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Less Rhetoric, More Action – Delivering on the Ambitions for Science and Technology in the IR

This essay was first published in October 2021, in the second volume of the Centre for Defence Studies series on The Integrated Review in Context: Defence and Security in Focus.

We will continue to defend the integrity of our nation against state threats, whether in the form of illicit finance or coercive economic measures, disinformation, cyber-attacks, electoral interference– Boris Johnson Integrated Review 16 March 21

The core ambitions held within Global Britain in a Competitive Age – The Integrated Review (IR) are admirable; however, the paper raises as many questions as it strives to answer. Although the paper is overall comprehensive enough, in most cases, it proffers the solutions to known problems, such as the need for greater speed, agility and the increasing requirement for a whole of government approach to most problem solving, to, “enhance Britain’s prosperity and security,” and, in reality, the proof will always be in the materiality of the inputs and the execution of these key deliverables. Other commentators have focussed on the fiscal challenge and the choices that have had to be made between some of the legacy and force mass capabilities and the future challenges and risks that these decisions may present in commentating on the review, however, this opinion piece will focus on the emphasis and recognition of the increasing importance that Space, Cyber and new technologies will play now and into the future.

The IR stipulates that, “We will exceed our manifesto and NATO spending commitments, with defence spending now standing at 2.2% of GDP, and drive forward a modernisation programme that embraces the newer domains of cyber and space, equipping our armed forces with cutting-edge tec.” So why then is there also a renewed focus on Space, Cyber and new technologies to get ourselves ahead of potential adversaries and outside competition? Probably because this recognition is coming somewhat late. The threat basis in both Space and Cyber is now not a point of debate;

the leading 5-Eyes senior military representatives have already openly stated that the Space domain is contested, not ‘increasingly’ contested, – Peter Rochelle

and anyone observing the fallout from the two well publicised Cyber-attacks on both FireEye and SolarWinds in the US last year will understand that there is now much to do to recover lost ground.

The IR notes that ‘New challenges to security, society and individual rights. Technology will create new vulnerabilities to hostile activity and attack in domains such as cyberspace and space’ The question is whether, or not, the IR’s proposals are enough to recover lost ground and forge ahead with advantage. The language within the IR is significant: ‘we will have a dynamic space programme and will be one of the world’s leading democratic cyber powers.’ But more telling, is the statement, “we will make the UK a meaningful actor in space.” One can be confident in suggesting that this is carefully chosen language to fit more comfortably with the actual inputs. Realistically,

the UK Space programme has lacked a joined-up approach across government for some time – Peter Rochelle

and so it is encouraging that future plans will be created in a more joined-up way, but unfortunately the real underlying aspiration for Space Policy in government has not been met because of resource constraints. This has possibly been made worse by a continuing lack of consensus at the most senior levels within MOD, when faced with other force structure constraints, as a consequence of the requirement for new investment in space. Nonetheless,

since a coherent strategy and plan is long overdue, the IR’s focus on this sector should be welcomed – Peter Rochelle

and perhaps, with this opportunity, the UK will not squander any advantage it has where unique innovation still resides in the country.

The IR also recognises that Cyberspace will be an “increasingly contested domain, used by state and non-state actors. Proliferation of cyber capability to countries and organised crime groups, along with the growing everyday reliance on digital infrastructure, will increase the risks of direct and collate” It is encouraging that in an area where the UK is arguable already at the cutting edge it will have the potential to maintain this competitive edge, although the pace of change in the cyber domain is ludicrously fast and arguably in many sectors any advantage has already been lost, despite the significant annual investments of the past. The recent ransomware attack on the US Colonial Pipeline that stopped fuel distribution across the entire eastern seaboard of the US, followed by a similar ransomware assault on the NHS in Northern Ireland, are further evidence of just how advanced these attacks are today, and a stark warning and indication of the shear potential of what should be imagined might occur during acts by a hostile nation in and out of full-scale war. Admiral John Stavrdis’ recent publication, ‘War 2034’ is an excellent commentary on the knock-on consequences of Western nation’s not getting ahead of this all-pervasive Cyber threat. This threat is not going to go away without decisive action to get ahead and find solutions that are capable of scaling, easy to implement and are much stronger than the current protection measures that are in place and currently envisaged for the future. All of which, has sparked a swift response from US President Joe Biden in his recently announced Executive Order and the new National Defence Authorization Act (NDAA) policy that mandates that the US has to now get ahead of Cyber and future Quantum threats.

Adding complexity to traditional and future threat, are the consequences of getting future protection wrong, which is all pervasive, in all domains, and never more so than in Space, which requires Space assets to be in orbit for many years, making the traditional methods of keeping such assets protected from cyber threats that much more difficult. The challenge is so acute that the U.S. Space Force has begun transferring over a thousand cyber professionals into its ranks as of Feb 2021 and plans to start recruiting talent from across the military branches this year, as articulated by Gen John Raymond, the Chief of Space Operations to reporters Feb 3: ‘There is a spectrum of threats that are out there -- everything from reversible jamming of satellites...and there’s cyber threats…which is why it’s so important for us to have those cyber professionals on the Space Force team, organic to our team. They will be part of our crew force; they will understand the cyber terrain of space and help us protect this critical domain from that threat’.

”In the digital age, [and more significantly the quantum age] sustaining this competitive edge in cyber will be a fundamental component of strategic advantage through S&T.”

In terms of technologies its possible to pick any one of the new and emerging areas to make this point. This author has been arguing for some time that

the UK needs a hypersonic weapons strategy to exploit some technology at the leading edge and to compete against the adversaries’ capabilities – Peter Rochelle

and, finally, there is recognition in the IR that this is now an important area to develop. This lag in decision-making is unfortunately typical of the consensus building approach that resides in Whitehall and the real challenge in executing the positives within the IR; the vast amount of new money going into Research and Development to exploit new and emerging capabilities. In terms of capitalising on new hypersonic technologies the competitive edge has already withered,

the time for agility and risk taking was at least 5 years ago when there was an advantage that could have been exploited militarily, industrially, and politically, – Peter Rochelle

for security and prosperity.

Graphene, mentioned almost nervously in the IR, is an excellent example of the poor gestation and exploitation of new technology developed in research labs in the UK. By the time the National Graphene Institute was set up to realize the potential of this amazing invention, some 11 years after Geim and Novosolov had produced the atom layer sheet of graphene in the lab, there were already 1,000 or more patents in the US and over 4,000 patents in China for the productization of graphene. The discovery of graphene in this way was brilliant, but the UK’s ability to see its immediate potential and to exploit it was not. The IR recognises this failure, speaking of agility and pace, at the speed of relevance, and an increased appetite for risk. It announces the setting up of a new Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) to fund high-risk, high-reward scientific research, but does not set out how in practice it this work. In seeking to exploit innovation, the traditional Whitehall approach of consensus building above all else, will have to be challenged if the country is not to continually lose great UK inventions to other countries. 

To succeed there needs to be a facilitating approach to true risk taking, – Peter Rochelle

where success is rewarded, and where people are prepared to invest in such risky ventures. The government argues that it recognises this: ‘A common problem in the UK innovation landscape is that although support is available for early-stage R&D, it often falls away before ideas are fully commercialised and brought to market. As a result, innovation and intellectual property sometimes move out of the UK before companies are able to mature into commercial successes. Furthermore, the IR clearly articulates that a new approach will not work unless there is a whole of government approach and there in lies a paradox; thinking things through politically, industrially, and militarily is great, but it also smacks of traditional Whitehall consensus building, and of committees! What is actually required is a true shift in the culture that pervades Whitehall - this is not an easy task. Do the individuals that survive to make it to the top of these traditional organisations have the disruptive DNA that is so vital to making and exploiting these new opportunities?

In a similar way, the potential of quantum technologies is as good an example as any to consider these challenges. The IR’s Quantum case study argues that the UK has the opportunity to lead the world with Quantum technologies and that the IR strategy will grow the ‘UK’s science and technology power in pursuit of strategic advantage’, achieved through a, ‘whole-of-UK effort.’ This will take considerable insight, strategic coherence and effort, and a fair degree of risk taking. In 2019, PSI Quantum, a UK start-up created by four UK university physicists, was tempted away to Silicon Valley by a £215m venture capital funding opportunity and it has recently revealed that it expects to be capable of delivering a commercial quantum computer by 2025. This is the competition and opportunity that currently exists elsewhere and is yet to be coherently created in the UK.

A number of other nations have always been much clearer about their strategic objectives. France is, as ever, a case in point. The French government announced a €1.8 billion strategy to boost research in quantum technologies, and especially quantum computers, over five years, a move that increases public investment in the field from €60 million to €200 million per year, putting France in third place behind China and US for quantum funding. The goal is to build a business environment around the country’s expertise and to keep the experts its universities nurture in the country. With these efforts, France has a chance to become ‘the first state to acquire a complete prototype of [a] quantum computer’, according to President Emmanuel Macron when introducing the plan on 22 January 2021. Where France has articulated a ‘regain’ strategy for Quantum technology, the Chinese have already declared Quantum ‘supremacy.’ Chinese scientists have established the world’s first integrated quantum communication network, combining over 700 optical fibres on the ground with two ground-to-satellite links to achieve Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) over a total distance of 4,600 kilometers for users across the country, and their ambition extends well beyond this, prompting the new Japanese national strategic imperative to build their own QKD network. The US, however, continue to demonstrate the most effective conversion of research into possible commercial applications.

The IR notes the ‘Competition is therefore intensifying, shaped, in particular, by multinational firms with the backing of states, some of which take a ‘whole-of-economy’ approach to ensure dominance in critical areas.’16 The race, and therefore the need for clarity on the strategy and the technologies that the UK will pursue, has begun and never been more acute. The challenge will be the mechanisation of how this is to be achieved?

A good example of where the UK got this approach right is the Tempest Combat Aircraft programme – Peter Rochelle

– a sector in which commentators had declared that there would never be a new UK Combat aircraft built in the UK. A strategic approach, a good degree of vision (and a little optimism) quickly generated a regain strategy, with industrial, political and military alignment and a very fast manifestation of the strategy coming to life with mutual multinational government and industrial agreements - a clear illustration that the UK can get this right; there will be more to follow soon on Tempest no doubt that will reinforce this argument.

“While references to ‘the race for quantum computing’ do abound, it is important to recognize that this is not just a race, but rather more of a marathon.”

In a recent paper on Quantum Technology and National Security by Deloitte, the authors argue that new Quantum information technologies will have significant impacts on national security, ‘touching everything from extremely secure communications to faster code breaking, to better detection of aircraft and submarines.’ The paper’s authors argue that it will be difficult to precisely predict the outcome of these new technologies, but they are clear in their guidance to government leaders in national security, ‘who face significant stakes for getting things wrong, doing nothing is not an option.’ However, the ‘Quantum Revolution’ of things is not just about the race to build Quantum computers, although this has received the lion’s share of investment and commentary. The three main components are typically characterised as Quantum Computing, Quantum Communication and Quantum Metrology; we should show an interest in all of these in equal measure because advancement in all three areas will revolutionise the world.

While many government leaders may wish to prepare their organizations for the coming quantum revolution,

the obscure and counterintuitive nature of quantum science can be a major barrier. – Peter Rochelle

As a result, many government leaders are unfamiliar with quantum science or technology. So how can government leaders prepare for a somewhat unknown quantum future? The short answer is that pragmatic leaders can put in place the infrastructure to allow their organizations to capitalize on whatever developments quantum may bring, but this will have to be done at breakneck speed, with forethought and razor-sharp clarity, or this revolution will be dominated by others and the UK will just become a commodity user of other nation’s capabilities. This revolution and the pace of change was recently crystallised by Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google, who said that a combination of artificial intelligence and quantum will ‘help us tackle some of the biggest problems we see’, but also said it was important encryption evolved to match this, stating that, ‘In a five-to-ten-year time frame, quantum computing will break encryption as we know it today.’

According to Dr Jonathan Dowling of Louisiana State University, current efforts to develop quantum computers are seeing the number of quantum bits on a quantum computer’s processor chips double every six months. “That is four times faster than Moore’s Law for classical chips, but the nature of quantum computers—[through] superposition and entanglement—means that their processing speed grows exponentially with the number of qubits. So, the processing power of quantum computers obeys double exponential growth,” Dowling noted. If this growth pattern continues, qubit processors could be capable of cracking one of the most widely used types of encryption, Rivest–Shamir–Adleman (RSA) encryption, and solving complex problems and simulations within the next decade.

In a recent report, Accenture stated that as a consequence of these performance increases in Quantum Computer development, there will be a ‘point at which a practical quantum computer will be able to break the security of our current encryption methods, and if by then our basic security infrastructure has not already shifted to a quantum-secure form, it will be too late. The time to look at options for a quantum-safe architecture is at a minimum 10 years ahead of the expected need date.’ Accenture go further, arguing that ‘Quantum Key Distribution provides a quantum-safe mechanism for key delivery that is independent of advances in cryptoanalysis and computing capabilities, whether classical or quantum and is thus not dependent on algorithmic security.’

In the Integrated Review, the government has initiated an additional investment of £1.4 billion more per year in core-funding for its world-leading research base, citing that this will, ‘enable institutions across the UK to push the frontiers of knowledge in areas ranging from quantum technologies for cryptography to new imaging technologies for cancer treatment.’ The level of investment is commendable, however, this funding has to cover the broadest range of future capabilities and technologies, without focus, it will be spread too thin, across to many areas and little change will result. In comparison, the US National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), passed by both chambers of Congress in December, contained a provision that promises to increase government spending on quantum computing, AI and 5G technology by $10 billion annually over the next five years. A vast amount of money focussed on just two key initiatives.

So, what it is that we can do in the UK? It wants to be a meaningful Space nation but lacks the resource to truly make a difference and meet the unwritten ambition that really resides within Whitehall. In the 2010 Defence Review a strong argument was made for a Cyber Army – 12 years on it still does not exist and it is still way off in the future. In this IR

the UK has highlighted the importance of Quantum technologies, but the world is already ahead – Peter Rochelle

of it here too and if the current chaos being caused by Cyber attacks across the world is not enough,

just imagine the compounding effect to the opponent who truly has Quantum Supremacy, in all of its disciplines – Peter Rochelle

(which China has argued they already have!).

Can the UK do anything to shift this paradigm? The answer of course is yes, but it will need stronger leadership and ambition, along with government support, to set the conditions to enable the historically brilliant UK innovations to be pulled through to the end user avoiding the ‘valley of death’. To achieve this will require courageous people prepared to disrupt, investors prepared to take a leap of faith in UK technology, and a completely different perspective when it comes to risk taking within government, or else everything brilliantly British will again end up being developed by others, offshore!


Air Vice-Marshal (Ret) Peter “Rocky” Rochelle is Chief Operating Officer at Arqit Ltd, part of the AQI Group. Rocky spent 34 years in the RAF, including wide operational experience and an extensive background in Acquisition and Government Strategic Programme Delivery, completing his service as Chief of Staff Capability, Acquisition and Force Development in April 2020, where he was instrumental in delivery of Project Tempest and the Combat Air Strategy.


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