is to make sure that they focus on changing their culture, adapting their processes and upscaling their people, not just expecting technology to be dropped on top of them, and to deliver those objectives.

“A lot of it is about being able to communicate in a way that gives them tangible advice in order that they can then drive the change required, because digital transformation whilst enabled and in many ways driven by me as the CIO, absolutely is a team sport across the board and all the parts of organisation.

“Finally, it’s about being able to tell a story, being able to communicate to the Army what are the benefits of investing in digital transformation when there are so many other transformations going on at the moment?

“We are transforming the way we train, we are transforming the way we manage our people, we’re transforming a lot of our other core technology programs and that could be, for example, in armoured vehicles — and how can you exploit those differently? So there’s a lot of change going on. It’s being able to tell a story that the what we’re doing in digital transformation touches all of those.”

‘Data is our ammunition’

Maj Gen Cole said during his session that “data is our ammunition” and at the heart of the British Army’s digital transformation agenda as the institution sees to gain an ‘Information Advantage’ over military adversaries, while also introducing the concept of ‘Information Manoeuvre’.

“The Information Advantage is really an aim of where we are seeking to get to,” Maj Gen Cole said. “There’s a recognition that in the Information Age there is also an adversarial situation where militaries seek to have advantage over their competitors — or if things escalate then ultimately their adversaries — and to be able to compete with them for control.

“It’s about being able to dominate the information environment, but of course it’s impossible to dominate. So therefore, we don’t use words such as ‘superiority’,” he said, referring to the Air Force notion of air superiority. “I think ‘advantage’ is perhaps a more realistic ambition.

“We seek to have a state of advantage over others with information and data in particular, so you can build your intelligence picture and so forth.

“Information Manoeuvre is building on the concept of ground manoeuvre, which is the combination of physical movement and the application of what we call firepower – guns and rifles.

“Again, it’s a recognition in the Information Age that you also need to manoeuvre with data. If you like data is our ammunition and you need to move that data around. Really Information Manoeuvre is a term which is designed to make people realise that ground manoeuvre and information manoeuvre within an army are completely linked.

“You need to be able to dominate the ability to exploit data for your own purposes and to be able to do so faster than the adversary.”

IoT in the battlefield

Maj Gen Cole cited three specific change initiatives he was delivering for the British Army. The first is for “communications information systems for the land environment” called the Land Environment Tactical Communications and Information Systems Programme, or LE TacCIS. This battle management programme involves modernising the network infrastructure and the applications used by individual soldiers via a tablet attached to their body armour, providing them with local picture of their environment.

The CIO described the British Army’s Land ISTAR programme – Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance – as “an Internet of Things in the battlefield”. Tackling the challenges of equipment and tools built and deployed in silos, the ISTAR programme is integrating data sets and automating many of the processes that manage the Army’s surveillance assets like radar systems and drones.

Indeed, Maj Gen Cole offered the example of the Army’s next generation of Unmanned Aerial Systems, called Mini UAS – handheld launch drones with a range of up to 60km carrying different sensors to survey a battlefield without putting a life at risk – as an exciting initiative in the ISTAR programme.

Cyber domain

The third big programme of change, Maj Gen Cole said, is changing the way the British Army looks at the cyber domain.

“We see the cyber domain as being an entirely central part of a modern armed force, and we must be able to defend ourselves in that environment,” Maj Gen Cole said.

This included being robust enough to deal with electromagnetic attack.

“We need to be able to survey the spectrum,” he said. “We need to be able to deliver electronic attack against an adversary’s electronic systems as well, so there’s this game of measure and countermeasure which is which is pretty normal for armies to be thinking about.”

Maj Gen Cole highlighted the resurrection of 13 Signals Regiment, a specialist cyber unit, of how the British Army was seeking to improve its capabilities in the cyber domain.

“The other thing I’d say about our cyber programme is, it’s also very much a people-orientated programme. It’s not just about the technology.

“We very recently announced the creation of 13 Signal Regiment, and that’s a regiment that has some history going back to being a specialist wireless group in the Second World War.

“And what we’ve been able to do is recreate 13 Signals Regiment for the modern day. And that has within it deployable cyber protection teams are deployable into theatres operation.”

Innovation at the Edge

A member of the Army Board, leading on information strategy, capability and services in all aspects of the Army’s activities, Maj Gen Cole’s scope includes command support, intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, reconnaissance, developing future capabilities, modernising the British Army’s cyber and electromagnetic activity, and the better exploitation of data.

The CIO noted the “inevitable tension between trying to control things centrally and then allowing people to innovate at the edge” while trying to help modernise the institution.

“The term Shadow IT was very much en vogue, maybe five years ago, and in some cases it was considered a very bad thing.

“But I think there was a balance because you do want people to innovate at the edge, and in some cases to use their resources to invest in additional opportunities to innovate. And if those things are really great and you can scale them up in the organisation.

“But at the same time, I have to make sure that we build a central set of policies, we have to build central data technologies on our core platforms on to which people can integrate themselves. So it’s really being able to manage a hybrid between being centralised and decentralised.”

Quantum and autonomous technologies

Autonomous technologies, both mechanical and robotic process automation, as well as Quantum Computing were two of the technology innovations cited by the CIO as ones he expects to offer a significant opportunity for the British Army.

“I think autonomy is really important, and that’s autonomy in all its guises,” Maj Gen Cole said. “In a mechanical sense we’re looking at creating ground vehicles and aerial vehicles that can operate in a way that in the past human beings would have to do.”

“First it potentially releases manpower from activity that you don’t need humans to always be doing, and secondly it also removes humans from some of the most hazardous activities of the soldier’s life – a very obvious example where we’ve done autonomy for a long time has been in ordnance disposal and survey of our high risk zones where there could be improvised explosive devices. And really, we need to be ready to do that at scale.”

Maj Gen Cole discussed making autonomous decisions, but stressed the importance of controls and policy.

“Now, of course, a lot of a lot of this isn’t just about mechanical autonomy,” he said. “It’s about being able to make autonomous decisions as well – that needs to be within a legal and ethical framework.

“You need to be able to manage multiple autonomous vehicles – whether aerial or ground-based – concurrently, and you need to be able to use them, in the most extreme cases, you might wish to be using those two to deliver kinetic firepower as we call it: to fire weapons.

“That needs to be very carefully controlled and needs to be legal and needs to be bound by policies.”

Quantum, Maj Gen Cole said, was particularly relevant in the cyber domain and because the British Army is heavily dependent on cryptography to protect its communications networks and data.

Gurkha Welfare Trust

Being able to share the right data with the right people was a challenge that crosses over into Maj Gen Cole’s personal pursuits also. Chair of Army Ice Sports, Vice President of Army Winter Sports and Royal Signals Rugby, and also President of Royal Signals cycling and triathlon, the CIO competes in endurance running and inter-corps road race cycling, and coaches a youth rugby team.

As Colonel of the Regiment, Queen’s Gurkha Signals, Maj Gen Cole is scheduled to complete the re-arranged London Marathon for the Gurkha Welfare Trust, a charity of which he is a Trustee. However, privacy concerns about revealing his precise location and routines meant he has not yet joined the popular running and cycling fitness tracking social networks.

“I love the data,” he said, “I just don’t want to actually give any data about myself away. But isn’t that the challenge of a CIO? To value and to challenge the data while trying to protect it at the same time. It’s very difficult to do both.”

See also: “Significant Obsolescence Issues”: IBM Lands MOD Extension for Aging UK Air Control System

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