Lorenz Lehmhaus, an independent defence innovation advisor, argues that large prime contractors in the EW world must do more to harness innovations developed by small and medium sized enterprises.
Innovation surrounds us in the Electronic Warfare (EW) domain. Traditionally, large prime contractors have led major programmes of record, however Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) are increasingly entering the domain to make a name for themselves. Although, these SMEs often perform ground-breaking work, they can still struggle to gain the attention of primes, armed forces and procurement authorities: “Innovative SMEs find it difficult to garner attention from larger primes and governments/armed forces as the latter two are characterised by extremely high entry barriers such as security clearances, high capital requirements, lengthy contract cycles, overly complicated acquisition processes, and a general culture of risk aversion,” remarks Mr. Lehmhaus: “These factors apply to the defence ecosystem in general, but even more so to the EW domain.”
The news is not all bad. While gaining such recognition may seem an insurmountable obstacle for some SMEs which may lack the human and financial capital to this end, help is at hand: “The first steps to lower these barriers have already been taken by a handful of defence ministries which have created defence innovation units. Examples include the German armed forces’ Cyber Innovation Hub, the US Department of Defence’ Defence Innovation Unit, the US Air Force’s AFWERX initiative, the SOFWERX programme of the US special forces community and the Israeli Air Force’s Accelerator project,” says Mr. Lehmhaus. These initiatives can act as a direct collaboration vehicle between the armed forces and SMEs providing rapid solutions to the real problems operators discover in the field. This cuts through the typical red tape that can hold back innovation. While Mr. Lehmhaus observes that such initiatives have had an impact in the Artificial Intelligence (AI) and unmanned systems communities, the attention which these programmes have thus far placed on EW remains marginal.
He stresses that in addition to governments taking a proactive role, larger prime contractors must do their part in absorbing potentially disruptive technologies into their own product and service offerings: “Only when having re-organized their internal structures will they be able to absorb and scale disruptive technologies developed by SMEs,” Mr. Lehmhaus cautions. “Defence companies must review their core capabilities at regular intervals; evaluate the current market and technology environment and react accordingly to future developments at an early stage by further developing their corporate strategy.”
The emergence of new technologies such as the Internet of things (IoT), AI and machine learning (ML) have transitioned EW from classical platform protection “to include wider operational considerations, especially when talking about cyber attacks in combination with other techniques like GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System) spoofing and cellphone interceptions.” EW, Mr. Lehmhaus argues, has become one of the most, if not the most important domains in modern warfare: “The speed with which new technologies have emerged have put great strains on the militaries as well as incumbent defence primes as both struggle to absorb new technologies in their daily operations.”
As a result, he argues that “the companies leading in new technology fields are not the large primes that regard EW as a niche business, but SMEs that are accustomed to these new technologies which represent their core business.” Mr. Lehmhaus continues that “if larger primes want to benefit from the innovations realised by the SMEs whose actual core business is EW, they must engage in projects with the latter.” Taking a cue from elsewhere in the technology world, he stresses the importance of developing a ‘start-up’ culture in the EW domain, by which larger companies can harness the innovations of SMEs and help bring these to market: “The most important step in developing a start-up culture within EW is the realisation that emerging technologies are transforming the domain in such a way that the larger firms will not be able to do everything by themselves. This means that the domain has to open up and consider non-traditional players as a necessary resource.” He sees good potential for such a culture to develop: “The EW domain has the potential for a good start-up culture as it is being transformed by new and disruptive technologies such as cyber, AI/ML and the IOT. As these technologies are being driven by innovative and agile SMEs outside the classic military ecosystem, primes in the EW domain have the chance to benefit by engaging the former to improve future and legacy systems.”