Innovation and the defence industry: do we need war?

Ron Smith, Anita Friend, Shane Slater, Philip Hutchinson, Helen Lawton Smith and John Slater

In these dangerous times, it is apposite to ask whether war is in fact a major stimulus for innovation. in the defence industry.  Furthermore, if so, does it also produce “spin-off” that  would benefit the rest of society?  There are many good historical examples such as the development of computing and cryptography in World War II and the internet. 

This CIMR Debate in Public Policy was stimulated by the publication of Ron Smith’s book on defence acquisition and procurement. Our panel was comprised of experts from across the defence landscape – from the MoD, academia, industry and the Royal Miliary College of Science. As the debate demonstrated, the topic is controversial and provokes argument.

The chair, Philip Hutchinson, began by illustrating both sides of the argument with two examples. The first was the internal combustion engine, which was privately developed, understood by the end of the 19th century, and became relatively commonly used shortly after.  Only when incorporated in the tank did it significantly impact weapons systems, with a minor impact in WW1 and a major one in WW2. By contrast, the gas turbine engine, was initially developed with military funds but subsequently had a major impact on the development of Civil Aviation and international travel and connectivity when adopted in civilian jet airliners. The challenge of incorporating technology into weapons systems development lies in identifying when it is mature enough to use and when it is safe enough for civil use.

Ron Smith argued that for a number of different reasons peacetime defence is not currently a major source of general purpose innovation. Instead, commercial technology and innovations are being put to military use.  Traditionally, in peacetime UK, military processes have been not agile, wasteful, slow, bureaucratic and narrowly focussed. Low volumes, a limited set of suppliers and high levels of secrecy serve to make diffusion more difficult. While being at war changes some of this, it is not an argument that we need a war.  

Anita Friend, Head of the Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA) in the UK MoD spoke to the theme of Supporting defence innovation: dual use, spin-in and diversity for strategic advantage. DASA has a remit and a mandate to find and support innovation for the benefit of not just defence but also wider national security within the UK.

She also argued that we don’t need war but that we do need a motivating factor to cause innovation. We need both spin out and spin in of technology. Defence innovation in the UK is defined as a process of getting from a novel idea to a different way of doing something – with impact for national security and for UK prosperity. There must be a reason for change:  the motivator within defence is regaining and retaining strategic advantage over those who would do us harm. This involves an overdue shift with ideas coming from outside and inside government, from traditional and new suppliers including SMEs and through partnerships brought about in part by government. An example is Glic.

The discussant, Shane Slater’s background is as an industry player, with IBM in the technology sector security related startups and then as part of the Qinetiq group of companies, the ex- Defence Evaluation Research Agency from MoD. He has been a beneficiary of funding for innovation research in both.

In his view the commissioning process was central to the discussion, and it is at this internal stage at which Ron’s points come to the fore. Commissioning for a purely defence application has been the norm rather than for dual use purpose. There has also been a tendency for “in” suppliers to help author the requirement. Commissioning is fundamental for intended outcomes. Sole use clauses have been the norm and so shared funding models with suppliers and third parties have been extremely rare.

Risk was important. Within the defence sector, the risk bar with regard to third party exploitation is much higher than in the commercial sector. The UK MoD has rarely funded R&D with a direct commercial exploitation path for the innovating company. It is the lack of such opportunities that traditionally makes prices high.

A dual use exploitation path, as suggested by Anita would change things for both in the defence sector and in the commercial sector. However, it is a model to which many commercial organizations would have trouble adopting.  On the flip side, when commercial organizations do innovate with a possible defence application, the defence organization involved will take the opportunity to try and adapt the technology to give them the sorts of advantages that Anita was talking about, but the concept of developing for both has always been difficult in the UK.

Shane’s experiences with Australia, France and Germany also suggest that the idea is difficult, especially if the commercial side intends to or does make a large profit. The US is the (partial) exception. Again, the US is different in seeing failure as a learning experience and an opportunity to move forward – unlike the UK and others where it is often perceived as a “black mark”. The creation of DASA may be a considerable step forward as it makes clear that the MoD and the security agencies have recognised the potential symbiosis with industry and attempted to make progress, acting as a broker if appropriate and addressing the archaisms of procurement. There was a possibility of real progress.

The Chair commented that all three speakers had said that dual focus was likely to remain difficult and suggested the analogy that if you till a field, some other flowers will bloom. Anita took up the analogy with suggested that criteria and assessment panels were key to successful weeding strategies making sure that all perspectives were represented. Also important was agility – for instance reacting appropriately to the realisation that there are potential wider benefits form a procurement. Onward dialogue here was important.

Shane asked whether that also covered how DASA responds to market intelligence of new technologies which may be of use. Anita responded that “tech watch” was not always easy but they were looking instead at an open call where suppliers can push in things that they think are relevant rather than the things for which we have actually asked. We then do one of two things: either innovation partners in the region help suppliers understand what might be of interest to national security, or we provide links with possible customers.

A question from the audience was asked about the risk of being too far ahead of rivals and therefore not pursuing “disruptive” innovations. Ron Smith suggested than an example might be biological and chemical weapons – so there is an agreement that that they shouldn’t be used. There are other international conventions, but you may have to do research in order to be able to respond should somebody else use them and so those decisions are partly multilateral. But ultimately it is a political decision. In WWII gas was not used because of fear of retaliation but subsequently it has been used by other countries on their own population.

In response to a question on barriers within the MoD processes to harnessing opportunities, Anita identified three areas of barrier; ethical considerations, who you are prepared to engage a with, and understanding. To address these in part, a mapping exercise is being carried out to identify roles for different organisations and help is being put in place on an open fashion to enable the roles to be carried out.

Shane supported the need for different government agencies and MoD to share innovation. In a “command and control” organization like the MoD even sharing between internal departments can be a challenge so facilitating that process on behalf of industry organizations and others is a really positive step forward that will improve for all.

In response to a question about including environmental impact of defence projects, Anita reported that sustainability has been identified as a priority for UK MoD and that it now featured routinely in calls. These include for instance looking at biofuel and making MoD platforms more environmentally sustainable, with more to come. In practice it is important to think not just about how we can be more sustainable, but how environmental change might affect national security because the two are very much interlinked. Shane added that currently potential suppliers were asked to address their own environmental credentials as part of their ability to supply to Ministry of Defence.

The closest thing to a war that most of the UK population has had was the Covid-19 experience. There we did see acceleration of normal timescales, simpler procedures, a blurring of the public/private divide and greater risk taking – leading to some spectacular innovative successes such as the OxAZ vaccine and the procurement regime for vaccines; alongside some equally “world beating” failures such as the Test and Trace system. The problem is how to engender and sustain similar technology development speed up when human lives are not immediately threatened. 

Smith Ron P. Defence Acquisition and Procurement: How (Not) to Buy Weapons, Elements in Defence Economics, Cambridge University Press, 2022, DOI:  10.1017/9781009189644. Available to download for free (for a limited period) from:

The recording of this event is available below:

CIMR Debate: Innovation and the defence industry: do we need war?