UK procurement is too glacial to bring AI into defense, MPs told
Projects take so long that tech is out of date before it enters service, industry says
The UK's procurement processes are not fit to bring AI into the nation's military capabilities, lawmakers heard at a parliamentary hearing.
Speaking to the AI in Weapon Systems Committee late last week, Andrew Kinniburgh, director-general for defense within manufacturers' association Make UK, said existing procurement procedures were not capable of dealing with the rapid pace of AI development.
While Make UK acts for 23,000 companies, its defense subdivision represents about 400, which includes many SMEs that struggle to gain access to armed forces equipment and technology spending. The budget for equipment procurement and support is expected to reach £242 billion ($296 billion) over the next 10 years.
"The temperature that I've taken with our members and with other contacts shows that defense procurement in the UK is hopelessly outdated for the world of AI," he said. "It moves in – if you're very lucky – months, but regularly it take years of procurement, by which point AI has moved on immeasurably. It just simply isn't fit for purpose."
The largest strategic defense suppliers to the UK – BAE Systems, Babcock and Raytheon Systems – could be "quite slow and cumbersome" in response to procurement, Kinniburgh said.
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The Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA), a Ministry of Defence unit that finds and funds new technologies, was "much more nimble and more able to bring companies in quickly into the defense supply chain and to work more dynamically." The development of defense AI needs this kind of support in the UK, Kinniburgh said.
Earlier this month, DASA announced the first two SMEs to receive funding through its Defence Technology Exploitation Programme. Filtronic Broadband and ISS Aerospace got half of the project value in order to work with a larger supplier to develop new systems. The total program value is expected to be £16 million ($19.5 million).
Kinniburgh said: "The way that the market is structured at the moment is the big companies tend to grab the big lumps of money, and the little bits that fall from the table are where the SMEs kick in. [There are] a number of SMEs who are doing some really innovative things, and that's where DASA comes in."
However, he pointed out that the frontline commands of the Navy, Army, Royal Air Force, and UK Strategic Command have their own innovation units, which are "largely impenetrable" to SMEs.
"They don't seem to have a front door, and that's a great concern for me. The frontline commands are not spending huge amounts of money, but they're spending significant bits of money in AI and other kinds of leading-edge technologies, and the SMEs can't get in there," Kinniburgh told the House of Lords Committee. ®