In this 'Spotlight on...' series, we offer insights into the roles and responsibilities of people and teams working in digital and technology within the Ministry of Defence (MOD). This post features Defence Digital’s Major General Tom Copinger-Symes, who took up the new Director Military Digitisation position in 2019, supporting Defence’s Chief Information Officer (CIO) in accelerating Digital Transformation across the Armed Forces.
What is your role at MOD?
I sit on the Defence CIO’s senior leadership team, which is otherwise an exclusively civilian team – a mix of long-term civil servants and former industry digital folk. I’m there to be the ‘military conscience’ for the CIO and his leadership team, reminding them what we do, how we operate and how we fight. By the same token, I have an external role alongside the CIO, to be the ‘digital conscience’ for Defence’s senior military leadership. I explain how digital can modernise and transform the way we operate and fight.
Of course, I do this in partnership with a bunch of other people across Defence, not least my colleagues in Joint Force Development, who are leading on the concept of Information Advantage. Sarah Winmill, the new CIO of the Functions, does a similar job with a range of Defence’s wider business areas. More broadly, Defence CIO Charlie Forte refers to me as his ‘connector-in-chief’, working across Defence to join up people, ideas, problems and solutions.
What attracted you to the position?
That’s a tough question! It’s a new post, and when I turned up there was no staff, no dedicated office, not even a desk. Having just been commanding an Army Division of 30,000 soldiers, it was a bit of a shock! I have a tiny team (seven of us at the moment). What attracted me was the opportunity to influence the highest levels of Defence; to challenge conventional thinking; to champion digital capabilities and agile ways of working; to engage with the extraordinary young men and women who serve alongside us; and ultimately contribute to a transformation in how we operate and fight.
I was also attracted by the opportunity to learn more about digital and other technologies and how they can help us fight and win; to be coached by some very clever and capable civilian, military and industry colleagues; and to work in a very different climate to the one I had become used to.
Did you ever see yourself becoming Director Military Digitisation?
In short no - not least because the position had never existed before and I had already been selected for my next position working in Army HQ. But I was offered the chance to interview for this new role and was lucky enough to get it. The position is fascinating, challenging, uplifting, frustrating, exhausting… in equal measure. Every day is a school day for me - learning new skills, new language, new ideas. It’s a full-body workout. But I love it and find it incredibly stimulating and satisfying.
How has your previous military experience primed you for the position?
On the face of it, not at all. For most of my career I’ve been focused on the conventional aspects of soldiering. I’m an infantryman by background, from The Rifles, and commanded a battlegroup in Afghanistan, following tours in Iraq, Kosovo, Bosnia and so on. So, I am not a technologist, I’m a generalist. But I had the privilege of commanding a Brigade and then a Division alongside the Army’s smartest and most technical soldiers, and that started my education in all things digital. It has been a steep learning curve but they’re very patient with me.
In this job I am there principally for my understanding and experience of how we fight, with plenty of specialists in support. More broadly, this role is about communication across multiple cultural and organisational silos; about building a network of people aligned to a common vision; about increasing our confidence and our appetite for risk; and it’s ultimately about helping us learn, adapt and win – and those are things I’ve done for the past 30 years.
How does your role contribute to defending the nation?
We are in a phase of history when the pace of disruptive change is unparalleled outside of the World Wars; when our safety, our values and our way of life are being threatened by both states and non-states. They have all, to one degree or another, benefited from the democratisation of digital and information technology; they have weaponised information and are seeking strategic advantage by using technology in innovative ways to challenge and attack us.
History tells us that unless we adapt and transform, we will slip backwards and ultimately lose the race. So, overcoming institutional inertia and accelerating Defence’s transformation is essential to deliver our purpose - to protect our people; to prevent conflict; and ultimately to allow us to fight and win if it comes to that.
What are your key objectives for next year and beyond?
In very broad handfuls, my aims are to:
- support the senior leadership of Defence to accelerate Digital Transformation – not least by understanding how new technologies can help us operate and fight more effectively, and how we can adopt and assimilate them with increased agility
- help Defence Digital’s senior leadership team understand what 21st Century multi-domain warfare is about, in line with Information Advantage and the Integrated Operating Concept, and how to harness Defence’s values, ethos and energy to speed up change
- make sure that data is recognised as the strategic asset that it is, stimulating a demand signal for the infrastructure, the equipment, the skills and the culture that will allow us to unlock its value
- ‘digitise the battlespace’ – ensuring seamless connectivity between the operational technology on our fighting platforms, via our digital backbone, to our HQs, our bases and our supply chain - so that data can flow freely from the core to the edge and back again and across the different domains in which we fight
- ultimately, enable the integration of military forces across land, sea, air, cyber and space domains; improve interoperability with our Allies and our cross-Government partners; and deepen our partnerships with industry and academia, to ensure we are adopting and exploiting game-changing technology to keep our country and citizens safe
To do this I am standing up three small teams:
- Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence (C4I) Joint User - represents the needs and aspirations of users across Defence to deliver a coherent, prioritised and end-to-end demand signal for Digital and IT capabilities across the battlespace
- Senior Responsible Owners (SROs) for major deployable Digital and IT programmes like Skynet 6 and New Style of IT (Deployed) to make sure we deliver and exploit the full range of benefits these programmes offer
- the Defence Digital Service (DDS) - a small group of very capable ‘digital ninjas’, similar to the US initiative of the same name, who can bring their skills, experience, and new ways of working to diagnose and solve Defence problems
In your view, what are the key ingredients to a successful digitalisation of the military?
I would say the following are vital:
- committed, clear-sighted but enquiring leaders
- cunning, curious, challenging soldiers and civil servants
- an inclusive and innovative culture, where mistakes are seen as inevitable and important steps to learning and development; and
- trusting, stable partnerships with our Allies, other Government departments, industry and academia.
Which technologies are you investing in now, and which emerging technologies are you most excited about?
We’re looking at pretty much all of them and investing to one extent or another in most. Cloud, Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence probably get the most airtime at the moment, but quantum computing will likely be along before we know it and we are starting to exploit ideas like additive manufacturing.
I wouldn’t pick a particular technology as a favourite, but anything that enables us humans to interact more easily with our information and our machines is going to be incredibly important. So, visualisation, man-machine interfaces and synthetic environments strike me as a particularly valuable area, and luckily as a country we’re pretty good in those areas.
Intuitive use of information is especially important in warfare, when you are usually tired, stressed, scared, wet and cold (or hot and thirsty) and easily distracted by bits of metal flying past your head! Managing that cognitive load to achieve Information Advantage requires the compound application of multiple technologies, whether on the physical battlefield or in a virtual cyber theatre.