Can the UK be Militarily Innovative?


In many ways the business of warfare has remained unchanged for thousands of years, the debate between mobility and protection, the need to take and hold ground and the arts of deception are subjects that might have been discussed by the Romans or ancient Greeks. Also true is that the military has always been at the vanguard of technology and innovation.

Within the UK the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory or DSTL has recently become responsible for leading the defence science and technology (S&T) research programme – designing, formulating and commissioning programmes with industry (large and small), academia and other research organisations.

This of course begs the question, what exactly were they doing before?

As part of these changes the Defence Technology and Innovation Centre at Shrivenam will close, saving approximately £5million per year in running costs and its duties transferred back to DSTL.

If one looks back through the history of the UK, in all areas of science and technology, it is simply littered with example after example where the combination of science and engineering has provided the military of this nation with an advantage.

Admittedly, in recent times, innovation in military matters has been somewhat lacking with many key systems and technologies coming from others but as we inevitably look beyond the recession and the recognition that the nation’s economy is too reliant on financial services we need to start thinking about nurturing and encouraging innovation in British military technology, with its inevitable commercial spin-offs.

Science and technology research funding has been falling steadily in line with defence spending, whatever Gordon Brown will have you think, this has to be reversed now and some of the more promising technologies bought to commercial fruition.

There are projects in both the short and long term, combining science and engineering.


We have blogged this before but its importance to the UK should not be underestimated; it is in fact the first aircraft designed and built solely in the UK for 40 years with full sovereign control. It is innovative and has real potential. Recently returned from Australia where it has completed a number of operationally relevant tests Mantis is now likely to benefit from sustainment funding at a low level until the SDR concludes. Its big brother, the Taranis UCAV, is also ticking along at a relatively sedate pace.

Super Bainite

The UK has for a long time been at the forefront of armour technology with Chobham and Dorchester composite armour making western armoured vehicles the best protected. Unfortunately, we seem to have fallen behind with some aspects of armour, notably reactive armour, where Israel has a market lead. Hoping to pull this lead back is a little known technology called Super Bainite.

Super Bainite is the result of a process developed by DSTL, QinetiQ and the University of Cambridge that allows armour to be produced at a low temperature called isothermal hardening. The result is an extremely strong armour without having to resort to steel alloys which means it can be produced at a fraction of the cost of conventional steel plate armour.

So yes, we can innovate.

More, please

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9 Responses

  1. Aye more please indeed the problem as I see it is politicians no longer care about the long game, as in what is good for the country, they care too much about themselves and popularity much in line with celebrity culture. Look at where Government spending goes (Just ignore the fact that £1 in 4 is borrowed) short term social projects that are popular and likely to give that lovely ego and popularity boost. I’m not against that far from it but a massive percentage is pure waste and could be much better spent elsewhere or spent more efficiently while still doing the same job. Next to that there is still a trickle of money to do actual good for the country things such as infrastructure investment and research spending in various things. Instead of taking tough decisions and sticking too them for instance getting on with building nuclear power stations or legislating that new build houses must be much more environmentally friendly using less energy. They instead shy away sometimes saying that It is not the role of government when in fact it’s bloody hypocritical to say so when they are trying to socially engineer the population.

    The problem with innovation is Education science and technology has fallen out of favour in colleges and Universities or at least as I understand it so I’m maybe wrong as I’m not researching as I write. Education as a whole seems to have according to what many are saying and thinking reduced to the lowest common denominator in subjects as well as new less traditional subjects absorbing students. Not to mention there are many more things young people like to be doing with their time other than learning about something they consider boring or simply harder than something else.

    Well that was a bit of a rant not remotely defence related but simply put I don’t expect things to get any better as things seem to change under leaders with few screws loose Margret Thatcher and Churchill come to mind.

  2. I have blogged for the better part of 2 years now in my opposition to the privatisation of DERA, so I am just going to wonder aloud here: was that a good idea?

  3. I think I have made the point a few times here 13th that I 100% agree with you that selling off the family jewels in DERA was a monumentally stupid thing to do.

    Look at the three way nonsense between MoD, QinetiQ and BAe over Nimrod flight safety

  4. Totally with you on DERA.

    Please tell me what is innovative about Mantis ? No, seriously I mean it – what is actually innovative ? I am not saying its not a decent product, but it’s actually no different from many MALE UAV’s that have been around for years. It’s home grown – cool, I get it, lets develop it more and throw into the crowded market place against Israeli, US and other European products – someone might buy it.

    Also I don’t think we can have fallen behind in reactive armour as I don’t think we ever developed any. Chobham et al are ‘passive’ composites, as is super bainite. So we continue to lead and innovate in this area, which is good, so let the Israeli’s lead in active, its a different technology segment and that is fine.

    Where we could / should innovate is IT / electronics / software. We should push the boundaries of open architectures, use of Linux and other open source software on commercial processors etc.

  5. Jed, I think the main area of innovation is the autonomous flight controls that they have built up from raven herti and corax etc. This means the bandwidth used for mission control is vastly reduced, especially useful in areas where we are bandwidth poor, like Afghanistan. Good point about reactive armour, I didn’t mean to infer we had developed any. Super Bainite looks like a very interesting material, not for the holes like everyone seems to think but for the process that gets it there.

  6. We are as a nation excellent innovators, unfortunately we have a long and distinguished history of allowing others to develop and market our inventions, usually due to lack of Government funding to take it all the way; things like the microchip, the jet engine, the Harrier etc.

    Unfortunately, I believe the biggest problem we have as a nation is simply one of economies of scale. Our forces don’t provide a big enough market to sustain long term, large scale production of anything, unlike the forces of the USA, Russia and China. It also means that when do produce something good we invariably get stuck with the Mark 1. To compound this problem, a lot of the emerging nations we originally supplied kit to in the past are now fully industrialised and quite able to compete with us; you only have to look at the wide range of armoured vehicles on offer and the countries producing them to realise this. As Jed says, it’s a very crowded market place.

    We are good at innovation and design, we just lack the population size to provide a large market for our kit.

    What we are also good at is license building other people’s kit, improving it and selling it on. It doesn’t sound very innovative but it is something we have a lot of experience of, and it also means we don’t get stuck with the Mark 1!

    So, whether we like it or not, the future appears to be one where our forces will be using other countries kit produced under license, albeit clad in Super Bainite.

    Also, on the subject of armour, check out ‘Kolsterising’.

  7. Admin said: “the main area of innovation is the autonomous flight controls that they have built up from raven herti and corax etc” – cool so we need to invest in it, finish it, and then sell it to every other UAV manufacturer – NOT just develop the Mantis because it has it.

    Andy – the ‘electric’ or ‘force field’ armour is reactive in nature I suppose, now if only there was a highly innovative UK company manufacturing the required super capacitors :-)

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