It may not be a company one immediately associates with low-observable aircraft design, but QinetiQ evidently knows a thing or two about stealth. During DSEI last week the company's headline announcement was the launch of a new report entitled ‘Powering The Electric Battlespace,’ which provides a deep immersion in the wider context for a raft of projects the firm is pursuing. But there is another agenda item that the initiative hints at, if not explicitly.
"When you look at how armies operate, one of the key issues is they've become a lot more power-hungry," says Iain Harrison, a former British Army officer who is now Strategic Engagement Director with QinetiQ. "Whether it's the dismounted soldier or the tracked and wheeled combat systems, right up to the whole command-and-control and ISTAR enterprise, it seemed really obvious to try to bring the work [QinetiQ] are doing on power systems together with the story we're telling about what more we can do for armies. The underpinning philosophy we've been peddling - I would argue with some success now - is for armies to adopt the notion of prototype warfare."
As Harrison explains it, the ‘prototype warfare’ concept means encouraging militaries to spend less time and money on ‘big buys’ of large sets of highly-developed capabilities and to balance major programmes with faster procurement of in-progress kit, assess its potential quickly and, in the process, perhaps ensure that new technological developments make it to the front lines in a more responsive timeframe. The company's involvement in British Ministry of Defence (MoD) projects, such as the Unmanned Warrior and Autonomous Warrior demonstrations, underlines the validity of the approach - these exercises allow military users to get hands-on experience with equipment that manufacturers may only be part way through developing; early engagement benefits industry as much as the user, allowing nascent customer experience to influence subsequent design changes.
But to make the most of this ambition, what QinetiQ is really arguing for is a total overhaul in both the mechanisms and the mindset of the military procurement machine. Customers will need to streamline their purchasing processes, and industry is going to have to learn to trust their military end users to see the potential in prototype systems. This will neither be quick nor easy, but if militaries and their suppliers can get it right, the up side could be considerable.
"It's about collaboration and commercials," Harrison says. "It's not just a simple, 'The army needs to tell us more.' Collaboration works two or three ways. Better customer-industry collaboration is absolutely fundamental; you've heard a lot about that at this conference, and elsewhere, but I think industry still needs to see proof of that beyond Powerpoint slides and noble words. Another layer is industry-to-industry collaboration. And then, as well as getting the standard tendering, bidding and contract stuff right, there needs to be commercial innovation too. Some of this will need to be done in a spiral or developmental approach, so what's the commercial construct that's going to be in place for that?"
The land domain iteration of Autonomous Warrior, which took place late last year, has helped bring some of these ideas into focus, Harrison argues.
"Industry, engineers and front-line soldiers came together with some prototype equipment, kicked them around on Salisbury Plain for two or three weeks, and at the end of it you'd accelerated development of a bunch of ideas, and put them in the hands of soldiers who went: 'Wow - this is going to change the way we're doing warfare'," he says. "That became a catalyst for a change conversation about how do we fast-track some of these prototype capabilities into service - and, therefore, how do we adjust or change the commercials? It's still a little bit lumpy, but we're just starting to see some evidence from the British Army doing small-scale equipment buys, and starting to do something a bit different."