General Jim Hockenhull: Sharpening Defence’s Edge

Keynote speech at the Strategic Command annual conference on 25 April 2024

 General Jim Hockenhull delivering his keynote speech

Thank you very much for joining us here today. 

Today I really want to celebrate what we do in Strategic Command - some of which is not particularly well known. Some of it, sadly, we cannot show you, for reasons of operational security, but we are going to share with you some of our story - it is a story of success. 

I’m often confronted by stories about Defence which somewhat paint a sorrowful picture that it’s bereft with problems and challenges. Of course, there are issues that we know we need to address - but at the same time, what we are doing in Defence, and I would argue, particularly Strategic Command, is a range of remarkable things on behalf of our nation, in partnership with our international partners.  

We are leading Defence’s operations, whether that be the active command and control from the Permanent Joint Headquarters, or the operations of our special forces, or our defensive and offensive cyber operations, or the insight generated by Defence Intelligence.  

We enable Defence’s operations: through our overseas bases, our support and logistics, our medical services, and through our digital capability. We’re both leading and enabling. And we are at the cutting edge of delivery. 

In that context, we face a range of problematic threats and challenges. We are facing the most serious challenges that I have faced in my military career. But as the Chief of the Defence Staff wrote in a newspaper article earlier this week, the UK is safe.  

We are part of the NATO alliance, we deter our adversaries effectively - but we should recognise that we are under challenge. As the Defence Secretary has said previously we are now in a pre-war period. That means we need to be concentrating on how we think about our war fighting capability, to recapitalise that capability and to recognise that it is part of our deterrence to our adversaries. 

In order to war fight, we need what I would describe as the “licence to war fight”. That licence to war fight comes from doing the fundamentals. It means making sure our medical support is fit and capable to support the sorts of challenges we would face on a war fighting operation, including logistics and support. Support that is driven by our munitions strategy. Our strategic base and how we’re able to run our logistics and support is fundamental. That needs to be at a scale capable of supporting our war fighting capability, our digital enterprise, and our command and control needs to be fit, to be able to operate in that sort of contested environment, working with a range of international partners.  

Before we focus too much on new capabilities, and the new prospect of additional resource into Defence, we need to make sure we’re not just pursuing shiny things. We also need to do the fundamental things and get those properly set. We should recognise that it’s not all about the future and not all about warfighting because we continue to be tested every day, every hour of every day. 

Those contests with our adversaries are being led by individuals who are working in Strategic Command. We are going to hear later from our defensive cyber capability which is in contest with our competitors and our state and non-state adversaries on a daily basis. They are most engaged with our adversaries more often than anyone else in the UK Defence. It is a remarkable feat that many organisations across Strategic Command conduct and we should recognise the tempo that we are facing across Defence, but particularly in Strategic Command, in a global set of challenges, not just in Europe, but also in the Middle East, in Africa, and into the Far East. Of course, we also underpin that with our Global Defence Network, where our overseas bases and our network of Defence diplomats and loan service teams are fundamental to our operations, gaining our insight and supporting our ability to project Defence into the world and to work with our partners. 

Even against all those challenges, I really look forward with confidence. I’m optimistic about UK Defence and about what we do. And what drives that optimism is our remarkable people. Every day, I see the work of people in Strategic Command, and I am amazed at what they have achieved. We ask an incredible amount of our people - particularly of our young people who don’t have a great deal of experience, but they have a whole load of enthusiasm and energy and new ideas. If we can unleash those new ideas, which is what we seek to do in Strategic Command, then we can really succeed. Across the whole force - military, regular, reserve, civil service, contractors – I’m always amazed at the wholehearted dedication to the mission, and the selfless commitment in which they serve our nation, and they work with our partners. 

Strategic Command to me is also not just delivering those operations, but it’s at the cutting edge of Defence. We’ve heard that mentioned in remarks earlier around the Defence Artificial Intelligence Centre, or Commercial X, or our Special Forces, or our jHub Innovation Centre or our offensive and defensive cyber. 

I think Strategic Command is the most exciting bit of Defence to be part of, and it is certainly an amazing privilege to be in charge. Although I don’t really see myself in charge of anything - my job is to support, enable and empower those organisations to do the very best they can do. I believe we are a vanguard for Defence, we are at the cutting edge of Defence. And we do that not just for ourselves, we do that to make sure that we’re helping all of Defence to be all that it can be. 

I would encourage all of you - whether you are international partners, whether you’re from industry, or whether you’re from academia - to join us. It’s a really exciting and innovative and bright place to work. We will be better through those partnerships as a consequence of your engagement. We are doing everything we can to change ourselves; we are pursuing apprenticeships, different commercial frameworks, and bursaries for digital students sixth formers thinking about careers into Defence to work in digital and cyber. 

We will make some mistakes, we will get some things right. But we intend to push the boundary. And I want your support to help you do so. 

I have spoken a little bit about the impact that we’re having. And it’s very easy at times to overlook Strategic Command because we’re young. That is an advantage as well as a challenge. We don’t have that historical strength and we’re not immediately in the forefront of people’s minds, but I’m okay with that. Because actually, it’s about impact and it’s about delivery. It’s about what we do and how we support. 

It’s not about trying to make it about us. It’s about all of us - not just about Strategic Command, but all of us in Defence. It’s all of us in our nation. It’s all of us in our international partnerships. 

We are Defence’s essential foundations, and we help provide a significant part but by no means all of its operational edge. That’s why I think we can help sharpen Defence’s edge. We are constantly globally engaged. We are confronting adversaries every day. But we don’t do that alone. We do that in partnership and I’m really gratified to see many of our international partners here today, because partnerships are vital to win. None of us can win the conflicts that we either engage with, or the competition that we’re facing at the moment, or the fights that we might see in the future - none of us can do that alone. 

Even if we could do it alone, it won’t just be a military thing. It’s a whole nation thing. And it is all of our nations. That’s our superpower - being integrated and working together, whereas our adversaries are mainly alone. We are starting to see our adversaries coalescing together a bit more, and providing an even more intersectional threat than we might have seen in the past. But our strength is coming together as one. But in order to do that, there is a lot of hard work that needs to be done to make sure that we can come together. 

That partnership isn’t just with our fellow military, that partnership must be with industry as well. That’s why procurement reform is so fundamental to this. As the Minister said, there have been lots of attempts at this before. But what is different this time is this is Ministerially directed and driven. This is not the process of the bureaucratic mass of the Ministry of Defence coming together to come up with a messy compromise with which we can all equally disagree, and therefore we’re all equally uncomfortable. This is different and the differences can already be seen. I’m already starting to see the impact in how people are approaching decisions.  

It is forcing us to work in a more integrated way. But that’s not just about authorities. It is about how we get the right outcomes and how we make sure we’re getting the right achievements. Crucially, it is about how we do this at pace. If Ukraine has taught us anything, it is that the world is software defined, and that our future is software defined. 

It has also taught us that we must go faster. We cannot afford to work at the pace that we’ve become bureaucratically used to, we must work at the pace of relevance. The pace of relevance is an equation about how fast our adversaries are moving. It’s not about whether we are 20% better in two years, and 50% better in five years. That metric doesn’t matter. It is about how we measure up against our adversaries. Are we in a position to win and prevail either in those competitions in the grey zone, or if we end up in a war. How do we make sure that we’re able to prevail, and in order to guarantee that for our nations – we must move faster.  

Moving faster will mean taking more risks. We should recognise that taking more risk is something we need to get more comfortable with. We are brilliant at managing risk on operations. When we go on operations, calculating the risk that we’re going to take and that we’re exposing our people works well. But when it comes to almost every other type of risk, we are terrible. We need to get better at understanding how we are going to take risk and how we’re going to acquire our capabilities. How are we going to think about the future?  

We used to have urgent operational requirements in our campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan – and we were really comfortable in changing our pace. We must recognise that it is pace that we need to drive into our model at the moment. That will mean accepting high levels of risk and moving more quickly. You won’t get certainty. At the moment, we end up driving for certainty – but we don’t deliver that and we do it too slowly.  

Now our role is to make the Integration Design Authority as effective as it can possibly be. We want to ensure that we have integrated force development across UK Defence and we want to do that with our allies and partners. That’s not to say to the single Services that we want to take over force development from the Services - I want the Services to do that – but to do it in a much more integrated way.  

We must then use the Integration Design Authority to help drive Defence into the right place. The Integration Design Authority is not going to be a small team of people inside Strategic Command Headquarters, it is going to be the headquarters of Strategic Command. 

We will go from our thinking, to our planning of what capabilities we need, to how we’re campaigning in an integrated way. So that is the headquarters of Strategic Command. Then with the organisations that sit in Strategic Command, we can execute, in partnership with the single Services and in partnership with our international partners.  

Crucially, we can’t do this alone, this needs to have a different relationship with industry. We need to shift the idea of the boundary of national security. Instead of having a national security boundary, which is the government, the agencies, the military, and our international allies, we need to expand that boundary to include industry too.  

In national security, nations win wars, not the military. Our technological edge is not going to be provided inside Defence. That technological edge is going to come from industry. We need to recognise that a superpower against our adversaries is our international partnerships - but we must harness Western technology in a way that super powers our ability to operate. 

I hope that what we will see from the Defence Innovation Agency announced earlier in the week will be an ability for Defence to invest with industry, to partner with you to share how we can actually generate and leverage your innovation, making sure that we’re reaching out beyond just the primes (but not ignoring the primes) to make sure that we see small and medium sized enterprises so we can harness those amazing, brilliant ideas. We must then work with people to be able to scale those and use the new Integrated Procurement Model to make sure that we can cross that valley of death between innovation and getting it into the core programme.  

That is a fundamental challenge for all of us and that is where I see the Integration Design Authority working with the new Innovation Agency to pull that together. I am confident about our future, but we need to prepare for our greatest challenges. Potentially, the greatest challenge is many of us have not confronted these sorts of challenges in our lifetime. 

We need to work out how we’re going to take those challenges on, but we need to deter our adversaries, and we need to be organised to constantly compete and operate and contest our global challenges. I’m enormously confident about our ability to do so - partly because of the remarkable people that we have, and partly because there’s opportunity with our international partners where there is a greater coherence driven by events that we’ve seen around the world. In Britain, I see greater coherence with our international partners than ever before. This is also partly because of the remarkable opportunity there is in technology, and what is and will be possible. We are trying to organise ourselves to make better use of all of that. We need to find a way to make it easier for industry to partner with us to enable us to be the different type of force that we need to be for the future. It is a software defined future. 

It is a future defined by all partnerships. I am super grateful for all of you coming here today.

From: Strategic Command and General Sir Jim Hockenhull KBE ADC Gen