Chief of Defence Intelligence RUSI webinar May 2023

Chief of Defence Intelligence, Adrian Bird, delivered a speech to members of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) on Reappraising UK Defence Intelligence Priorities

I’m very grateful to RUSI for the invitation to speak at this Members’ Event on the topic of ‘Reappraising UK Defence Intelligence Priorities’.

This is a live and pressing topic for me as CDI, both as we work in Defence towards the publication of the refreshed Defence Command Paper, and as I look at the posture and focus of Defence Intelligence - in a world which seems to be moving quickly from the previously prevailing priority national security challenge, of global terrorism, to a more contested world, where state actors are dominating the agenda against a backdrop of economic volatility, continued rapid technological advances, and the global challenge of sustainability and climate.

I would propose today to talk about how we in Defence Intelligence see the threat landscape into the future, and then share my vision for DI - how we will evolve and transform to play our part in keeping the UK safe and prosperous.

The UK faces a complex and increasingly interconnected range of threats over the next two decades. I would summarise the underlying themes as being about instability and competition; and the impact of rapidly accelerating technological advances.

We think it is likely that over the next few years, states will be forced more into strategic competition as shared values become less important than meeting a basic yet broad set of national security requirements for their populations, thus making relationships increasingly transactional. This will include states prioritising increased resilience and self-sufficiency in the supply of energy and food and raw materials; as well as a renewed focus on human, environmental and health security within and beyond their borders. Greater instability will increase flows of migration, fuelling humanitarian and public health crises. In all this, competition risks turning to confrontation.

The violent extremist organisations of the future will also be moulded by these forces. Where governments struggle to meet the basic needs of their populations, cross-regional non-state actors will gain in following and capability, potentially threatening UK forces and our interests around the globe and at home.

Although the UK’s non-discretionary security priority must be our home region of the Euro-Atlantic, and here we assess that Russia will remain the greatest threat to the UK mainland out to 2030, it is also increasingly clear that the security of Europe is indivisible from that of the wider world – whether as the result of state activity, climate change, or global health concerns. We also have responsibilities as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. The 2021 Integrated Review set the United Kingdom the goal of establishing the broadest and most integrated presence in the Indo-Pacific of any European nation, building on our many historic and contemporary ties, and driven by our economic ambition as the world’s 6th largest economy.

Just as our closest allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region, - Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the Republic of Korea and Singapore – have all taken steps to counter Russia’s destabilising influence in Europe and support Ukraine, so the UK must be alive to the challenges being presented by China. China will compete more directly with the UK across our areas of interest and will be capable of disrupting supplies of key technologies and materials such as microprocessors, semiconductors and rare earth elements, its military, intelligence, space and cyber capabilities posing increasing threat. Within this world of increasing competition, we assess that China will present the greatest challenge to the UK’s overseas interests and economic security in 2030.

My second theme is technology. The pace of technological change will allow our adversaries and competitors to achieve a rapid evolution in their capability to challenge the UK and our interests and we must keep pace.

The continued development of advanced weapons systems will challenge us. And unlike in previous decades, we cannot expect advanced militaries to maintain a monopoly on the use of these advanced systems. Commercially available technology will provide future adversaries with increasing access to cheaper, potentially lighter and stealthier capabilities which, when deployed in greater mass, will present credible threats.

Technology will also revolutionise the enabling functions that allow militaries to fight. Artificial intelligence will represent a step-change in how state and non-state actors collect and analyse data, and develop capabilities. Quantum computing and sensing has the potential for radical transformation. These technologies will widen and accelerate militaries’ understanding of the battlefield and drive faster decision making in future conflicts. This race has already begun, and China has stated its aspiration to be a world leader in quantum technologies and AI by 2030. Autonomous capabilities – enabled by advances in AI and quantum computing - will become increasingly present on the battlefield. These all have the potential to change the shape of future conflicts and transform the role of people in warfare.

Technology will also transform and increase the importance of competition in the information environment, shaping how governments and citizens understand, support and resource future conflicts. This trend has already been demonstrated by the global use of information and intelligence to shape public perceptions during the conflict in Ukraine. The trend will continue as the digital world provides new opportunities to confuse, mislead and deceive public perception, potentially undermining a state’s will and ability to fight.

With these factors on the horizon, the UK should not assume we will have an overriding technological advantage in future conflicts. But there are other aspects of advantage, for example a nation’s ability to deliver fighting power through its conduct and sustainment of joint operations. Russia has collided with this reality during its invasion of Ukraine. Even as new technologies become available, rising to the age-old challenge of inspiring the will to fight, and commanding, controlling, and communicating with our own forces, and those of our allies, will remain an ever-present necessity.

So against this backdrop, what is the role of Defence Intelligence?

DI is Defence’s Intelligence organisation. We undertake the full range of activities that intelligence organisations are engaged in: we provide foundational data; we collect, process and analyse intelligence; we provide all-source assessment and forecasting; and we run operations, for example counter-intelligence operations and intelligence diplomacy. We have world-class people and capabilities.

I am very focused on the profession of intelligence, where ‘intelligence’ refers to, we hope reliable, information that is not generally known and which can give us an information advantage over an adversary. Secret Intelligence is so called when the intelligence relies upon sources and methods that are kept secret because of their importance and often their fragility, or because the intelligence itself requires it to be kept a secret for it to be useful (for example, if the adversary knows you know, they will change their plans and your plan would fail, so you should keep what you know a secret).

Sometimes, and increasingly often, good Open-Source Intelligence, OSINT - data derived from available information that is used to support the generation of intelligence, or is intelligence in its own right - can be all that is needed to answer the questions that need answering. But not always. And that is where the other -INTs come in; for example, intelligence derived from human agents (HUMINT), from interception of communications (SIGINT), or from imagery (IMINT). These capabilities can complete the picture and provide higher confidence as to what is really going on. DI is engaged in all these disciplines.

We are also engaged in all-source assessment and forecasting. Not just answering the question of what is going on, but assessing the significance of what is going on, and providing a judgement on what could happen next.

I am thinking deeply about what Defence Intelligence needs to do to get ahead, and the two crucial elements to that in my view are the development of our technical capabilities, and, arguably more importantly, the development of our people and partnerships. You will all understand that investment in technical capabilities, particularly in big data handling and processing, and machine learning and artificial intelligence, is a core part of us continuing to be a world class organisation in the future. This requires Defence to invest in capabilities that enable us to obtain and exploit information at speed and fidelity to give us an advantage over our rivals.

Central to our thinking in this area is the development of a data analytics ecosystem, which is able to ingest and store data from a variety of sources and to apply cutting edge data analytics and visualisation techniques. It should also have the necessary processing and algorithmic capability to support the automation of the intelligence requirements and processing cycle and of our collection management capabilities. The focus of this work is to provide a point of coherence for all of Defence’s future intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) related programmes. At the moment, our ability to collect data risks overmatching the ability of our analysts to analyse and exploit it at the speed we need to. We expect that machine learning, and then artificial intelligence, will greatly speed that process.

As for our people, we need to recruit and retain a truly diverse workforce, working in a culture that is about technical and analytical problem solving in teams and with partners. A key to that is through really focusing on inclusion.

An inclusive workplace describes one in which people feel safe to innovate, challenge and bring diverse perspectives and ideas to bear for everyone’s benefit. As an intelligence professional I believe in high professional standards, high psychological safety, a learning/growth mindset, collaborative leadership and, crucially, inclusion, all of which allow for innovation, transformation, and staying one step ahead of our adversaries. Oh, and by attending to these things, we also create a much more engaging, rewarding and fun workplace too. Hence my personal motto, stolen shamelessly from the 1989 film ‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure’, is: ‘Be Excellent to Each Other’.

So my priorities in support of our mission, against this backdrop of increasing global competition and technological acceleration, are focusing on our people and culture, on collaborative leadership and being an indispensable partner within Defence, within the UK National Security community, and internationally, and on investing in the tools and capabilities that will keep us ahead of the game.

I’d now be delighted to take questions.

Ministry of Defence