We took over The Drum’s cyber-warfare issue to discuss why the best defence is innovation

Richard Wallace

From The Drum:


The new issue of The Drum, which ponders the marketer’s role in cyber wars of the future, is out now, with an amazing cover by Fearlessly Frank that asks the question: “If a single drone can shut down major airports, what could it do to your favourite marketing magazine?” Have a look and pick up a copy over at The Drum store. In the meantime, the innovation consultancy’s strategy director Blackett Ditchburn looks at how the armed forces could benefit from innovation.

Pick any defence policy document published in the last five years, and it will thoroughly examine everything that is wrong with how the UK is defending itself from its enemies. Such public self-flagellation is a sign that all is not well with our defence forces and their procurement systems.

One word recurs with frequency in those documents: innovation. But it’s used loosely, rarely defined. It’s really used as a synonym for ‘it’s a big problem and we don’t know what we’re going to do, but when a bright idea comes along, we’ll buy it really cheap and the problem will go away’.

As weapon systems proliferate and become more expensive, and more complex, our nation’s defenders don’t know what they need to buy, and by the time they’ve bought one, it’s obsolete.

Overlay this with the opportunities that digital technologies are offering our enemies, and running the armed forces suddenly looks like the very definition of a poisoned chalice.

We have well-funded armed forces (the UK is second in the world after the US in the global league table of per head spend) which are being challenged to get ahead of the game, and don’t look like they’re succeeding.

And here’s where the nation’s defence begins to look just like many large businesses and their innovation efforts.

To be in innovation consultancy is to listen endlessly to big corporation executives lambasting their employers for their inability to innovate before the downward spiral begins. As times get tough, the first job is to cut costs. Then to do the same thing a bit more.

Then to put pressure on advertising and marketing to ‘be more innovative’. So, communication gets a bit more strident, and media reach and frequency declines but performance is massaged to pretend that nothing has changed – despite a huge cut in budgets and a change in appointed agencies.

Finally, someone tells the emperor that he has no clothes, and says the only option is sustained innovation in earnest pursuit of profitable revenue. Except the cost cutting of the last ten years means there’s no money left so could this initiative double forecast revenue in the next quarter please… and beat that new, disruptive and well-funded startup.

The forces innovation dilemma

The dynamics may be different, but those in charge of defending our nation find themselves grappling very similar issues that stem from living in a bubble from which it is hard to escape. Joint Forces Command – the bit of government bureaucracy that is responsible for ‘preparing the Joint Forces for the future with capabilities and thought leadership’ – finds itself in a bit of a bind. On the one hand it is criticised for its budget overruns and earnest policy wonks tell it to ‘be more innovative’. But on the other, they are told to also follow tighter and more draconian procurement procedures.

These demand sophisticated risk-assessed cost-benefit analyses and lowest-cost open tenders. In consequence, there is no money to be innovative. No money to invent radically different future scenarios against which to create the weapon of the future. No money to try new ideas to form part of a journey towards world defence leadership. No money unless the outcome is guaranteed.

In such an environment true innovation – where by definition the answer isn’t known until towards the end of the game – doesn’t stand a chance. Apple couldn’t know with certainty that the iPod, and iTunes, would make it the financial powerhouse it is today. But it took the risk.

A kind of risk that is impossible to even contemplate inside the head office of our defence forces. So, they stick to what they know, leaving the innovation to our enemies – and hope that if something happens they can respond quickly. But since doing nothing costs nothing, the risk of doing nothing is never assessed with any real quality of thought.

Politics’ first job is to provide all citizens with security. As terrorism incidents and evidence of cyber manipulation show, someone needs to point out that it’s time for real innovation. We need to be ahead of the game, not merely responsive if we’re to reassure the population that they’re safe. Expensive bombs and fearsome tanks aren’t a lot of use when faced with misleading information or everyday objects converted to weapons.

The digital shift

What we must defend against has changed irrevocably in the light of the digital revolution. The purpose of so much global malevolence isn’t to win territory, as it was in the past, but to destabilise the enemy such that the perpetrator is in a better, stronger position.

Russia probably doesn’t want to occupy Europe – but it most certainly wants it destabilised so it tears itself apart and the sanctions it imposes break down. This kind of shift in the very nature of the threat we face demands, logically enough, a shift in what we use to defend ourselves. That means innovation and change – both of which are systemically absent from our current approach to defence.

Cyber warfare in particular cuts at the very heart of what defence really means: is it possible to achieve global advantage for a country through cyber means only? Is that what Vladimir Putin was seeking over the USA in his alleged fake news attempts through social media?

And if that’s how the game will be played, and it proves effective, where does that leave conventional bombs and bullets? Is a bloodless takeover of a state becoming possible?

If President Trump promised the Venezuelan people that he’d make their country the 51st state of America, would they say yes?

If a post-Brexit world became really messy, and the UK population lost all faith in the politicians to find a way out, would that create fertile conditions for enemies (both terrorists and other nation states) to gain advantage? Maybe even offer a more stable, coherent and popular leadership alternative?

Such examples may be a bit farfetched, but they’re colourful possibilities.

The moment seems ripe for long hard look at how we choose to defend ourselves. It needs to start with a creative and thorough examination of our society in the light of the changes flowing through the world. And then, from the ground up, redesign how we respond in terms of defending ourselves, and promoting our interests around the world. To do so requires the entrenched behaviours of the current defence establishment to be thoroughly challenged.

If our armed forces are to avoid major revision at the hands of less-than-expert politicians concerned at the burden on the public purse, then they must innovate, and innovate well.

No structure or practice can be left unchallenged. Why do we have a separate Army, Navy, and Air Force? Is there a justification for such a structure in today’s environment, or do we simply continue to support a nostalgic fantasy of those in charge? Within our defence structure, who is responsible for looking after the virtual realm? Is it OK that GCHQ is only semi-integrated?

Now is the time for the UK’s defence effort to learn to innovate – and in doing so challenge itself to its very foundations.

Not unlike the challenge faced by many big corporations.

Blackett Ditchburn is strategy director at Fearlessly Frank,the agency behind the covert takeover of The Drum magazine’s latest cover. In the new issue, we take a look at the role of our industry in a world where humdrum technology and everyday communication have become weaponised, from our smart homes being hacked and our fridges held to ransom to fake news and deepfakes having far-reaching ramifications for global politics. You can buy your copy here.