Big data analytics: Why UK military must bite the bullet

The British military establishment collects more data than it can analyse, and it's time to address the issue, warns an influential think tank.
Written by Toby Wolpe, Contributor

Unless the UK military works to develop big-data analytics abilities, it could find itself being left behind by more tech savvy allies, a think tank has warned.

The UK Ministry of Defence's tardiness at deploying big-data technologies could affect relationships with traditional allies, such as the US, according to a paper from independent defence thinktank the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

The military has spent significant sums on collecting quantities of unstructured data, mainly as part of anti-terrorism and intelligence operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But little of it is analysed at the time, the report's authors wrote.

"The volume and complexity of the raw data being collected threatens to overwhelm existing analytical systems and processes," they said.

The report, Big data for defence and security, suggests as much as 95 percent of battlefield video may never viewed by analysts. To emphasise the volumes of data involved in military operations, the report said a single MQ-9 Reaper drone mission collects "the equivalent of 20 laptops' worth of data". The US Argus ground surveillance system collects more that 40GB of information per second.

Exploiting security-related data

The RUSI paper, co-sponsored by storage company EMC, makes it clear that the impact of failing to exploit defence- and security-related data could be far higher than that faced by the private sector.

RUSI senior research fellow and the paper's editor, Elizabeth Quintana, underlined the serious cost for the UK military of a lack of big-data analytics.

"The highest level consequences? Operational failure. If you don't know what you're doing and you can't manage the information you're getting and particularly if the adversary is better at managing their information then you, you are at serious risk of not achieving what you set out to do," Quintana said.

Collaboration with long-standing allies

The RUSI report makes it clear that deficiencies in UK military big-data analytics could also hamper collaboration with long-standing allies.

"If we're not able to manage the data in the same way our allies are — and the US and Australia are very much looking at this as a capability — then we may be left behind or may not be able to be involved in operations at the highest level as we had been able to in the past."

Quintana said initial military experiences with allied computing technology in Afghanistan had parallels with the issues thrown up by big-data analytics.

"Certainly, when we got to Afghanistan there was a realisation that the US had very much invested in network-centric warfare, and we had dabbled at network-enabled capability," she said.

"Then we realised actually that if we did want to be taken seriously, we had to invest in the capability and it was done at very short notice."

The RUSI paper says big-data technology also has readily identifiable applications outside military deployments in the way the Ministry of Defence manages procurement, formulates policies, and conducts its financial planning.

The Ministry of Defence should conduct innovation studies to identify commercial technologies and techniques that could be applied to the defence sector, RUSI said.

It should also start with pilot projects to build business cases, assess skills, address moral and legal issues, and to "clarify the role of industry in support of developing the capability."

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