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Upgrading the British Army’s Tactical Communications: What Next?

After the end of a key contract within Morpheus – the British Army’s future replacement for the antiquated Bowman systems – ambitions for tactical communications are blunted, but no less necessary.

On comms: cadets using a Bowman radio during Exercise Dynamic Victory in 2020

Morpheus is one of the sub-programmes under the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) Land Environment Tactical Communications and Information Systems (LETacCIS) programme. General Dynamics UK Mission Systems (GDMS(UK)) held the Evolve to Open (EvO) Transition Partner contract (worth £395 million), which sought to transition Bowman from ‘closed’ systems – where single vendors could lock-in contracts, providing them leverage during negotiations on updates or maintenance – to ‘open’ designs. A new open architecture would be modular and adaptable, allowing for new hardware and software to be added, updated and upgraded while still existing in the same framework, thereby eliminating sizeable integration costs. The MoD also hoped to own the architecture itself and have the IP rights to ‘the system solution and products’, making them vendor-independent.

GDMS(UK) failed to deliver the promised lab-tested design in December 2020. Blame for the failure appears to lie with both parties; the MoD was too ambitious and over-specific as to the capabilities of the open system (while allegedly neglecting to include an electronic warfare (EW)/cyber layer or the then-nascent Multi-Domain Integration concept in its considerations), and GDMS(UK) failed to produce a viable architecture. Friction between the parties was not helped by the MoD’s other procurement ulcer – Ajax – which is produced by the other branch of GDMS(UK)’s parent company, General Dynamics UK.

After three years of negotiations between GDMS(UK) and the MoD, the defence procurement minister stated in December that the contract ‘has now been concluded’.

Morpheus

Despite the centrality of EvO to the promise of Morpheus, the latter will continue, albeit with reconsidered requirements. Morpheus will not be scrapped entirely, given its place as the keystone of LETacCIS, the urgent need for a new tactical communications system and the unknown millions already invested in the programme.

While continued debate is merited on the MoD’s processes given the delays and cost – and it appears procedural change is imminent – Morpheus has already led to many innovations. Many of these benefits stemmed from the creative architectural proposals which demonstrated institutional progress in envisioning the procurement of integrated systems, rather than discrete platforms, but there are also more tangible merits in Morpheus's other sub-programmes, which have shown more promising trajectories.

Lessons from Ukraine have reinforced the need for systems to be rapidly updated and altered, especially due to electronic warfare’s pace of adaptation on the battlefield

Besides EvO, Morpheus comprises Bowman ComBAT Infrastructure and Platform (BCIP) 5.6, the Dismounted Situational Awareness (DSA) programme, Battlefield Management Application (BMA), and the Joint Common Remote Viewing Terminal (JCRVT). BCIP 5.6 brought Bowman decidedly into the 21st century, providing new capabilities in both software and hardware, in addition to preparing the aged system to evolve with EvO’s open architecture. The British Army selected the Tactical Assault Kit (TAK) – also called the Android Tactical Awareness Kit – as its DSA solution, and is in the process of testing and rolling it out. Elbit completed its contract by delivering the BMA, but it is yet to be seen how (or if) it will remain part of Morpheus. After the granting of a contract to L-3 Communications (now L3Harris) for the JCRVT, the programme ‘reached Full Operating Capability in October 2022’.

As for Morpheus’s future, the recently announced ‘Integrated Procurement Model’ provides some indication of the MoD’s direction, in part due to the explicit mention of Morpheus as one of the programmes ‘variously: over-complex; over-budget; over time’ and therefore spurring broader acquisition reform. Specifically, the focus on spiral development will likely be applied to future Morpheus programmes in order to make Defence a smarter and more realistic customer, while limiting the power of primes by challenging industry for better and faster solutions and increasing the flexibility of decision-making. Additionally, by emphasising a cultural change to permit disagreement, the MoD hopes to limit the amount of time and money spent before finally deciding to scrap a programme, as in the case of the EvO contract.

The upcoming election may also change the procurement trajectory. Labour shadow ministers have remained vocal about the failures of the current government in large defence programmes, and, if elected, will face pressure to overhaul programmes like Morpheus and Ajax. How they might alter the expected capability or architecture of Morpheus remains to be seen, but their options will likely become clearer once the current government redefines Morpheus’s requirements over the coming months, with special focus on the future of the open architecture.

The Open Architecture

The decision to open or close tactical communication architectures is the most defining aspect of future communications procurement processes. France and the US both opted to stay with more traditional procurement approaches, using one or a few large suppliers. The question is whether the MoD will reverse course and fall back to vendor lock-in, or retain its ambition of transitioning to an open architecture.

While their deployment speed and budget could benefit from buying and modifying an ally’s communication system, the MoD will almost certainly retain some element of an open architecture in Morpheus, given the idea’s centrality to its conception of a digitised fighting force. Indeed, a recent MoD source reiterated their opposition to procuring a monolithic system, largely due to the fear of being ‘beholden’ to a single supplier. Lessons from Ukraine have reinforced the need for systems to be rapidly updated and altered, especially due to electronic warfare’s pace of adaptation on the battlefield. But when EvO perished, so too did hopes for a relatively quick, top-down transition to an open architecture. Instead, the MoD now appears to be considering more piecemeal manners of evolution from closed to open.

The coming months of Morpheus reconsiderations could make or break not only Morpheus itself, but also the Army’s tactical communications for decades to come

The EvO contract hoped to open the Bowman architecture in order to permit progressive integration of the Morpheus system. Instead, the transition might require the opposite: designing a system that is itself tailored to interoperate with the older system. One method of creating backwards compatibility focuses on the radio system’s middleware, the software layer that connects different types of radios into a system with common protocols, data formats and application hosting. The Morpheus architecture could be iteratively altered, one software function at a time, to interoperate with the Bowman architecture. Another method of transition would be using a system of gateways to gradually open each unit’s architecture one at a time. A complementary approach is to focus on the hardware, replacing the ancient Bowman radios with software-defined radios to reduce the burden on systems engineers and help bridge the gap towards flexible systems.

These solutions may even be found within the broader LETacCIS programme. Last year, LETacCIS delivered over 1,000 software-defined multi-mode radios (MMR) to the British Army, which provide resilient communications over both satellite communications and wideband radio. These MMRs were not procured as part of Morpheus, but may be the key stepping-stone (if not part of the solution itself) to opening Bowman, as the manpack and handheld versions of the MMR are capable of integrating into both ‘Bowman and future Morpheus architectures’.

Sustain, Evolve, Replace

Whatever the strategy, full capacity on Morpheus is farther off than before, meaning Bowman’s lifespan is to be extended once again.

When BCIP 5.6 was rolled out, it was meant to sustain Bowman in service until 2026. Prior troubles with Morpheus delayed its deployment until around 2030, stretching the already obsolete Bowman even farther. We will not know the anticipated date of delivery until the MoD concludes its reconsiderations for Morpheus requirements (expected sometime in the spring), but it looks as if it will be another decade before Morpheus's full capability is achieved.

Until then, Bowman is here to stay. Even prior to the 14 December announcement, further Bowman extensions (BCIP 5.7) were being considered by the MoD, and it has now been confirmed that it will be extended to between 2031 and 2035. Undoubtedly, the army’s next generation of combat vehicles (Boxer, Challenger 3 and Ajax) will now be fitted with Bowman instead of Morpheus. The ComBAT updates have provided much needed capabilities, but still leave the British Army bereft of reliable communications in the contested environments of high-intensity, peer-to-peer warfare. Ultimately, the coming months of Morpheus reconsiderations could make or break not only Morpheus itself, but also the Army’s tactical communications for decades to come.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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