The Bowman land radio system used by the British Army, Royal Marines and RAF Regiment is nearing its sell-by date and the UK’s Ministry of Defence is looking to replace it with a ‘next-generation tactical communication solution’.
Just what that solution might be has been the subject of speculation for some time. In January this year, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) didn’t exactly come up with an answer, but instead threw open the question to the wider technology community.
Project MORPHEUS, as it is dubbed, invites anyone with expertise in telecommunications, wireless, IT, networks and security to pitch in with ideas that can then be shaped into a number of possible technology options to take forward.
Interested parties can send information via a web portal to the MORPHEUS Systems House, which is tasked with assembling the ideas and solutions put forward and then identifying the most operationally and cost-effective solutions for the MoD to consider.
The MORPHEUS Systems House is led by PA Consulting along with QinetiQ, Roke Manor Research and CGI. It will generate technical architectures and business models and assess performance, cost, time and risk data against the main requirements.
Rick Mather, leader for MORPHEUS at QinetiQ, told Wireless: ‘What the MoD is hoping to achieve here is expansive thinking. Collaboration in design is not new for the military, but it is usually done against a specified set of requirements that have already been worked out.
‘The thing is, technology is much more dynamic these days, and the pace of development is increasing, so issuing a pre-defined set of specifications to bid against is not perhaps the best way to go these days. The MoD wants an independent assessment of a wide range of military, commercial and consumer technology.’
Mather says that the acquisition option is the new element here, along with the development of technology architectures and business models, which can then be costed. The MoD will then define a procurement path for its delivery department to implement.
‘We are being asked to make a technology-led assessment of the options and to make sure we especially consider non-military technology,’ says Mather. ‘Historically, military research and development are often used to lead the market, but there has been a complete about-face and R&D is now led by the commercial market, so the key for the MoD is to make effective use of it. That said, there are some areas where commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) equipment is neither usable nor feasible.’
An unusual aspect of Project MORPHEUS is its call to smaller participants, which are normally sidelined in such huge procurement programmes. ‘We are very keen to get the voices of SMEs and academia included,’ assures Mather. ‘The industry engagement process is open to anybody and we particularly want to encourage those kinds of organisations to contribute, and they will be heard like everyone else.’
Mather points out that when it comes to the actual delivery of the eventual solution the MoD will probably need one or more of the big companies to implement it. ‘But what the Systems House will do is ensure that SME-led technology and ideas are considered alongside the product lines of major suppliers.’
The best way to contact the Systems House is via the industry portal (morpheusneo.com). Contributors need to register, the applications will then be vetted, and if they are deemed genuine they will be sent log-in details – they can then submit ideas and materials via the website.
‘We think this is the most readily-available means for everybody,’ asserts Mather, who adds: ‘We will also hold a series of industry days, which will probably be advertised via the same portal. In fact, we held one in February and there is likely to be another one in the next few months.’
He explains the reason the MoD is casting its net wide is because it is trying to look ahead 20 years. ‘You cannot predict what that future will look like, so it is important to try to capture interesting ideas that may not have reached fruition or are not yet in widespread use. The aim is to come up with a solution that can be evolved and managed in a cost-effective way.’
The range of options will identify the technologies and software required and then outline the long-term acquisition and operating business models. Security, speed of communication, range, ease of use and cost – both of deployment and manpower required for operation – will all be part of the selection process.
There will be specific requirements for interoperability between the various UK armed forces and with other nations’ forces. ‘We will do this by adopting a standards-based approach,’ says Mather. ‘We will not look at other nations’ programmes, but we will use widely-available open standards wherever possible.’
There are no ‘red line’ must-haves in terms of the specific solution, but there are various general requirements such as: bandwidth for different levels and types of user; security and supportability in terms of cost of ownership; and meeting sensible, realistic size, weight and power demands for infantry radios and other users at ‘dismounted level’.
‘Essentially, we want to be able to provide the right information to the right person as quickly, reliably and as securely as possible. What the enabling technology is could be 4G, satellite or whatever,’ says Mather.
The Systems House will work as a joint team in a single office with a lot of Army end users to ensure it is a daily collaborative process. The work so far has involved an initial assessment of the potential technologies and the establishment of a database.
Developing technical architectural options is the current stage. In parallel with these engineering activities there is a programme to engage with industry and gain their views on candidate technologies, architectural options and suitable business models.
‘Once that is done, we can develop the procurement and operational business models; how best those particular architectural models might be realised,’ explains Mather.
‘During each stage and at the end of each stage we will screen the options; some will be ruled out or adapted and others will go through. We will continually narrow down the potential architectural building blocks to arrive at the technical architecture(s). We then develop the business models from them.’
Mather says they expect to identify between four and six acquisition options. ‘We will take those, plus any cost evidence, and then the MoD will use its Combined Operational Effectiveness and Investment Appraisal (COEIA) process to assess the options. But that work will be done by someone else; we are just providing the data.’
The System House stage will take 15 months (the process began in January 2015). When it is all done it is up to the MoD to define the procurement process for appointing the delivery partner or partners.
A key challenge will be to avoid the kinds of controversies and delays that plagued the Bowman procurement. Easier said than done; so how does Mather think MORPHEUS will avoid these pitfalls?
‘The use of open architectures is key to keeping things flexible and allowing the MoD to respond to changes in technology during the lifecycle of the chosen solution. That’s why using established, commercially-based or widely adopted standards is the aspiration.
‘It is also likely that the MoD will not opt for a big bang rollout,’ continues Mather. ‘Rather there is more likely to be a phased delivery over a period of years, perhaps even up to 20 years. Hence there’s a further need for ensuring open architectures. The MoD does not want to tie itself to a 2015 solution in 2025 or beyond.’
He adds that this kind of approach will also allow for periodic upgrades. The procurement model therefore needs to allow for the widest possible supply base, perhaps using some kind of framework contract structure, but this he points out is an MoD decision.
Summing up, Mather says: ‘Harnessing innovation is the aim of the process. One of the problems with Bowman was that there were a variety of opinions on what ought to be done, pinned onto a fixed set of requirements.
‘The aim of Project MORPHEUS is to try to be more collaborative and have more options available by engaging the potential supply base as we develop the possible solutions, rather than setting out with pre-set specifications and then going out to tender to see who could meet them. Bowman built in risk from the start; this approach hopes to eliminate some of that risk by designing it out as we go,’ says Mather.