Mark Welland underlines the importance of funding scientific research to ensure that the UK Ministry of Defence stays ahead of the game

Mark Welland underlines the importance of funding scientific research to ensure that the UK Ministry of Defence stays ahead of the game


From the days of the longitude problem, Britain’s defence establishment has used carefully targeted funding to stay at the cutting edge of scientific development. Today, the UK research output is second only to that of the US, and in many fields we in the UK are world leaders. We have achieved a great deal, but we have also demonstrated the extreme importance of never resting on our laurels. At the same time as our R&D progresses, the range of threats we face is expanding and the pace of change is accelerating.

Today’s battlefield is increasingly a high-tech space. Robots that can go ahead of troops, armed with sensors that can see and identify what humans cannot; unmanned drones that can stay aloft for days at a time; armour that can react to being hit; medical technology that saves lives on the battlefield or even, as has been reported recently, give blinded soldiers the ability to see using other senses; all are at the cutting edge of their fields.

It is also increasingly a networked space, with people and technology operating as parts of systems. This brings new opportunities, but also new threats. Indeed, we have begun to fundamentally change our understanding of the ’battlefield’ to encompass space and cyber-space. As we employ new techniques, we risk opening new vulnerabilities. And the increased networking of the world itself has brought with it a greater threat of proliferation of technology to hostile groups.

In these circumstances it is more important than ever to stay ahead of the game. But does R&D actually help? Would it not be cheaper and simpler for the UK to buy equipment off the shelf and let others do the work for us?

We fundamentally believe that funding our own R&D brings significant advantages. It gives us a secure sovereign capability. It ensures that we are not limited to buying what is available, but can set our own requirements. And it brings us a time advantage - we estimate that today, in terms of capability, our R&D investment puts us around 12 years ahead of a competitor buying off the shelf. 

This is not to say, however, that we should stop constantly looking for new ways of doing our R&D and looking for new people to work with it. We no longer can, and no longer should, do everything in house. Instead, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) must be intelligent customers of a range of R&D suppliers that is ever expanding. We must work internationally; we must work more with small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs); we must work with universities and we must work more in fields and with people with whom we have never worked before. 

We are doing this through the Centre for Defence Enterprise (CDE). The centre was set up two years ago to be the first point of contact for anyone with a bright idea related to defence. Proposals submitted online to the CDE receive a rapid, expert response. In two years, the centre has received over 1000 proposals, and the vast majority of its funding has gone to SMEs, academia or individuals, many of whom are entirely new to defence. 

The next big leap in defence technology, or the next small innovation that has a large impact on our soldiers’ lives, could come from someone who hasn’t yet thought that their work could be of interest to us. The interaction between defence research and the civil sector is growing rapidly - as soldiers’ burdens are lightened by lightweight solar panels developed by the civil green-tech sector, so trauma patients and burns victims in NHS hospitals benefit from medical research carried out in the defence sector.

Indeed, the next big leap may well come from an entirely new field. My own specialism, nanotechnology, has great potential to offer defence: from advanced sensing and imaging; to new structural materials for armour and intelligent clothing; to better batteries and smaller, more capable electronics.

At the moment we are succeeding. But new trials will always emerge, and staying one step ahead of the game will become increasingly difficult. MOD must constantly seek new ways of maintaining its technological advantage. It is an exciting and a testing time, but I believe that MOD and the scientists it depends on will rise to the challenge. 

Mark Welland is chief scientific adviser to the UK Ministry of Defence