13 Jul 2023

Keynote: Defining the International Response to an Age of Acceleration

Benjamin Howe
Keynote: Defining the International Response to an Age of Acceleration

Back in 2021, General Sir James Richard Hockenhull, KBE, ADC Gen, spoke at DSEI in response to what he characterised as ‘an age of acceleration’. The then Chief of Defence Intelligence (CDI), spoke of the complex challenges and opportunities facing his department over the coming years. His speech is one of ambition. An ambition to outpace and outmanoeuvre adversaries and to seize the benefits of new technologies, to ensure an ongoing competitive advantage.

CDI’s DSEI 2021 speech provided spectators with a foreshadowing of the increased threats posed by adversaries across multiple, increasingly integrated domains. Perhaps the most glaring example of these dynamic state-based threats has been the ongoing war in Ukraine, where cyber, land, sea, air and space have become hot-beds for a new complex and hyper-digitalised form of warfare. CDI spoke of a multi-decade focus upon terrorist threats, which whilst still pertinent, has increasingly pivoted to mitigate the resurgence of sophisticated state-based threats, which bring with them diplomatic, legal, information related and cyber complexities like never before.


“Our progress risks being outpaced, and therefore we must judge our acceleration against the threats that we face, to seed opportunities.”


Changing dynamics, tools and international relations are not new variables for Defence Intelligence. In fact, CDI made a point of mentioning the variety of factors which the organisation has become used to dealing with since its inception back in 1873. For CDI, the true paradigm shift is seen in the “profound changes in society, driven by new technologies coming together in unforeseen ways” which are occurring in parallel to military transformation. General Hockenhull alluded to many areas where such technologies are driving this change, from the “exponential increase in volumes of data”, to new data sciences, machine learning and the commercialisation of space. Furthermore, in his view “it’s a safe bet that maturing AI, Quantum Computing and VR technologies will disrupt the future profoundly”. Once more, his speech foreshowed much of what has transpired over the past two years, as seen in the MOD’s Digital Strategy for Defence and Science and Technology Portfolio, documents which moved to embed accelerated technological innovation into defence. Another theme which cascaded prominently through CDI’s speech, was the increasing importance of a revitalised relationship with industry. This, according to the General, has become essential as the public sector now trails the private in the most cutting-edge fields of research and development. One might look to the recent advent of AI-language models such as Chat-GPT, which has governments on the back-foot, or how commercial space companies are taking to the UK’s new domestic space launch facilities, which the then CDI spoke of as a major intelligence opportunity.


“We can no longer have the traditional transactional relationship with industry that has been the default for the last few decades”.


The problem, as he outlined, was the distance between public and private when it came to acquiring and implementing new innovations or data. This gulf, is being closed by adversaries “to help secure advantages” and we must do the same if we hope to remain competitive. CDI spoke of the three key pillars of transformation. The first, is to “operate more broadly” across all domains, by underpinning Strategic Command’s multidomain integration efforts. The second, is to become “more comfortable working with greater complexity” and the third is “to work at pace” so we can “match, or better exceed the speed at which” adversaries operate. To achieve this, CDI’s ambition was to hire more personnel to operate overseas, to “collaborate more effectively” with industry and international partners, to “sharpen DI’s space capabilities” and to “support the development of the UK’s sovereign space capabilities”.

With many of these ambitions already being realised, we can look to the areas of opportunity which CDI’s speech hinted at, as growth areas for the organisation. For example, he spoke of how “the potential of open source information continues to explode”, allowing analysts access to vast amounts of information. The problem, (or opportunity) which CDI cited, “is finding ways to manage the deluge of data” we are gaining access to, and “that is why we are investing heavily in information”. CDI posed a potential solution to this problem when he spoke of the potential of AI and machine learning. He did however note that whilst “AI will play a vital role in own future, it will also bring with it a host of challenges around explicability, fragility and ethics”.

In the year following CDI’s speech, we witnessed the release of the MOD’s primary AI governance paper: ‘Ambitious, safe, responsible: our approach to the delivery of AI-enabled capability in Defence’, as policymakers sought to answer the question of AI ethics with frameworks for use. Going forward we can expect the incumbent CDI to speak of how this policy is shaping AI’s implementation and what how we can insulate against perceived fragilities. As CDI brought his DSEI 2021 speech to a close, he spoke to conference of what he needed from industry to help define his organisation’s response to high-pace technological change. In this final note, he said that “integration is vital, not only within defence, but more widely across the national security enterprise”, noting that industry partners can produce “a more compelling product” if they make sure “it allows us to integrate with partners more easily”.


“Our challenge is wider, its deeper and we have to go faster.”


Overall, CDI’s ambitions for a broader, more complex and faster pace DI architecture, remain consistent with current policy developments, even in spite of the evolving geo-political realities in the South China Sea, Ukraine and beyond. As we approach DSEI 2023, we look forward to understanding how efforts to close the public-private gap, increase cooperation and underpin multidomain integration have developed as tenants of DI’s mission.

Secured your ticket to DSEI 2023?