Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Knighton

By DSEI Keynote Address

On September 13, 2023, the Royal Air Force published the keynote address given by Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Knighton at DSEI 23.

That address follows:

It was four years since I last stood on a stage here at DSEI, I’m delighted to see a wide group of people here today.

It’s also 100 days plus since I took over as the Chief of the Air Staff and I’ve set out in a number of objectives about the need for the Air Force to be ready to fly and fight. We enable that by getting the basics right and getting the most out of the huge investment that the taxpayer has made in the Air Force. But also, how we’re going to use technology and rapid continuous technology insertion to maintain that technological advantage that we’ve enjoyed. But what I’ve been asked to talk about today, is how we achieve that integrated force and there is a lot of integration around.

The Defence Command Paper Refresh talks about a truly integrated approach to deterrence. The integrated Operating Concept talked about our response that will be integrated.

So, we talk a lot about integration as though it were an end in itself. The danger is by doing this, we tend to focus on the technical and technological solutions to how we bring the component parts together.

So, my view is that we have to think about this problem of how we achieve an integrated force through three lenses. It starts with asking ourselves the question of what is it that we want to achieve? What is our mission? Why will integration help us? Once we establish that then we can talk about what is the technical solution and the technology that will help us deliver it. But the third component has got to be about people and about the human element and we train and develop people to be able to fight in an integrated fashion and deliver the effect that we seek.

The DSEI line to take around integration is getting there. It’s about ensuring our Armed Forces act in a way that is greater than the sum of their collective parts. This is not new. Eisenhower made the point about separate ground, sea and air warfare is gone forever. So this idea of exploiting military capability in multiple domains, to deliver our mission more effectively is something that we have lived with for some time. And if we look at what’s happened in Ukraine, on both sides they are exploiting all five domains to deliver their military objectives.

Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine started with cyber attacks trying to write down networks and infrastructure that belonged to Ukraine. And 0500 local time on that day in February, it started with land, sea and air launched strikes against air bases, command and control facilities, air defence facilities, and sites around Odessa. Just to give you some idea of the scale of this, the distance from Kherson to Kyiv is about the same as the distance from London to Newcastle.

If we think about the kind of problems that we’re going to face in the future, a really effective way to think about this is through the lens of integrated air and missile defence. If you want to protect the UK, we are going to have to connect our sensors and our intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities in space, on the ground, under sea and in the air, in order to be able to understand where the threats coming from and deliver effects against whatever is incoming towards us.

And so, for me, at its simplest level, the integrated force, why we need integration, is to enable us to orchestrate and synchronise the effects that we have across all five domains. But I actually think that there’s a deeper reason for integration when we think about war and it’s more naturalistic state, more beyond the simple, straightforward, structured approach that we might need to take to this kind of orchestration and synchronisation.

And it starts with John Boyd. So, John Boyd was a great military theorist. He was a pretty difficult guy to live with, as some of you will have heard me say at the Global Air and Space Chiefs Conference, he was known for being loud, abrasive and profane. Robert Coram, in his 2002 biography of him, described him as like most fighter pilots, he took great delight in his profanity and coarse sense of humour. But what he was interested in were wars and conflicts where weaker forces had prevailed against stronger ones.

And he looked at these these examples and wrote it down in what became described as his magnum opus, which is actually a set of slides, Patterns of Conflict. And what he found when he looked at these conflicts, was a successful side didn’t pit force against force, but rather what they used was strength against weakness, they used deception, speed and fluidity of action in order to confuse and disorientate an adversary. So that in his words, they then unravelled.

At the heart of this thinking, was this idea of the relationship between the observed and the observer. And if the environment in which the observer was looking at changed faster than the observer could adapt, that’s what led to the confusion, the disorientation and ultimately the unravelling of the adversary.

This was captured in this famous OODA loop, which many of you will be familiar with. This is a rather simplistic two-dimensional description of the problem, it is what I was taught when I was at Staff College. But the reality of it is much more complicated as his original sketch describes.

So, if we are able to make the environment in which our adversary is operating change faster than they are able to adapt, that’s how we’re going to unhinge our enemies. And if we can do that across five domains, we can do it across the three levels of warfare, and we can do it multi nationally, the ability for us to actually out-manoeuvre and defeat our adversaries will be significantly enhanced.

So for me the why, starting with a why, at it’s simple level, it’s simply about integrating all of our components of power in order to deliver our mission. And we should start with real life problems rather than driving integration for integration’s sake. But what we should be is also more ambitious and think about how we can integrate across all of those five domains, in that dynamic natural state of warfare, of confusion and uncertainty.

So, when we start thinking about the technology, the enablement, to me, a lot of this comes down to command and control. And in the Air Force, we are capturing this thinking in our operating concept, which starts with this idea of decision superiority. It’s about simply making faster, better decisions, it includes agility, includes resilience and also integrated action. But to get that right you’ve got to get the command and control right. It’s not just a data and architecture problem.

Now, I’m going to level with you here. I’m an aerosystems engineer. I am absolutely edge of my knowledge when I talk about architecture standards and data models. But bear with me. So in my view, what we really expect and need, is an architecture that is open and is one that we own as government. It also needs to be common across all of our Services.

So in the Air Force, we’re developing this Nexus Combat Cloud. It’s been developed by our rapid Capabilities Office with support from industry working alongside people in the Air Force. It’s now got over 300 users, it allows us to connect information to any point in that network and information from any source. It already operates at official sensitive and at secret level. And we’re about to bring it into core so we can use it on a day-to-day basis.

But the Navy’s got Storm Cloud, the Army’s got Odyssey. Now I know they do different things, and I’ve often wondered whether we should run a competition to see which is the best. But fundamentally, we need to have a common system right across Defence. And that is what the integration design authority is all about. So, somewhere else in this hall, in another silent disco somewhere else, Stratcom are launching the integration design authority, and its purpose is to control, manage and design the architecture and those standards.

It’s not about designing the whole of Defence or doing the balance of investment. And if we get it right, it won’t be about adding new levels of assurance, what it will actually be about is designing in integration right from the start.

Now, for those of you from industry, I think that these conclusions that we’re drawing have really important implications for you. We don’t know quite what that requirement looks like. So, our traditional model of setting requirements and putting out a contract and competition won’t work. In the future, I think we’re going to need to see ourselves in government working more closely with industry, focused on delivering outcomes, not necessarily delivering requirements.

But our challenge is if we do that, how do we ensure we retain competitive tension? To ensure that the government, the military, get the best technology the best capability, if we commit to long term partner programmes.

And for me, it starts with getting away from proprietary systems and tie in. I have no shortage of big primes or newcomers into the business coming to try and sell me their architecture, their system, their standards. If you’re from a big prime, you’re making your money by controlling that, and us having to pay to adapt our systems because we have to pay you to do it. If you’re a newcomer, you’re making your money out of getting us hooked on the crack cocaine of whatever your system is, and then charging it for us by usage as we get to use more and more of it.

Neither of those systems can be right, I think, for the Ministry of Defence or for the military. And so for me, it feels to me that what we have to think about is the model by which we allow industry to be successful and profitable, is different to the model we’ve got today. And I think for the primes it starts for you being confident that you’re going to be first and you’re going to be the best. For us on the government side, we have to acknowledge that we’re going to have to enter into some longer term relationships with you and make sure that we prioritise and incentivise speed and the ability to adapt, rather than precision and meeting our requirements.

So. the final element for me we need to think about, is people. So if it is about command and control, if we’re going to be really successful at delivering an integrated force, we need to think about how are we going to educate and train our people, our commanders to deliver that.

Now if it’s a simple problem, like the ones I described, like IAMD, integrated air missile defence, then we just need to practice it, we need to rehearse it. We need to provide the facilities to do that and involve all five domains. And that’s what the RAF’s, or the defence run by the RAF, gladiator multi domain integration operations organisation, does. It allows us in a synthetic environment to play into that environment, land, sea, air, space and cyberspace and also live assets into scenarios so we can test ourselves in a full mission rehearsal and teach ourselves how we will operate in those kinds of circumstances.

But if we want to be bolder and talk about that kind of fluid, action I describe in at the heart of our thinking around the air operating concept, then if we want to do that, we’ve got to really think about how do we educate our commanders so that they have an intuitive understanding of all five domains and how they’re going to operate against it.

And that’s part of the reason why I announced today that we have set up a support flight on 607 Squadron, which is specifically to bring in space expertise into the Air Force from the private sector as volunteer reserves, so we can help develop our understanding of that environment and think about how we’re going to bring it together and integrate it.

And if we think a long way into the future, I wonder whether in an environment where it’s hard enough to match the three domains and joint environment which we have been trying to do for 25 years, whether we can really expect somebody to master a single domain before we educate them about being able to be a commander in an integrated force, whether actually we might need to think about the integrated force, and an integrated commander from the start of their careers in the Armed Forces.

To finish and I’ll take questions in a moment, but just to remind us, then my view is we have to start with why, what is it that we’re trying to achieve? And that will help shape what that integrated force is going to be. And that will emerge over time, we can’t necessarily design it today. That will also shape the technology and the technical solutions that we need to put in place to enable command and control of an integrated force.

And then finally, we’ve got to think about how we train and educate our commanders of the future to actually exploit the benefits of an integrated force. And from an industry perspective we’ll work out how we work together and how you’re still going to be successful and profitable to deliver the capability the Armed Forces are going to need.