The UK defense industry has applied its capacity to bring together all of its various elements to tackle Covid challenges, all the while continuing to deliver on programs vital to national security, stressed Simon Bollom, CEO of UK forces procurement and support agency Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S), during FIA Connect’s Tuesday panel session on defense resilience during the Covid pandemic.
“Defense is set up to deal with crisis and contingency, so if you look back at the conflicts we’ve been involved in, mobilizing as a whole force—the military, civil service, and industry colleagues—has always been something we’ve done well," said Bollom. "Covid was for us another crisis. It was a different crisis, but it brought out the best in the defense enterprise.”
In the early days of the crisis, the UK Cabinet Office called on DE&S to support the National Health Service in whatever way it could, albeit with the caveat that the nation’s defense remained the first priority. As a result, DE&S rapidly reassigned 300 people to Covid-related activities, putting their procurement and logistics skills to good use to meet the principal challenges.
The two most urgent issues were the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators. DE&S procurement experts rapidly placed orders worth more than £6 billion, resulting in around 11 billion individual items of PPE acquired.
At the same time, the agency approached the ventilator challenge in much the same way it would an urgent military capability requirement, reaching out to the defense industry in particular for rapid engineering solutions and supply chain establishment. DE&S’s warehouse also tackled the task of managing spare parts and distribution. “I’m very proud of the contribution they made,” said Simon.
The Defense Suppliers Forum (DSF), a monthly meeting of government agencies and the defense industry, has served as a key enabler in the rapid engagement of industry. The DSF became the main platform through which industry increased its collaboration and shared relevant technologies by rapidly pooling best practices and the results of experimentation. The rapid implementation of a command and control network that leveraged the advantages of digital communications proved crucial to meeting those challenges. With the aid of the ADS aerospace industry organization, the DFS expanded to bring in the ideas of a greater number of small and medium-sized enterprises.
At the same time, meeting the crisis was undertaken during a period where the delivery of major defense programs continued unabated. The designation of defense workforces as key workers considerably aided the effort.
As a result, the UK’s defense industry demonstrated admirable levels of collaboration and agility, attributes that most in industry would like to see being retained in a post-Covid environment. “We’d like to hang on to that sense of purpose and sense of collaboration,” said Kevin Craven, CEO of Serco UK and Europe. “The collaboration was outstanding and the agility was pretty good as well.”
There is also a similar desire on the government side. “We need to be lighter on our feet, more agile,” said Bollom. “Institutionalizing what is good in terms of new working practices is what we must do.” He added that the defense enterprise needs to remain vigilant and prepared for rapid reaction should a second Covid spike surface.