Accelerating digital transformation for the UK’s armed forces
Computer-generated image of the proposed Team Tempest Future Combat Air System concept.
Image: BAE Systems
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Accelerating digital transformation for the UK’s armed forces

James Lawrence — January 2021
Major General Tom Copinger-Symes, Director of Military Digitisation at the UK Ministry of Defence, outlines the opportunities of rapidly enhancing the digital capabilities of the country’s fighting forces and the teams that support them — at pace.

Major General Tom Copinger-Symes, the senior British Army officer charged with leading the UK armed forces’ digital transformation, likes to keep two acronyms front of mind when dealing with the vast challenges of his role: OODA and KISS.

The former, developed by legendary US fighter pilot and military strategist Colonel John Boyd, is a four-step approach to rapid and iterative decision-making. It stands for ‘observe, orient, decide, act,’ and the ‘OODA loop’ was first deployed in the 1950s during the Korean War, one of the earliest occasions when jet fighters — among the most advanced forms of technology at the time — were used in combat.

The latter acronym is ever-popular in military and civilian circles alike: ‘Keep it simple, stupid.’

Major General Tom Copinger-Symes, Director of Military Digitisation at the UK Ministry of Defence

Both, he says, are extremely useful when it comes to managing the countless complexities of his wide-ranging brief. As Director of Military Digitisation at the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MOD), his role is to form a bridge between the armed forces and the MOD civil service team led by Defence CIO Charles Forte — a bridge designed to accelerate digital transformation. And central to this is leveraging the power of technology to ensure one of the world’s most respected professional fighting forces is constantly one step ahead of the burgeoning number of threats — known and unknown.

This can range from the cutting-edge, such as the use of autonomous AI-powered equipment on the battlefield, or growing the UK’s capabilities in cyber-warfare and space (see article — A vision for the digital future of warfare), to the seemingly mundane, as in the deployment of automation applications in the back office to create greater efficiencies in support roles in HR and finance.

However, despite his strong military background — having risen to the rank of Major General (the equivalent of a two-star general in the US) after roles that have involved active combat in Afghanistan and leading military intelligence operations — Copinger-Symes believes the impact of digital technology carries equal weight in both the military and civilian theaters, and everywhere in between. His reasoning: the threshold between warfare and non-warfare activities is becoming increasingly blurred.


“Drone re-supplying Bravo Company, 40 Commando Royal Marines on exercise in Cyprus
Drone re-supplying UK’s 40 Commando Royal Marines during exercise in Cyprus. (Image courtesy of MOD – Crown Copyright © 2013)

“Digital is affecting us both in the battlespace and the corporate space, and it’s both a threat and opportunity,” he says. “There is a false boundary between the two, as across both areas digital is disrupting and empowering us in the same way, as it is everywhere else. Whenever I talk to banks, retail companies, big utilities or other government departments, I have exactly the same conversations as I have internally. I’m here to understand how we operate and fight better with digital, but we’d be mad if we weren’t looking at how digital can help us run our internal systems better too.”
Forming a digital backbone

This empowerment of both uniformed and non-uniformed departments amounts to what the UK’s Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, has described as the UK Defence’s ‘digital backbone.’ Copinger-Symes sees its essential value centering around the gathering and effective distribution of data for the benefit of “our shooters and effectors, our weapons platforms, or even the people at keyboards.”

This, he says, forms the basis of a powerful ecosystem. “The backbone connects sensors to our effectors, but via our decision-makers — whether that’s a headquarters in a desert, the Cabinet Office or Cobra [the UK government committee that handles national emergencies or major disruption]. Defence Digital is here to build a modern, secure and single digital backbone across defense that connects us — not just across the Army, Navy and Air Force, but also with government and its partners, our supply chain and our allies across the world.”

Fundamental to all of this is data, and its recognition as a strategic asset. Here, Copinger-Symes refers back to the OODA loop. “John Boyd used to talk about people, ideas and technology,” he says. “But today, I think he’d talk about people, ideas, data and technology, in that order. And if the digital backbone is the first of two big things we do, the second is to exploit the data that flows through it and is accessed by it.”


“Soldier wearing ‘Raptor’ dismounted situational awareness equipment at Warfighting Experiment 2020, Wiltshire
Soldier wearing ‘Raptor’ dismounted situational awareness equipment at Warfighting Experiment 2020, Wiltshire. (Image courtesy of MOD – Crown Copyright © 2013)

This means that every organization that falls under the umbrella of UK defense needs to have the ability to exploit data in ways that give them the best combative capability, whether that is the Royal Navy — “their ships are, in effect, huge data platforms” — or the civil servants supporting the military. Like all units, they are looking to powerful data analysis and decision-making capabilities that will increasingly be enriched by artificial intelligence and machine-learning.  

“Defence Digital’s role in that is to be the one setting the standards and making sure data can be accessed — and, critically, it can be accessed across that boundary between the battlespace and the business space,” says Copinger-Symes.

Thus, he explains, information that may be sitting in HR systems, for example, “might have huge utility in another part of the enterprise that the HR team might not think about. But if you have the right clearances and accesses, you could use that data for a very different purpose. Ultimately, it’s about making sure we can form multi-disciplinary teams across a wide range of functional skills.”
Keeping it simple

In order to achieve this level of transformation, processes and ways of working are even more critical than the technology itself, he adds. “I’m not a technologist,” he says, “and we have been very careful to remind both our seniors and our teams that this is not about the tech alone. The biggest challenge is often to stop people thinking we can just buy a big box that says ‘artificial intelligence,’ or ‘cloud,’ or ‘data’ on it, and that will solve everything. We are dealing with complex socio-technical ecosystems that interact with each other, so people skills are a huge, huge part of that.” (See article — How the UK military blends agile thinking with strong leadership.)

This involves instilling processes whereby the Ministry of Defence, an enormous organization in itself, can collaborate effectively with other governmental departments, partners and the nation’s allies. “These are lots of vertical silos [in MOD], built in the industrial age. How you integrate them on the horizontal is not just a technical challenge, it’s a human challenge,” he says.

“When you’re trying to work on the horizontal, there’s a whole bunch of behaviors, cultures and processes to address, like how finance flows and how decisions are made. If you get those [new processes] right, then the technology can crack the rest.”

Meeting the challenge of such overwhelming complexity is where the KISS acronym is valuable, he says. “The simpler you can make this, the better but that too is a massive challenge. I’m trying constantly to interpret between people who really understand technology and senior leaders who are very clever but are trying to cover a massive waterfront, of which the digital stack is just a tiny bit.”


“X2 unmanned ground vehicle
An X2 unmanned ground vehicle at Warfighting Experiment 2020, Wiltshire (Image courtesy of MOD – Crown Copyright © 2013)

The secret, he says, lies not in focusing on what the technology is, or even what it does, but on what they can use the technology for: “Explaining how you can turn it into battlespace or business outcomes is really, really important.”

While this approach has led to some notable successes to date, he does caveat that with typical military caution. “The danger of thinking you know the recipe for success is probably your first error.”

One trap that he is keen to avoid is the risk of dumbing down too much, particularly when it comes to dealing with technical topics. “A lot of engineers get upset when you don’t explain their technology accurately enough. If you turn up and talk about the work they’ve done and, in your simplification get it wrong, it just sends them crazy — quite understandably. So you have to balance two different equities.”
Understanding behavior and culture

A second approach that Copinger-Symes employs when attempting to cut through institutional complexity is to understand and embrace the reasons why organizations exist in their current form. “It’s recognizing that they have grown that way because, at some stage, their structure and culture gave them an advantage,” he says.

“For example, I’m from the Army and I’m intensely proud of how it is. A lot of our behaviors and cultures — how we march, prepare our uniforms, our external artefacts — are all a product of what has made us successful for hundreds of years. So when you’re trying to work on the horizontal — across the [traditional] verticals of defense — you need to cherish and understand why their culture and structure is as it is. There’s no benefit in disrespecting it.”

That, however, does not suggest accepting the status quo is an option. “The world is changing around us, and we need to be able to adapt to that,” he says. “So it’s about finding the space for change to meet the new opportunities and to recognize the new threats.”


First published January 2021
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