Opening up Defence R&D


The UK Ministry of Defence is looking to individual researchers and organisations not traditionally part of the defence community to both support national security and open a door to potentially significant commercial benefit. Professor Philip Sutton FREng gives examples of current projects and initiatives for widening the net of contributors to military research.

For most people the UK’s defence Research and Development (R&D) has long seemed to be shrouded in secrecy and intrigue. When its work has surfaced publicly, it has often been the most devastating weapons such as nuclear missiles and chemical and biological weapons that have captured the headlines. Even to those better informed, the elegant capabilities of aircraft such as the vertical take-off and landing Harrier, the sheer sense of power associated with the Challenger main battle tank and the cold, clinical precision of the laser guided bomb seem to have emerged from a secretive government working with defence industry laboratories.

Facing new challenges and with only a relatively small part of the defence R&D community operating within government, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) is increasingly keen to openly engage with the wider engineering and science community within the UK and in doing so provide business opportunities to organisations that traditionally do not engage in defence.

Setting the scene

Within defence R&D, the current emphasis on Science and Technology (S&T) has its roots in the early to mid 20th century and particularly the First and Second World Wars. By that time, the physical sciences had made great leaps forward, including an understanding of electromagnetism, wave mechanics, atomic and molecular structures, the forces that bind matter together, quantum mechanics and relativity.

These scientific advances enabled new technologies to be developed and applied, for example in materials, precision manufacture, process control, high power electricity and electronics. These in turn enabled the inventors and innovators of the time to devise technologies of great military and civil significance, including radio communications, radar, the jet engine, stronger, lighter and more complex structures for aeroplanes, ship hulls and land vehicles.

These same scientific advances opened the doorway to space, both in terms of exploration and in the provision of satellites for communications, earth observation and navigation. The period also saw a dramatic growth in the understanding of biological systems, with a profound transformation in our knowledge of the microbiological world as well as of the human body and its functions.


A changing world

This greater understanding of science, linked to the ability to translate scientific understanding into new devices, systems and procedures, occurred at a time when warfare had reached global proportions in the form of inter-state war. Today the talk is much less of war and more of security threats.

There are threats of local instability leading to wider impact and the threat of global terrorism. There is also the looming impact of major changes in the earth’s climatic environment. In many respects the scope and nature of the threat to the UK and its interests are now more complex and diverse than in the past. This shift is likely to become more apparent, particularly as the increasing availability of powerful, low-cost technology means that adversaries will continue to adapt and adopt new technology within timescales that are short compared with those of the Cold War era.

The global consumer economy, stimulated in particular by information and communications technology, continues to have a profound impact on all aspects of society. A particularly important, widely available technology is the internet (interestingly a bi-product of defence research) and the world wide web, enabling access to information in a largely unregulated and uncontrolled manner.

Civil and Defence S&T

The easy access and affordability of technology enables a much greater range of threatening groups and individuals to achieve their desired effects. This is most clearly and dramatically evident in the case of the wide array of improvised explosive devices employed against the UK and its allies. Such devices often use adapted civil technology to detect their target or to be detonated.

Whilst civil sector S&T is without doubt a major contributor to insecurity and vulnerability and, as is described later, the response to it, defence-specific S&T is still highly important. Putting nuclear issues to one side; stealth, electronic warfare, sensors that operate effectively in the presence of high-power jamming, precision guided weapons, and armour protection at the individual and platform level are examples of the areas that have a strong defence-specific S&T component. Many nations are engaged in producing and proliferating military equipment of significant potency, equipment which via a variety of means appear in the inventories of those that our Armed Forces may one day have to face.

Defence-specific systems are often underpinned at least in part by civil technology (eg microelectronics, computers, displays, solid state devices, and novel materials). However, the complete system concept is very much defence driven, and would not have happened had it not been for a wish to achieve some form of military advantage against a potential enemy.

The role of Science and Technology in UK Defence

Defence R&D offers a range of intellectual, engineering, scientific and business opportunities at the high end of both challenge and reward. Whilst the MoD expenditure on defence R&D is dwarfed by that of the USA, at around £2.5 billion per annum (of which £0.5 billion is research), the UK’s funding is still far from insignificant.

Faced with an ever more complex security environment, the UK MoD is determined to use its resources to best effect. The Defence Industrial Strategy published in 2005 set out how the MoD intends to respond to the current and future environment and the implications for its relationship with industry in particular.

The following year the MoD published its Defence Technology Strategy in which it identified its priorities for R&D. In so doing, it described those areas of S&T where the UK believes it must have a depth and breadth of capability in order to achieve operational sovereignty, as well as those areas where it believes international research collaboration represents the most effective way ahead. Research on topics of direct relevance to interoperability are high priorities for international research collaboration.

Widening the net

The MoD will publish its Defence Technology Plan later in 2008 which will, for the first time, give a detailed view of its R&D priorities and intended budget for the various topics. Through this document and a variety of regular events to which the broad range of S&T providers will be invited, the MoD wants to encourage wider participation in its R&D programme.

To this end the MoD has already made significant steps towards wider engagement by launching its Competition of Ideas ( and a Grand Challenge ( – both aimed at stimulating interest particularly in organisations that are not traditionally part of the defence supply chain.

The MoD has also recently announced the launch of the Centre for Defence Enterprise, which aims to seek, assess and support proposals for innovative technology solutions that have potential to meet current and future operational requirements. This will be a further incentive for individuals, small and medium sized enterprises and academia to engage with the MoD and the established defence industry. The Centre for Defence Enterprise seeks to stimulate wider entrepreneurial interest in defence-related technology and attract private equity funds into the R&D programme and defence markets.

The Centre for Defence Enterprise will be on the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus, Oxfordshire, bringing together inventors, investors, entrepreneurs, and academics to incubate new businesses and technologies with defence applications. The MoD will directly support early stage proposals seeking initial seed or proof-of-concept funding to draw in private equity from ‘business angels’ for development and later venture capitalists for production and sales.

Examples of current research

Uninhabited Air Vehicles (UAVs) are an area where there is significant overlap between defence and civil needs, especially when considering the need for such air vehicles to have a degree of autonomy in their operation. For the civil sector, UAVs offer the potential for a range of roles such as firefighting where a human observer would be at risk, police observation of civil disturbances and scenes of crimes, and reconnaissance support in natural disasters.

In the military context, UAVs can provide quickly deployable sensor platforms to observe hostile areas, act as communications relay nodes, and perform as weapon-carrying platforms. A key feature of such systems is that they can be used where the task involves high levels of concentration for extended periods, where the area could be chemically or biologically contaminated or where the risk of successful hostile attack is relatively high. In such ‘dull, dirty or dangerous’ situations, an autonomous UAV is a highly attractive option.

The MoD has commissioned and conducted extensive research in this field. Figure1 is an extract from the draft Defence Technology Plan that shows the high-level roadmap for research in this area.

As can be seen from the Figure, the programme is extensive, and examination of the various elements (for example aerodynamics, hydrodynamics, communications and control, propulsion, power and energy management, algorithms and architectures) shows strong overlap between military and civil science and technology. In this single example, therefore, it can be seen where opportunities exist for researchers who have in the past operated outside of defence.

Pushing the boundaries

Long duration flight is an important requirement within the project both for surveillance and communication relay applications. One part of the research is focused on investigating the potential of extending range and/or endurance of autonomous vehicles using autonomous auto-soaring which is the opportunistic capture of energy from the atmosphere without human guidance.

Early work has been information-gathering and assessment of likely benefits and means of exploitation of auto-soaring. Work has now begun on assessment of means of predicting, sensing and exploiting atmospheric disturbances. Current effort is working towards a demonstration that will encompass the means to achieve a reliable prediction of atmospheric disturbance based on a suitable sensor suite and modelling capability.

Two days in the air

Another aspect of the programme is research of High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) UAVs. The Zephyr HALE UAV has recently achieved some key milestone successes. During recent trials it achieved an endurance of 54 hours‘ continuous flight at an altitude of nearly 20,000m and as such established an (albeit unofficial) world record for altitude and duration.

The key features of the trials are summarised in the box (see alongside). This research has pushed many elements of science and technology to new levels in such areas as systems engineering, aerodynamic design, propulsion, structures, materials, energy and power management, control, and communications to name but a few. Whilst the full potential of such capability continues to be explored, there can be little doubt that the achievement is highly significant.

At almost the other extreme of flight performance, the MoD is also researching the potential for hypersonic air vehicles. These vehicles would travel in excess of Mach 6 and offer potential in the field of new forms of aircraft, weapons to defeat enemy defences and as a potential means for low-cost access to space. The challenges are enormous and span a similar set to the HALE but operate in a completely different regime. Early work has been based on a Scramjet concept with the first UK flight successfully completed in March 2006.

Below the sea

The MoD is also making major advances in submarine design with the recent launch of HMS Astute, the first in class of the UK’s new nuclear attack submarine. Astute is able to circumnavigate the globe submerged carrying 38 torpedoes or cruise missiles, and is three times more densely packed with machinery than a surface ship. Astute is the world’s first nuclear submarine to be designed entirely by computer without physical models.

An innovation on HMS Astute, learnt from the American submarine-builder Electric Boat, was to build sections of the submarine vertically rather than horizontally. Equipment can be lowered in with the help of gravity, cutting the need for manpower dramatically. It is technologically advanced, with a nuclear reactor which will never need refuelling in the whole of its 25-year life. Built in Barrow, HMS Astute is the first of three Astute class submarines and was launched in 2007.

As the submarine can purify water and air, she will be able to circumnavigate the globe without resurfacing. Once she goes into operation in 2009, Astute will carry a 98-man crew and stay at sea for 12 weeks on routine patrol.

New partnerships encouraged

In a world where the defence challenges are increasingly more demanding and unpredictable than at any other time, new system concepts based on advanced science and technology will be critical for UK national security. The MoD is keen to open up its R&D programme so that it can benefit from the creativity and innovation that underpins the UK’s long track record of world class research.

This is an exciting opportunity for individual researchers and organisations not traditionally part of the defence community to both support national security and open a door to potential commercial benefit.

For more information, or to contact the MoD, go to

Biography – Professor Philip Sutton FREng

Philip Sutton’s early research activities in the MoD were in signal processing, this was the subject of his PhD thesis. He holds visiting Professorships from Cranfield University, Loughborough University and Imperial College London. His MoD appointments include Chief Scientist of the Above Water Sector of what was the Defence Research Agency, and Head of the Battlefield & Vehicle Systems Department, in the old Defence Evaluation and Research Agency. In June 2004 he was appointed to his current post of Director General S&T Strategy within the MoD, responsible for the MoD’s non-nuclear research programme. He was elected a Fellow of The Royal Academy of Engineering in 2006.

© British Crown Copyright 2008/MoD. Published with the permission of the Controller of Her Britannic Majesty’s Stationery Office.

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