by Edward Qualtrough

Ministry of Defence CIO Charles Forte interview – Digitising Warfare in the Information Age

Dec 16, 2019
IT Strategy

Ministry of Defence CIO Charles Forte believes that “digital is fundamental to how defence needs to respond to the disruptive world”, and said that digital will be at the heart of the wider transformation strategy of defence.

A former Deputy Global CIO at BP, Forte took up the Director General-level CIO position at the MoD in January 2018 and was speaking to CIO UK in the autumn, elaborating on some of the themes he discussed in his talk ‘Enabling Warfare in the Information Age’ at the DSEI arms fair and conference in September 2019.

“We live in interesting times; we occupy a world that has significantly more discontinuity than continuity and we are living through multiple, unprecedented global changes,” Forte said.

This was characterised by the fundamental transformation of social and political behaviour, the breakdown of the “rules-based, international order” resulting in a move away from more traditional ‘home and away’ campaigns, and the astounding impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Forte said that the fusion of the digital and physical worlds was changing all aspects of our lives, across how we behave, socialise, live and work – and indeed how we engage enemies, who have become masters at exploiting the seams between war and peace, and indeed what constitutes a weapon.

“To be successful we have to understand how to exploit this revolution,” he said. “It is a prime defence strategic theme and ignoring it is not an option.

“We believe that digital is fundamental to how defence needs to respond to the disruptive world. We intend not just to react, we intend to lead and, critically, digital will be at the heart of the wider transformation strategy of defence.”

‘Persistent sub-threshold engagement’

Speaking to CIO UK Forte explained the shift from ‘home and away’ engagement to “this notion of persistent sub-threshold engagement” in cyberspace dealing increasingly with, but not limited to, state actors.

“It’s a big shift in the threat profile that we need to respond to. It’s definitely a big change since the Strategic Defence Review in 2015,” he said of the report which outlined the UK’s defence strategy up to 2025.

The former interim CIO at Thames Water described the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution as providing an opportunity to the Ministry of Defence, but affording an equal opportunity to potential threat actors.

Indeed, Forte said that the changing threat profile to the UK had helped secure buy-in from the highest levels to make necessary changes to the MoD’s strategy and operations – and changes that needed to be made in the more back-office business context as they would in the battlespace.

“In Defence there is a real ambition at the senior level to really leverage and exploit digital and information technologies for Defence output purposes in a genuinely transformative way,” Forte said. “That is first and foremost and primarily military and intelligence capability, but it’s also how we run the business and how we run the department, and how we work with allies and partners.

“One of my key mantras is that this technology is only transformative when you deploy it in your military or your business context. So the challenge I have is an interesting balance of both providing and showing Defence the art of the possible in a military output or a business output – making that real to them, and showing them how we can make the delivery of that real and doable.”

‘Rebuilding the IT delivery machine’

Sitting on the senior executive management team for the department, Forte affirms that while the ambition is clear and palpable, getting the technology basics done well, providing relevant, reliable and trusted services, programme delivery on time and on budget was at the forefront of the strategy.

“We have to transform the function and build the capability,” he said. “This part of the leadership challenge, which we have to do in parallel, is what I would call ‘rebuilding the IT delivery machine’.

“I don’t want to trivialise the change that we need to bring to bear on the people, process and technology that is the traditional IT function.

“But that’s not enough in terms of rebuilding the machine because in today’s world, if you want to be successful in leveraging digital you have to recognise that this isn’t a game that it was 20 years ago where you went to a well informed IT department with a request and they went off in a dark room and delivered it. To be successful we need digitally savvy and knowledgeable people at all levels throughout the organisation, in all the functions including the military capability. And we need to be working increasingly in multi-disciplinary teams, both to identify what the opportunity is but also to understand how we bring that to life and make it real. That’s a significant change agenda challenge.”

Defence Platforms

Forte’s remit at the MoD is extensive, running a budget of around £2.1 billion directly to service the circa 250,000 strong department, 80% of whom are military personnel. Defence encompasses ‘at arm’s length bodies’ – the largest of which, Defence Equipment and Support, has an annual budget of £15-16bn to build such things as new aircraft carriers and missile systems.

Forte’s CIO role is also ‘new’ in the sense that he leads the pan-Defence Digital Function with his Director General-level position sitting on the ExCo and reporting to the Permanent Secretary, with the CIOs of the shared services and other military bodies having matrix reporting lines into Forte who has the remit to join up Defence as a holistic entity.

Predecessor Mike Stone’s ‘Defence-as-a-Platform’ strategy, as described to CIO UK in 2015, comprised of getting the MoD to use more common IT and ensuring the department was better placed to exploit new technology platforms, while making improvements to the Ministry’s IT capability.

Forte’s desire, as well as providing the common platforms and standard architectures, is to provide the ‘horizontal glue’ which binds together the ‘verticals’ – the business units like Defence Equipment & Support, and the military units like the Army, Navy, Air, Joint Forces and Permanent Joint Headquarters.

Cultural change

Stone said in 2015 that “the biggest challenge was not technical; it was cultural”, and Forte backed up these sentiments when he said that “the ‘secret sauce’ is as much about culture, behaviour, diversity of thought, creativity and an ability to form and re-form teams” with the processes and support from digitally savvy, senior leaders.

“We genuinely have a senior leadership that understands that we need to join together in much more cohesive ways, and that everyone ploughing their own furrow or working in their own silo isn’t going to work anymore,” Forte said.

“Putting these changes in place is easy to say and hard to do. The technology change is an order of magnitude easier than the cultural change.

“One of the things that I would argue we are one of the great exemplars of, particularly given where we started, is as an entity, the organisation saying we know we need to change the way we operate.

“It’s not all sweetness and light, but we have a senior leadership across all of defence that recognises we need this glue that holds us together, and that that means they need to give certain things up.

“I would argue it’s my proudest achievement. It’s not all working, the muscle isn’t all perfectly formed and doing what it needs to do. But I think it is a very fundamental shift in defence recognising how it needs to come together.”

Recruitment and retention

Forte said that underpinning the cultural transformation required to embed the changes was the recruitment and retention policies which form a core part of the department’s change agenda.

One of the newer ways of thinking is moving away from a ‘jobs for life’ approach, with the CIO legitimising that it is understood and accepted that some staff might want to only stay in the MoD for three or four years.

Forte and the MoD’s commitment is that while they cannot necessarily pay the wages tech and digital employees might be able to command in parts of the private sector, staff will leave having developed skills and having worked on projects which could give them much greater future earning power.

Secondments into the Ministry have also been a success, according to Forte, as the MoD rethinks how it gets access to tech talent.

“To be successful we also need to be creating a different relationship with industry – how we leverage UK PLC in a stronger, different way that also supports the prosperity agenda that gives us a different access to high end skills,” he said.

CISO and cyber security

Another BP alumni, Christine Maxwell, was hired as Interim CISO at the Ministry of Defence in April 2019, a new role created by Forte.

While the CIO is the senior functional lead for digital and IT, Forte also owns the cyber defence senior accountability “across the whole of Defence and not just in the IT space”, and said that “the CISO’s accountability is understanding and making sure that the MoD is managing risk, Defence wide”.

Forte said that Maxwell was “bringing together the right groupings of people in new formal structures across Defence, so that we can start to get a really connected, coordinated view of what our security risks actually look like” so the department could develop a joined-up plan in attributing resources and mitigating those threats.

“We’ve got a very clear six-point cyber defence plan,” Forte said. “It includes the behavioural aspects, as well as the technology aspects – and it is about making sure that we not only make ourselves more secure and resilient, i.e. we can continue to operate. But it is also designed to make sure that all of the demands of the new capability we want to bring into play, like all large-scale corporations, tend you towards more collaboration, more sharing, more interoperability, so we’re joining things up in stronger and harder ways.

“And that includes outside of our organisation. First with other partners we need to work with across government, the agencies, but also with allies.”

As such Forte and Maxwell’s challenge, with a particularly unique set of hostile players attacking them, is balancing opening up the channels with robust security practices.

“The cyber defence response that we need to put together has to recognise the agility that we need to have,” Forte said. “We need to support that agility, we have to be strong – but not at the expense of just locking it all down. That’s not going to work.

“We’re not unique in that sense. That’s a challenge that is true for all large scale organisations, but the particular environments that we operate in I would argue put us in the real extreme of that end of the challenge.”

Digitising the Battlespace

CIO Forte is also engaged in ‘Digitising the Battlespace’ – working with MoD colleagues in frontline commands to develop an “information-based capability for direct military and intelligence advantage”.

Describing data as a strategic asset, Forte cited analytics, artificial intelligence and robotics as the game-changers – the technologies being leveraged in the business world which was also helping transform the MoD in a business context and beyond. The Daily Telegraph reported in November 2019 that the MoD had spent £26m this year with Peter Thiel-backed data mining startup Palantir, which had hired a number of former civil servants and military personnel to scale up its UK operations.

At the DSEI event Forte said that the digital backbone the MoD is building is the platform for new levels of interoperability, “including the ‘API approach for the weapons platform space’, the exploitation of space technologies, autonomous systems, synthetics and wearables as well as new levels of integrated C2 [command and control], analysis and decision-making”.

Speaking to CIO UK, Forte explained how the Ministry of Defence was working with gaming companies “in what I call the synthetics space”.

“The synthetics world is taking what a gaming company does – models of worlds,” Forte said. “That has applications for how we do training. How we model what might happen in a particular geography given a set of circumstances, and how might we strategically plan military operations. We’re using the synthetic world in a very different way to start to help us get a head start on how we understand what the world is like and how it might behave.

“We can do some quite realistic training that otherwise is quite expensive to do at the volume you might want to do it.

“Extending that is how we bring in the capability that comes from augmented reality; how do you become part of the game, not just observing the game? This is a very, very distinct and clear game changing application we think for us inside defence.”

The other emerging technologies where Forte believes there are real applications for the MoD are 5G, sea-based and air-based autonomous vehicles, 3D printing considering the department’s considerable maintenance spend, and potential to exploit blockchain in the logistics and inventory space.

Vendor relations

Forte acknowledges that for the Ministry of Defence to realise its digital and technological potential then the old, adversarial way of working with its IT and services partners has to change.

One of Forte’s mantras is that “if you want to have world-class partners, you have to be a world-class customer”, and this shift is crucial in busting the myth of zero-sum relations between buyers and suppliers, and helping create more “1+1=3” outcomes.

This would involve a change of ethos, upskilling in terms of vendor management practices, and the MoD looking at how easy it is to work with organisations large and small.

“We need to improve our ability to engage with the marketplace and to work in partnership,” Forte said.

“We need to equip people both with the empowerment as well as the commercial and professional skills to be able to be confident enough to do that.

“We also need to find a different way of engaging with the SMEs. It’s true across all government, but it’s certainly true of defence, SMEs look at us and say ‘you’re too hard to do business with, your cost of doing business for us makes it prohibitive’ – and I would argue that’s true.”

Government Chief Digital Information Officer opportunity

Forte said that engaging SMEs and startups was a work in progress across government, with Defence having a particularly unique set of challenges. When asked about the incoming Permanent Secretary-level Government Chief Digital Information Officer role, Forte said there is a particular opportunity to realise economy of scale benefits across the public sector which the government could be more aggressive in chasing, as well as sharing scarce skills and resources, and joining up the dots across Whitehall.

“To be successful in doing it – given the political complexities, the genuine internal politics – this person needs to have quite an interesting mix of ability to be persuasive and supportive, sensitive alongside being quite visionary, and being able to turn that vision into actionable clear, realistic action steps,” Forte said. “With a bit of teeth behind it.

“It’s a big opportunity, and a big ask.”

As for his own situation, Forte has 38 years’ industry experience and despite the evolving geopolitical threat profile facing the UK and its allies, Forte is happy to be leading a team embracing the challenge and hoping to “surf the digital tsunami”.

“This is the most exciting time I can ever imagine to be an IT professional working at the MoD,” Forte said.

“This is a hugely exciting opportunity, and the ambition that the senior leaders of the Defence have is something that many senior CIOs, even in the commercial world, would bite my arm off to get.”