Innovation Meets Tradition: How to Balance the Old and New in Defence Technology

Writing for Defence Online, Sascha Giese, Head Geek, SolarWinds looks at finding ways to balance old and new IT systems while working towards the latest Defence Technology Framework (DTF) and Defence Innovation Priorities (DIP).

Technology in the defence sector is secretive, and for good reason. The forces defending the UK and its allies must rightly keep their resources and weapons top-secret in the interests of national security. But despite the top-secret nature of the defence sector’s work, when it comes to the technology, the similarities between it and organisations across the public sector, and even the wider private sector, are striking. Defence IT environments are likely to consist of legacy systems in need of support, while new innovative technologies must be implemented to work effectively alongside the existing tech. But within the public sector there’s always the added restriction of limited budgets, meaning the IT leaders responsible for the armed forces’ technology must factor this in when adopting new solutions.

As many departments begin to work towards the latest Defence Technology Framework (DTF) and Defence Innovation Priorities (DIP) announced by the MOD (Ministry of Defence), IT leaders will likely be looking for ways to balance these systems while still upholding top defence standards.


Something Old, Something New

Much of the current technology in the U.K.’s defence sector will have been designed and developed years ago and will likely consist of bespoke applications written specifically for the department or sector using it, and its unique requirements. This now creates the challenge, possibly a decade or more on, of these applications still being used despite the developers possibly not being available to support them anymore. To run these legacy applications, the operating systems for which they were written must also be kept running, even though these might no longer be supported, such as Windows XP or Windows 7.

Considering the latest defence innovation priorities released by the MOD in September 2019, IT leaders will now be planning how and where to adopt the latest technologies to make the biggest impact. However, to begin the process of adopting technology to meet the priorities outlined by the MOD, the defence sector will need to overcome some roadblocks, including restricted budgets, cyber threats, and – of course – existing systems.

Part of what makes tight security such a challenge is the legacy technology on which the defence sector still relies. By running older, unsupported operating systems, security is no longer guaranteed by the vendors. To then introduce newer applications and software onto these systems simply increases the impact of a successful cyberattack. But migrating from these trusted systems to newer, unfamiliar solutions takes time and money – two assets the sector has in short supply. To resolve this, IT leaders should consider the key steps they can take to manage this advancement.


Call to Action—A Four-Step Plan

As part of the MOD’s plan to develop the technology it uses, it has made multiple investments to develop the UK’s world-leading scientific and industrial base. The Transformation Fund – part of the Modernising Defence Programme – will also deploy £160m on fast-tracking new military capabilities onto the frontline. With this additional spend in the industry, IT leaders will need to carefully consider where best to prioritise the funding, and how to get the most value out of it. This can be determined through a four-step process.

1) Assess

To implement the digital transformation required in the defence sector, the most important step for IT leaders is to assess their current IT environment and identify what areas need the most support. For some this will mean additional management tools and services, but for others it may mean implementing innovative technology such as AI and automation. It’s important to consider where these solutions will have the biggest impact; for example, AI could be beneficial in space tracking and communications, enhanced Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR), cyberdefence, and automated logistics.

2) Collaborate

One of the best ways to introduce new technology is through working with the private sector. With more money and resources available, this sector is advancing far faster than the defence sector can. By working in collaboration with private businesses, defence IT teams can access newer technologies being used for other means and establish how to adapt them for their own needs. For example, autonomous tanks are being developed thanks to the advances made with autonomous cars.

It’s also key to collaborate internally as well as externally and ensure teams across the sector – not just IT – are fully trained in the new technologies being brought on board. Changes in culture are not always easy, particularly when the established systems have been trusted for many years, but change starts at the top. Ensure all senior teams and leaders are open to changes beneficial to the organisation, and their employees will be likely to follow suit.

3) Simplify

However, having easier access to innovative technologies through the private sector is only half the battle. As new solutions are implemented alongside existing technology, new tools should be adopted to help simplify this changing environment. Complexity can lead to errors, longer processes, and higher costs, so integrating monitoring and management solutions capable of delivering a single, holistic view across the entire organisation’s IT landscape can be a valuable way to provide visibility. Having one or more of these solutions in place across an organisation can help prevent and mitigate threats in real time, providing the additional security that could make the difference between a successful mission and a failed one.

4) Maintain

Once new systems have been implemented, the most important step is maintaining the balancing act between the old and the new. Keeping legacy applications and systems functioning while managing the influx of new solutions is key to keeping these environments in sync, and thereby keeping the country’s defence up to scratch. The best form of defence is advanced preparation, and full visibility across all networks and applications regardless of age can help identify both cyber and physical threats more quickly.

Though the defence sector may be unique in what it does compared to many organisations in both the private and the public sectors, the challenges it faces in adopting new technologies aren’t so different. As more advances are made from which the defence sector can benefit, IT teams balancing management solutions to provide visibility, at the same time as maintaining legacy environments, will no doubt see the greatest benefits of all.

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