Writing for Defence Online, William Blamey, Managing Director of QinetiQ LTPA, highlights how the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates the value of greater Armed Forces agility.
QinetiQ are official event partners at DPRTE Engage 2020.
Over recent months Coronavirus has shocked the world and caused widespread harm to individuals, communities and to economies. With the onset of the virus, disruption was predicted but many nations struggled to contain its spread and even now, despite lockdown easing, some are still fighting hard to recuperate.
In the UK, defence companies have stepped up to the plate to help fight this unique epidemic and we’ve seen a stark demonstration of what happens when organisations within a highly competitive industry work collectively against a common threat. Together they have produced masks, designed ventilators and unleashed creative and passionate people into roles supporting the national and international response to great effect.
But beyond industry players, we’ve also seen incredible work from our armed forces, mobilising quickly and adapting their role to help with civil duties. Over 20,000 military personal have been on standby since the beginning of the crisis, and they’ve been helping with everything from the development of the Nightingale hospitals, to providing ambulance services with additional support, managing the logistics to distribute PPE, and enabling the repatriation of thousands of UK nationals from around the globe.
Delivering normal operations in Covid times
Delivering essential support during the COVID-19 pandemic has gone beyond direct COVID work. It is has also involved maintaining the availability of critical facilities, sites and outputs on which Defence relies for protecting the nation, and are considered crucial to the work defence companies and institutions carry out. As a result, it has been vital that companies ensure operational support and assurance generation of military capability wherever possible, and above all guarantee safety for staff – something which has become increasingly complex as the pandemic progressed and peaked.
An example of this was seen at MoD Hebrides, one of the UK’s test and evaluation sites managed by QinetiQ on behalf of Defence Equipment and Support as part of the Long Term Partnering Agreement (LTPA). At the start of the pandemic in March, MOD Hebrides was hosting a Rapier Camps exercise for the British Army, completing mandatory certification of weapon systems and troops for Captain Wright and his 16 Regiment RA (16 Regt RA).
Rapier Camps normally span three weeks; one of setup and ground testing, followed by two weeks of live engagements. But as pressure from the COVID-19 crisis grew, it was essential to reduce the time frame, whilst still delivering the same quality of activity in order to enable potential redeployment of 16 Regt RA in support of the COVID-19 civil response. To achieve this MOD Hebrides staff worked extended hours reconfiguring range systems overnight so that 16 Regt RA could exploit every minute of Range airspace availability, enabling them to finish a week early. Core exercises and 21 missions were completed successfully and the earlier finish allowed troops to regroup at home base sooner, providing time to prepare for other critical tasks.
The pandemic has also ushered in a need for a new approach to essential medical checks. Royal Navy medical check-ups for divers usually happen at military medical centres or sick bays, but COVID-19 led to nationwide measures introduced to control virus transmission, with a requirement to prioritise urgent medical cases and manpower shortages due to the infection itself. So when Navy divers needed certification and their yearly medical check-ups before deployment, the Hyperbaric Medicine Unit (HMU) at St Richard’s Hospital in Chichester, was drafted in at the Royal Navy’s request, for additional support.
Working together with service personnel from the Institute of Naval Medicine and Royal Navy Diving Units, the hyperbaric team created a diver certification ‘production line’ at short notice. This innovative solution allowed QinetiQ nursing staff and Royal Navy Diving Medical Officers to work together at the unit, assessing several divers simultaneously while still strictly observing enhanced infection control standards.
Whilst there has been a huge amount of good work done across the defence sector over the last 6 months, the reality is we now live in a changed world. There will be no going back to the way things were, and nor should there be. It is important to recognise the lessons the first half of 2020 has already provided and consider how we can learn from these to improve how the defence industry functions. The need for agility, for example, has been incredibly important in the context of the crisis and companies have shown time and time again during this period the power of quick decision-making and the importance of more timely execution.
This period has also shown us that when it needs to, UK Defence can embrace change for the better. We need to push for this to continue, for the sector to take reasonable risk, to embrace mission-led innovation and experimentation. After all, if we can deliver a collective response and transform typical operations in such a short space of time to address something like COVID-19, why can we not apply similar thinking and processes to how we execute operational experimentation, prototype warfare, manned/unmanned teaming or digital test and evaluation?
The application of these lessons could spread further within defence as it is critical that we also consider how we excite, co-opt, train and nourish the minds required for a more agile fighting force of the future – a future where warfighters are able to work across multiple roles, and make the best decisions in data-saturated scenarios.
image © Crown Copyright
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