BLOG: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times
07 Feb 12 | By Tim Mahon
The headline is not simply a tortuous means of inviting our readers to celebrate the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens: it was inspired by reading the executive summary of the latest White Paper from the United Kingdom Ministry of Defence (MoD).
Nor is it an unsubtle poke at the MoD. There is some real strength in the White Paper and an obvious desire to streamline, simplify and transform procurement for major platform acquisition programmes, which have been the subject of widespread criticism (not all of which has been particularly well-informed) for longer than I care to remember. We expect shortly to have some official input on the subjects covered by the paper, in so far as they concern training and simulation, to which we will be happy to give as wide an audience as possible through this Forum.
But there is a question left hanging – at least for me – that resonates with an issue of increasing concern, I believe, for our training and simulation community. Technology is an enabler; it’s often expensive and difficult to integrate with the pragmatic issues surrounding legacy systems, so government quite rightly focuses a lot of planning and management effort on ensuring we have the right technology in the right place at the right time, capable of doing what it actually says on the tin. Do we pay an equal amount of attention, I wonder, to ensuring we have the right people, adequately trained and at the right time, to employ that technology to its best effect?
In the 1970s I worked for what was then a fairly good sized engineering company, the Dowty Group. We were buying a fancy horizontal injection moulding machine at the thick end of a million pounds (I did say the 1970s, didn’t I?) and thousands of man hours of senior management time went into planning what to do with it and how to optimise the investment. Only after it was delivered was any attention at all paid to how we were going to man it, and how the operating personnel would be trained to make it work as the planners envisaged. We spent less time considering the effective management of our greatest (and most expensive) asset – people – than we did on optimising use of the million pound investment.
The White Paper’s title carries an interesting message in it in a word (deliberately?) used twice. "National Security Through Technology: Technology, Equipment and Support for UK Defence and Security.” Coming on the heels of the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, it is a powerful document and espouses laudable ambitions. Among them are true open competition, on both domestic and global scales, a trend towards greater off-the-shelf procurement and a recognition of the imperatives of sustainability and maintenance of sovereign capability. Procurement, say the paper’s authors, "has a significant industrial and economic impact….The Government has a vital role in supporting UK-based industry to succeed in a competitive global marketplace.”
So far, so good. It is difficult to argue against any of the philosophy espoused by the paper to this point. There are well-founded arguments that technology can make a difference and that training and simulation – which is certainly not ignored – is an enabler to which further attention needs to be paid. Which is a welcome admission.
My concern, though, is that our security – and, by implication, the future of the British training and simulation community – is perhaps being considered as a construct that will be enhanced and improved through technology, and through technology alone. Perhaps I am being overly sensitive – but such sensitivity does, at least, create enough debate to ensure we don’t lose sight of ensuring that it is people we train – and people have human needs, not all of which can be addressed through technology alone.
To quote direct from the training part of the White Paper, "We are continuing to look at the increased use of modern synthetic training techniques and readily available simulation technologies across all training for the Armed Forces, from new entrants through to operational theatre training. We are clear that this will not be at the expense of conducting necessary live training, which prepares the Armed Forces for combat and operational roles, but there are significant benefits: improving operational effectiveness because the Armed Forces have the opportunity to train in a safe and realistic environment, when and where they need to, with the same equipment they will use in theatre; and driving cost-effectiveness because synthetic training means that we will often require less equipment to be dedicated to training.” (The emphasis inserted by TSF, not contained in the original text).
It is, indeed, good to know that increased use of simulation will not be at the expense of ‘necessary’ live training. But how are we evaluating how ‘necessary’ live training is? Simulations are extremely useful for preparing trainees to operate, maintain and optimise the use of equipment, whether it goes ‘bang!’ deliberately or not. They are also useful for helping in the development of decision-making and judgement skills – the question of "whether to shoot,” rather than "how to shoot,” for example. They are not the only methods of achieving excellence, however.
We need more clarity on where the right mix of live, virtual and constructive training lies. The adoption of technology for technology’s sake would be an intellectually lazy and ultimately counter-productive policy. I have insufficient hubris to state categorically that the UK MoD is even contemplating the adoption of such a policy. But it does worry me that politicians, officials, the media and increasingly, it seems, the general public see technology as the saviour. Let me repeat the thesis. Technology is an enabler – not an end in itself.
I am a proponent of live training – that much is evident from the writing I have done on the subject on this forum and elsewhere. I am equally a supporter of simulation – the synthetic environment enables us to do things today and in the future we could not even have contemplated a decade ago. I am an even stronger protagonist, however, for the intelligent and well-considered integration of all forms of training – technology based, instructor-led, computer-aided, live and constructive – in pursuit of the objective that should be (and very possibly is) at the forefront of every training planner’s mind: the provision of well-trained, skilled and effective soldiers, sailors and aircrew.
To do less would be a disservice to our military personnel and would bypass implementation of one of the things our international partners still look to the United Kingdom for – excellence in intelligent project management. We do need to take technology into account: we need, equally, never to lose sight of the fact that training is about the people being trained, not the implementation of a technological solution that, perhaps, is not as people-centric as it could, or should, be. Otherwise we may well be sitting back on Dickens’ 210th birthday muttering darkly to ourselves, "it is the worst of times.”