Putting digital information at the heart of military capabilities
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Putting digital information at the heart of military capabilities

Mark Chillingworth — July 2020

The CIO of the British Army, Major General Jonathan Cole, discusses how its far-reaching information strategy, Information Manoeuvre, is being applied to all aspects of the Army’s activities — from battlefield to barracks.

“The British Army recognizes the centrality of information in all it is trying to do. We are creating an information advantage [and so] out-thinking our adversaries.”

That is how Major General Jonathan Cole, director of information and CIO of the British Army, characterizes an information revolution that he has been spearheading within the UK’s armed forces for the past decade. It’s a revolution that touches on all aspects of the Army’s business from command support, troop operations, intelligence and security to recruitment and multi-force integration.

““Major General Jonathan Cole”
Major General Jonathan Cole, Director of information and CIO, British Army

A central plank of that is an information strategy known as Information Manoeuvre. As Cole outlined in a speech to defense staff and commercial partners in London in March 2020, “Information Manoeuvre involves the use of information in all its forms to understand the operating environment better than anyone else, and subsequently to make the most of that advantage. Combined with the fighting skills of ground manoeuvre and air manoeuvre forces, this approach [is designed to] pre-empt, dislocate and disrupt our opponent; thus delivering effects both physically and virtually.”

As he highlighted, Information Manoeuvre is dependent on many forms of integration, spanning systems, process and people. “It is inherently joint, aligned with capabilities in cyber, space, maritime and air domains, and is part of a Whole-of-Government approach, with other Services and departments playing key roles in its execution.”

He emphasized how an orchestration of information from different sources allows the Army to seize opportunities as they arise, as it brings together inputs from multiple divisions —electronic warfare, surveillance, reconnaissance, counter-intelligence, communications and information systems and influence activities — “to deliver the desired effect.”

And effect is the endgame. “As a military term, manoeuvre is used to describe movement and effect. In a ground manoeuvre, that might mean moving your soldiers from A to B and delivering firepower,” he says. With an anticipated effect.

But effect is no longer restricted to a weapons system, he says. It can be the result of the deployment of digital and information technology alongside or, as an alternative to, physical weaponry.

“Data is now the lifeblood of the British Army.”

Cole points to five pillars that support Information Manoeuvre: Intelligence, IT, Security, Cyber and Information Activity. Intelligence and IT are clearly central activities but, interestingly, cyber and security are kept as separate pillars as recognition that cyber warfare and the deployment of digital weapons are distinct from the security activities designed to protect the organization and its core resource, its soldiers — all 79,620 Regular and 29,980 Reserve personnel in the Army Reserve.

The role of another pillar, Information Activity, only took shape in 2015 with the formation of the Army’s 77th Brigade, which (among other activities) draws on information channels such as social media to “adapt behaviors of opposing forces and adversaries.” During the coronavirus crisis, for example, it was involved in countering streams of misinformation that were appearing on social media, much of it from outside the UK.

“Information has been a critical part of all armies throughout history. The difference now is the wealth of data that is available and what technology can bring to bear,” Cole says of these new assets. “The common thing across all five pillars is data; it is [now] the lifeblood of the British Army.”


“The Parachute Regiment, tactical demonstration at Camp Butmir, Sarajevo =
The Parachute Regiment, tactical demonstration at Camp Butmir, Sarajevo (Image: Sgt Jonathan Lee van Zyl; UK MoD)

He points to the fact that commanders who have seen action in Afghanistan and Iraq, or on NATO and UN missions in Estonia, Sudan and Mali, have become the pioneers of data platforms, such as the Army’s Hydra cloud-based analytics platform. “They have learned that digital information is central to the protection of their soldiers and fulfilling the mission,” he says.

Closer to home, Hydra was also an important tool in planning the Army’s supportive response to the Covid-19 pandemic as it hit the UK.

As Cole’s colleague Charles Forte, the CIO for the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD), echoed in the MoD’s Digital & Information Technology Functional Strategy, published last year: “Information, in all its manifestations, must change the way we execute business and prosecute warfare, both at home and overseas. Information is no longer just an enabler, it is a fully fledged lever of power.”
Integrated forces

Information, of course, is only one half of Cole’s role. As CIO of the British Army, he is also responsible for delivering the Army’s broad base of information services. His influence also extends upwards: he sits on the executive board of the British Army and is responsible for driving the digital transformation across multiple areas of the UK armed forces — and beyond.

Cole has been working closely with his peers in the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force to achieve deeper technology-led integration between those forces, the MoD and external agencies and allies.

The MoD, for example, is developing a central cloud-based defense platform which will provide all military services with the opportunity to rationalize their data centers and develop hosted apps. While each force will continue to innovate around technologies that are “specific to their environment, integration is so much faster because of the explosion of technology and data today.”  

Just as the British Armed Forces move towards a more digitally enabled integrated future, there is still a vital need to cooperate with the armies of other European and global allies, he emphasizes. “NATO is at the heart of the British military doctrine, so we make sure that our products and services are international by design,” says Cole. His technology teams work on interoperability standards, both in code and on training missions, with recent exercises involving working with the US Army in Texas and through exchange programs with Dutch, German and French forces. 
Deploying digital

Cole cites some prime examples of enhanced capabilities that his organization has delivered to the Army in recent times — services that often marry specialist, partner and adapted consumer technologies.

One is a major upgrade to the Army’s core field communications system known as Bowman. Bowman is used by the Army’s frontline fighters to coordinate operations in the battlefield and is part of the multi-project Land Environment Tactical Communication & Information Systems or LE TacCIS Programme, where Cole is the senior responsible owner for its implementation within the Army, Marines and RAF. This is the “biggest change since Bowman was introduced 15 years ago,” making it much more intuitive, interactive and responsive with the deployment of tablet devices and high-bandwidth communications. This provides troops in the field with robust consumer-like applications for advanced battle management, including digital maps showing commanders exactly where each soldier is at all times and the ability to plot measures, such as controlling firepower or understanding battlefield medical needs.


“Royal Artillery, Operation QALB, Afghanistan=
Royal Artillery, Operation QALB, Afghanistan (Image: UK MoD)

Ahead of exercises or operations, commanding officers can now also assess the strength of their battalion through Muster. This app provides a profile of each soldier’s skills, competencies, training and health status. Such a data-led approach enables a commanding officer to assemble the best available team for any mission, while protecting those who may have missed a vital training exercise or are recovering from an injury and so are not ready to enter the battlefield.
Frontline innovationBut new technologies are not always imposed — there is an experimental aspect to the Army’s adoption of tech too.

“I believe in giving technology to the users; they have the imagination to use it best. So we have introduced a culture of prototyping where commanders have the budget to procure technology. Or we buy technology that may be of interest, and tell the divisions to play with it,” says Cole. “That way, we learn together.”

As new technologies enter the service, it is inevitable that the culture and methods for adoption are changing. Cole says Agile methods are now more widely used, for example in military procurement. “It is a big challenge to adapt to Agile development, but it is worth the effort,” he says.

That hunger for new approaches is evident elsewhere.

Sentiment analysis of social media content, a technique that might be more associated with consumer marketing, is now seen as a powerful tool for understanding hostile state actors, says Cole.

Like many tech leaders, Cole is keen to highlight to colleagues across the organizations the vast scope of opportunity presented by digital — but always taking his lead from the business in hand. “As the CIO, I don’t want to determine the requirements,”  he says — more marshal the resources to fulfil those and produce the desired effect.

First published June 2020
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