The Ministry of Defence must fundamentally change the way it operates and come up with a “thorough and realistic” plan for bringing digital defence systems into the modern era, MPs have warned.
The Public Accounts Committee has urged the ministry to “quickly demonstrate new urgency and realism” to implement its digital strategy at the necessary scale and pace to be ready for challenges such as the current war in Ukraine.
But it said the department still does not have a sufficient delivery plan to do this.
The committee’s report on the defence digital strategy also raises concern about critical gaps in the department’s digital personnel and the need to upskill military and civilian staff.
PAC chair Meg Hillier said: “The MoD as it currently operates is frankly not up to the task it faces.
“The scale and nature of the challenge of modern warfare is accelerating away from the ministry, while it’s bogged down in critical projects that are years delayed and at risk of being obsolescent on delivery.”
The report outlines how the MoD has been struggling for years to deliver the major programmes necessary to replace over 2,000 systems and applications, ranging from administrative and back-office IT to military platforms such as ships and satellites – much of it outdated legacy systems.
PAC warns that rapid deployment and exploitation of new technology is vital to defence but critical IT projects are in trouble. In 2022, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority reported that two of the department’s six critical IT projects were “unachievable” and three had significant issues. However, only one of these systems – the MODNet Evolve programme – is now red rated, according to the MoD .
MPs have called on the department to“display a genuine sense of urgency to address these serious issues" and bring forward a "thorough, realistic and costed programme for doing so" in its next digital action plan, which is expected to be published in April.
Mark Francois, PAC’s lead member for the MoD, said: “The war in Ukraine brutally illustrates why we need advanced digital capabilities now, rather than many years from now. What more will it take for MoD to step up and acknowledge the procurement weaknesses which the PAC has, quite literally, been highlighting for decades now?
“The time for the usual MoD platitudes is over – we now need to see MoD radically reform its procedures, to provide equipment - including crucial digital systems – in a timely and cost-effective manner, before it’s too late.”
The National Audit Office said in October that the MoD's “historically poor reputation for project and programme delivery” is largely due to the substantial amount of legacy technology that needs to be replaced or updated.
The department’s digital strategy, published in 2021, set out how it wants to improve cybersecurity and modernise digitisation by 2025. The National Audit Office said in its review last autumn that the strategy is consistent with good practice but lacks a complete delivery plan to measure its progress.
PAC said the department will need to drive organisational and cultural change if it is to "get to grip with these large and pressing challenges and successfully deliver the objectives of its new strategy by 2025".
One of the big issues the MoD has, like many other departments, is a shortage of staff with specialist digital skills. The PAC report says the department struggles with the pay it can offer candidates, the location of some of its posts, and the extended security vetting times needed for new entrants, which in some instances can take over 200 days. This in turn hinders the ability of the department to deliver key digital programmes.
The department has identified the need for the right skills as a key factor in whether it will succeed or fail to achieve its goals by 2025, PAC said. These skills include data analysis, cyber advisory, artificial intelligence, service manager and project delivery skills.
It is trying to change how it recruits by rebranding itself as an innovative place to work with internal training opportunities, and by working differently with big technology companies and small and medium-size enterprises, the report adds.
“The department is positive about the impact this seems to be having and over the last 18 months reports meeting its target of recruiting 150 specialists,” PAC said. “However, it wants to double this number next year, an objective that will be difficult to achieve.”
The MoD has promised to report back to PAC in six months to outline the progress it has made in recruiting sufficient digitally-skilled personnel through recruitment and upskilling its current workforce.
A MoD spokesperson said: “Defence Digital’s improvement programme is a priority for the department, which is why we’re investing over £4 billion annually.
“We have made significant progress in delivering our IT projects, and following work in recent months only one of the six major digital programmes is rated red.
“Maximising digital capabilities and data is fundamental to success in military operations and the Committee recognises our strategy has the right priorities for achieving this.”