Staying Live

Richard Powell, QinetiQ’s Head of Strategic Engagement for the Maritime sector, explains the rising value of live testing in an increasingly digitised defence environment.

Information has been at the centre of naval strategy since the dawn of maritime warfare. And although it was limited at that time to identifying who was coming over the horizon, if you could detect the enemy before they detected you, you still held the information, and therefore the combat advantage.

Having been involved in naval warfighting strategy for over 35 years, I can see how the principle of information advantage hasn’t changed a great deal. We’re just working on a scale of such unprecedented magnitude today that the challenge of achieving that advantage is far more complex. The tools to address this complexity are emerging and improvements in data storage, computing power, and the development of more powerful algorithms are all allowing us to collect more data, process it faster, and evaluate it in more novel ways. As a result, meeting the information advantage challenge has become integrated into the majority of the navy’s functions.

One of the most significant reasons why information advantage has become such a driver for naval capability generation is the growing use of advanced intelligent technology for information warfare. From novel sensor technology, to unmanned underwater vehicles, and machine learning systems, the emerging technology we are beginning to deploy represents our best opportunity to step ahead of adversaries by understanding more about them and their operations. But whilst the impact on our ability to generate an advantage is positive, these technologies could become a double-edged sword. They often rely on the presence of vast quantities of data – data that holds the key to both attaining and losing an information advantage if our adversaries become equally capable of using it against us. Today, the risk of cyber-attacks against our ships and submarines is as real a threat as traditional weaponry. Ensuring the exploitation of information can become a force multiplier, rather than a route to greater risk, is paramount.

To do that we must understand how emerging technologies generate data, appreciate how they can be used in practice, and determine how to protect them from compromise in real-world situations. As we move to a more digitised, data-driven defence age where our adversaries are already exploiting the potential of information warfare, we need to put these technologies into accurate scenarios to generate the confidence required for assured deployment.

It would be reasonable to expect that testing and evaluating emerging, intelligent technology requires an equally advanced testing process – revolving around synthetic test environments, virtual and augmented reality, and complex AI-driven simulations. In fact, the need for live/physical testing remains high. The paradox that more digital options for defence requires more physical testing becomes easier to understand when you pull apart the rationale behind live exercises such as INFORMATION WARRIOR – taking place at QinetiQ’s Portsdown Technology Park and with a range of warships at sea at the end of April – will support the demonstration and development of information warfare technologies in practice.

In this article, jointly developed by QinetiQ and the Royal Navy, we explore the reasons why live testing remains such a critical part of building current and future defence capability.

1) Obtaining a single version of the truth in a real environment. Simulations and synthetics offer huge potential due to their ability to rapidly represent multiple scenarios and adjust a vast range of variables for accurate test. But they cannot yet simulate every detail. The combination of both live and synthetic delivers a layer of accuracy that enables us to build a clearer picture of what to expect when we deploy information warfare technologies in active environments.

That single version of the truth better equips decision-makers to take a decision whilst minimising unintended consequences. It also allows us to test the flow of data to ensure it will connect the originator with its destination, enabling assessment of multiple mechanisms, including artificial intelligence and machine learning. These are designed to help present the necessary information to that decision-maker whilst minimising excess data, bringing rapid clarity to a potentially busy information environment.

But the things that cannot yet be simulated are human emotion, military judgement and the assessment of human (adversary) intent. This is currently the boundary between the decisions that can be outsourced to automation and those that remain within the realm of people. In time, as we gain more trust in machines’ ability to reflect human judgement, this boundary may shift. But until that time events such as INFORMATION WARRIOR will focus on the provision of support to that decisionmaker and not, in all aspects, try to replace them.

For Commodore Annett, under whose remit INFORMATION WARRIOR is being delivered, the key determinant for continuing to undertake live exercises is the ability to accurately test end-to-end services.

We need to use live bearers such as SatCom services routed though Modems sharing other information services, and drawing on real time data from physically separated nodes and hubs. Delivering all this in a disconnected, low bandwidth environment with the added human operator dimension is representative of our real world scenario and is why we test in a physical domain. By doing this in the context of running cyber defence across an entire platform rather than within a discrete system, it is incredibly difficult to simulate or emulate. Although successfully achieving that in the future could offer us greater opportunities to exploit the rapid development of applications and software.”

2) Optimising the use of emerging technology through data. Understanding how information warfare technology works in a live environment creates a critical understanding about practical performance. Live tests and simulated tests generate different types of data and different granularity of data. The combination of the two, particularly on an open architecture that enables greater integration of industry applications, software and hardware, enhances the intelligence picture and helps refine and optimise the way in which the technology is deployed to ensure maximum effect.

In terms of the information environment, we have to win the fight to get to the fight,” explains Commodore Annett. “We can draw on countless examples through history where the technology has existed but the incorporation of it into everyday tactics has been slower. The introduction of radio communications was available at the Battle of Jutland in 1916 but Royal Navy tactics still centred on flag hoists as a means of disseminating orders. To win in the information environment it is essential we develop a proven and optimised capability before we turn up to demonstrate presence, deter, and act in the physical domains.”

If today’s Royal Navy and broader defence community is to exploit the technology that underpins information warfare in a timeframe cognisant of its rapid evolution, then it needs to be adopted by the frontline in a similarly rapid timeframe. Live tests with frontline users will help deliver this outcome.

3) Accelerating valuable technology’s movement through TRLs. Many of the emerging technologies being considered as part of an information warfare capability are still relatively conceptual. They are not mature technologies and remain at low levels of technology readiness. Live testing in real-world situations where these systems will need to deliver an information advantage has the power to accelerate immature technologies’ move up to higher technology readiness levels (TRLs).

Information warfare brings with it a radical approach to acquisition of capability,” explains Commodore Annett. “Testing early in a live environment allows us to accelerate technology in order to retain information advantage over our adversaries. By blending the power of data-driven live and synthetic exercises we can avoid a scenario where the very process of making a technology ready for deployment renders it out of date by the time it’s available for use. This also allows us to confirm that what is being developed is of continued use to the end-user, be that decision-maker, military planner, engineer or analyst.

4) An ability to assess skills gaps in real-world environments. One of the greatest information warfare challenges is finding the people competent to deliver an operational capability at a level of skill that can achieve true advantage. There is a reliance on people with the knowledge and skills to operate the technology, and the natural aptitudes to maximise its potential. This type of exercise allows an assessment of the skills required by people and those that can (or will) be done by a machine, thereby ensuring that recruitment and training can be focused.


As the exploitation of digital technology in defence continues at a pace, the demand for live exercises and testing is increasing as it becomes clear that the blend of live and synthetic data sources is critical for developing and delivering national warfighting capabilities.

INFORMATION WARRIOR is a clear demonstration of this in practice. As the Information Warfare Division’s stocktake on progress along the critical path to success, it is helping to ensure all elements of enablers, information exploitation and offensive/defensive effects are being developed coherently. It is also enabling the Royal Navy to update desk officers with the technical assumptions and associated timeframes that they should be using when undertaking capability development. If our forces are to truly develop capabilities that assure our information advantage, then the floorplates and user communities also need to be aware of what is possible. Otherwise there is a risk that our aspirations are limited to our existing technical understanding.

But in Commodore Annett’s view, the benefits run far beyond the technology alone. “We also have to consider the human interface. Getting rapid feedback in a live environment helps us immensely. It enables us to fail fast if we need to and move on quickly. By bringing such experimentation and rapid acceleration of capability into warfighting platforms we also start to change the culture of the organisation which is, for me, the biggest challenge to overcome. We need to move away from a focus of acquiring expensive physical architecture, to securing decisive software and applications, and the ability to coherently store and process as much data as we can possibly gather. Testing this in a real environment is an essential step in maintaining our advantage in an increasingly contested, congested and competed space.”

Richard Powell

Building on a 37-year career in the Royal Navy, Richard Powell joined QinetiQ to lead its Carrier Enabled Power Projection campaign and is now the company’s Head of Strategic Engagement for the maritime sector. He is responsible for relationship management with defence and industry in the maritime domain. He has served in the Falklands, the Balkans, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In 2009 he was awarded an OBE for his work overseeing the acceptance of the brand new Type 45 Destroyer HMS Dauntless into operational service.

Commodore Ian Annett

Ian Annett joined the Royal Navy in 1984 and has since served on HMS Glamorgan, HMS York, HMS Edinburgh, and HMS Illustrious as well as holding several staff appointments, including: the Ministry of Defence Central Staff in the Directorate of Naval Operations; the Military Assistant to the Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (Commitments); and appointment to the Defence Staff in Washington DC as the Embassy’s Maritime C4ISR Desk Officer.

On promotion to Captain he joined Navy Command HQ’s Information Superiority Division with a mandate for the delivery and force generation of C4ISR capability, as well as chairmanship of the NATO maritime communications capability team. He joined Joint Forces Command as the Head of Fixed Services for C4ISR in 2015, responsible for the UK’s future military satellite programme, Skynet 6, and replacement of the MOD’s fixed ICT infrastructure.

In his current appointment as Assistant Chief of Staff (Information Warfare) and Navy Chief Information Officer, he holds responsibility for the development, delivery, generation and support of all RN C5ISR, including satellite communications, networks, cyber and Electronic Warfare. He is the UK representative to the AUSCANNZUKUS maritime C4 board and is head of profession for the CIS branch as the Chief Naval Signals Officer.