Britain’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) is “bogged down” in delayed projects and has failed to overhaul technological and IT systems to meet the demand of modern warfare, lawmakers have warned.
In its Defence Digital Strategy report (pdf) published on Friday, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of the House of Commons found the department has been struggling to replace “outdated legacy systems” in its IT infrastructure.
According to the report, the MoD has been “struggling for years” to deliver the major programmes necessary to replace over 2,000 systems and applications for 200,000 users, ranging from administrative and back-office IT to military platforms such as ships and satellites.
MPs said the rapid deployment of new technology was “now at the very heart of the defence of the realm, with the urgency of this challenge demonstrated by the current conflict in Ukraine.”
But they said the Infrastructure and Projects Authority found that—of the defence IT projects large and critical enough to have their performance reported—three had significant issues and two—the New Style IT Base and MODNet Evolve—were assessed as “red” (unachievable).
The committee said “significant cultural change” is needed at the MoD if it was to tackle the fact its “processes are set up to procure conventional military equipment rather than software.”
‘Genuine Sense of Urgency’
According to the report, the MoD recognises that “digital technology is rapidly changing the character of warfare,” but it is “not yet able to exploit new technologies at pace and scale.”
This is because “it does not fully understand what data it has; old ‘legacy’ systems complicate tasks as routine as ordering a pair of boots; its processes are set up to procure conventional military equipment rather than software; and it lacks all the digital skills it needs.”
The MoD has failed to solve these problems previously, the report said, but it “now recognises the need to adopt digital technology as a military imperative.”
The committee said it agrees with the MoD’s assessment that “digital must urgently become a whole-of-Defence effort and that this will require significant cultural change.”
The committee also said the department faces a “considerable challenge” to recruit the digital specialist its strategy relies on, as it struggles with the pay it can offer candidates, the location of some of its posts, and the extended security vetting times needed for new entrants, which in some instances can take over 200 days.
MPs said the department’s target of doubling its recent recruitment of 150 specialists would be “difficult to achieve.”
The report called on the MoD to make a “down payment” on a new way of operating in its digital action plan, which is expected in April 2023.
The committee said the plan must display “a genuine sense of urgency” and come up with a “thorough, realistic, and costed programme” for delivering it.
‘Not Up to the Task’
Dame Meg Hillier, a Labour MP who chairs the committee, said: “The MoD as it currently operates is frankly not up to the task it faces. The scale and nature of the challenge of modern warfare is accelerating away from the ministry, while it’s bogged down in critical projects that are years delayed and at risk of being obsolescent on delivery.
“Two of its major digital transformation projects have been written off as ‘unachievable’ by the oversight body. There is no world in which that is an acceptable situation at the heart of our national defence.”
Mark Francois, a former Conservative defence minister and lead PAC member, said: “The war in Ukraine brutally illustrates why we need advanced digital capabilities now, rather than many years from now. What more will it take for MoD to step up and acknowledge the procurement weaknesses which the PAC has, quite literally, been highlighting for decades now?
“The time for the usual MoD platitudes is over. We now need to see MoD radically reform its procedures, to provide equipment—including crucial digital systems—in a timely and cost-effective manner, before it’s too late.”
An MoD spokesman said: “Defence Digital’s improvement programme is a priority for the department, which is why we’re investing over £4 billion annually.
“We have made significant progress in delivering our IT projects, and following work in recent months only one of the six major Digital programmes is rated red.
“Maximising digital capabilities and data is fundamental to success in military operations and the committee recognises our strategy has the right priorities for achieving this.”
PA Media contributed to this report.