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Fly by Nite: U.K. agency drives government and industry collaboration

The Department of National Defence wants access to the brightest minds and best ideas in industry and academia, both in Canada and around the world. Through the nascent Project Accord, it is seeking access “to vital, valued and validated advice to address critical defence capability issues from the outset in an open and transparent environment.”

The United Kingdom might have a solution. In 2003, under wartime pressure, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) created Niteworks, an agency that brings together defence companies, scientists and war-fighters in problem-solving teams. Sir Jock Stirrup, then Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (Equipment Capability) and later Chief of the Defence Staff, had the urgent task of equipping British soldiers in Iraq. He created Niteworks to integrate the knowledge isolated in industry, in the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) and the U.K. military. Full industry partners include major companies like BAE Systems, Thales UK and Raytheon Systems, while smaller companies can participate with associate status.

Using techniques that range from simulation and modeling, to workshops, visualizations and capability demonstrations, the construct has delivered dozens of projects. Some involve policy questions like standards adoption and regulations review, while others look at practical, solution-based challenges such as the Talon Strike interoperability exercise. (See Case Study.)

“I would describe Talon Strike as an outstanding example because it brings so many different things together,” said Bob Barton, managing director of Niteworks. “It is the very best use of industry’s skills deployed in an interactive way with the ministry to develop solutions quickly to problems that would otherwise take quite a long time to solve.”

Talon Strike is at the back end of the acquisitions process, Barton said, “but there are other examples now becoming the dominant part of what we do, which are at the front end of the acquisition process, and that is really where we can have the biggest bang for bucks, because bringing industry into the piece before you reach the competitive stage enables us collectively to test the proposed solution by informing it with what is possible. You can examine the cost drivers.” On the MoD side, Niteworks questions the military’s detailed requirements and it also creates tension on the industry side, “because we might just be pushing them to face issues they might be reserving until a bid.”

Niteworks has a core staff of about 35 people to carry out leadership, commercial and project management functions, and everybody else is brought in from MoD, the military, DSTL and industry on an “as needed basis.” When a project is being staffed, candidates from every organization compete for their jobs in a ‘best athlete’ process. Niteworks runs a competition for every post and selects the best available, which gives the smaller, associate companies an entry point. Every project output is available to the breadth of the partnership, and direct participants are paid for the work they do.

“Many people who have worked in Niteworks will tell you that it is a unique environment and it is quite a hard act to follow when they go back to do something else,” Barton said.

A dozen partner companies provide members to a management board, chaired by an industry lead with full participation from MoD and DSTL, which meets every three months.

Barton said Niteworks has no real need for legal support on a continuing basis, because they have developed consistent and effective guidelines that protect the partners’ and associates’ corporate assets. “People’s background IPR [intellectual property] remains their property but anything that’s created in Niteworks becomes property of the MoD,” he said

Power of participation
Barton points out that the earlier a problem is successfully solved, the greater the reduction in subsequent costs. Conversely, he said, “the later you solve something, at each stage you fail to solve it, you incur an order of magnitude increasing costs.”

In abstract terms, the value of cooperation and collaboration are almost self-explanatory. All else being equal, more shared knowledge should lead to greater value. In practical terms, Barton says a process like Niteworks can expose the truth. “If you try to maintain so little information going out to industry until a bid, then you’re unlikely to get the truth because people have to say they can do it.” Niteworks provides an impartial test early in the process that validates potential bids and eliminates the impossible. “What we don’t do is get in the way of later competitions, but we do inform them,” he said. “We can deliver a better spec that is more realistic, that has some of the parameters tested for credibility and doability.”

The result, Barton concludes, is a strengthened bid process.

CASE STUDY
Talon Strike Project: Sharing information on the frontline

by Niteworks staff

Recent operations have prompted U.K. forces to look for ever more efficient ways of sharing information with allies. In the heat of the battle, getting the right information, to the right person, at the right time can mean the difference between life and death – staying one step ahead of the enemy and avoiding “friendly fire” when the fog of war closes in.

It was against the background of an increasingly high operational tempo in Afghanistan that the MoD and the US Department of Defense initiated the Future Land Operations Interoperability Study. Using the setting of a U.S.-based exercise called OMNI FUSION, a representative U.K. brigade staff operated U.S. equipment, while examining the inter-staff processes needed to conduct combat operations on a coalition basis. Analysis of the exchanges demonstrated the scale of the challenge posed by U.S. and U.K. forces using different systems, technologies and procedures. It highlighted an urgent need to draw on the broadest expertise and technologies from across defence to achieve a step-change in command and control capability.

The ensuing Niteworks project was undertaken by a team of MoD, DSTL and industry staff, using the actual systems that were likely to be deployed on operations between 2010 and 2015. An infrastructure was put together and used at the U.K. Coalition Warrior Interoperability Demonstration (CWID) and then at the U.S. Exercise OMNI FUSION in 2009. The latter saw troops from 12 Mechanised Brigade fly to the U.S. to take part, where their responses to a range of scenarios that could be encountered on coalition operations were tested.

The next priority was to lay down the command and control architecture for the culminating event, Exercise TALON STRIKE. In the U.K., Niteworks worked with the Command and Control Development Centre (C2DC) at the Land Warfare Centre to build a Concept Capability Demonstrator. This enabled the development of a suite of systems, based on the technologies that were due to be used by each nation in the near future, but integrated together to facilitate the efficient passage of electronic information.

The project culminated in a distributed joint exercise in May 2010 involving over 600 U.K. and U.S. personnel, with the Niteworks team embedded alongside them to provide infrastructure and operational analysis support. The exercise used an Afghanistan-based scenario to explore interoperability issues, identify capability gaps and inform potential solutions.

With warfighters separated by 5000 miles and up to seven time zones, Exercise TALON STRIKE represented a huge technological and logistical feat. It marked the first ever distributed experimentation and training event involving a detailed level of command and control integration jointly undertaken by U.K. and U.S. forces.

The Niteworks Talon Strike project provided valuable lessons on how practical U.K.-U.S. command and control system interoperability can be achieved in the Afghanistan theatre of operations. By developing systems that allow better visibility of troops, equipment, information and decisions, there is an opportunity for driving real improvements in the way that coalition operations are conducted including, crucially, reducing the risk of blue-on-blue incidents.

The project offers potential benefits for learning and training: establishing and demonstrating such links enables pre-deployment experience of relevant systems, and how they can be expected to work together. Applying these principles will aid more effective collaboration between U.K. and U.S. forces on operations and allow remote, mission rehearsal exercises to be held in advance of deployments.

Author: John Norman from the June/July 2011 issue published

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