Preparing future defence technologies

3 min read

Formed in 2001, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) ensures that innovative science and technology can contribute to the defence and security of the UK. It supplies specialist services to the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and other government departments and, through its Centre for Defence Enterprise, funds innovative research that could have a potential defence application.

A technology transfer arm, Ploughshare Innovations, also ensures that IP generated by Dstl in the course of its work is exploited, through commercial licensing or the creation of spin out companies.

Able to trace its origins back to 1664 with the establishment of the Royal Carriage Works in Woolwich, Dstl is one of the principal government organisations focused on delivering science and technology to the UK’s defence and security operations.

Neil Stansfield, head of Knowledge, Innovation and Futures Enterprise at Dstl suggested: “The importance of science can’t be underestimated, but it is often misunderstood. My role at Dstl is to assess how well placed the UK is on the global stage to address future technical and systemic challenges and it is vital that we put science and technology squarely at the front of our nation’s capabilities.” Although we spoke before the events in Paris, he warned that: “We drive collaboration with scientists from across the UK to harness the technology we need to keep us ahead of the ‘bad boys’.”

Since the 1950s, three technology offsets have driven innovation among key Western countries, such as the US and UK.

“The first came with the rise of the Warsaw Pact,” said Stansfield. “Its superior numbers meant we had to use technology to offset its threat. In 1972, in the face of nuclear equilibrium with the Soviet Union, a second offset gave rise to GPS, stealth technology and, arguably, the development of the Internet. These technologies gave us that little bit of ‘magic’ with which to confront a more powerful opponent.”

The third and latest offset strategy highlights investments in new space capabilities, advanced sensors, communications and munitions, missile systems and cyber capabilities, as well as in such technologies as unmanned undersea vehicles, advanced sea mines, high speed strike weapons, advanced aeronautics, electromagnetic rail guns and high energy lasers.

“The big difference today is that many of the advances we are seeing are being driven by the commercial sector, rather than the state’s military laboratories – as was the case in the 1960s and 1970s,” Stansfield explained.

“Robotics, autonomous operating guidance and control systems, visualisation, biotechnology, miniaturisation, advanced computing and big data, and additive manufacturing like 3D printing – all these technologies are being driven by the commercial sector.”

Collaboration with the commercial sector is therefore vital, according to Stansfield, because defence research and development no longer dominates the UK R&D landscape as it did 40 years ago.

“We still account for a sizeable spend,” he explains. “But, compared to the 1960s, defence accounts for a tiny share of total government spending.”

Part of the MOD, Dstl employs 3500 people across three sites, soon to be two. “With an annual budget in excess of £600million, our role is to maximise the impact of science and technology to the benefit of the UK’s defence and security needs. Work on chemical and bio-defence weapons and counter terrorism is retained in-house, but the rest involves engagement with others. Dstl only undertakes work in-house for reasons of national security or political sensitivity,” he explained.

“I would contend that we have been on a war footing since 1996 and that has had a serious impact on long-term planning as most of our resources – which aren’t finite – have been used to address operational requirements. It’s meant dealing with ‘low’ tech threats, such as landmines, by developing and deploying high tech solutions.

“We’ve been using up our high tech, turning it into kit, but there has been little restocking of the cupboard, if I can use that analogy.”

As a result, Dstl has taken the decision to allocate 20% of its budget to developing future disruptive technologies.

“The technologies we’ve identified won’t be ready for five, 10 or 20 years, but we have to take a long term strategic approach.”

There are five so called ‘Horizon Technologies’, explained Stansfield. “Quantum technology, Big Data, robotics or fully autonomous systems, synthetic biology and advanced manufacturing.”

Dstl is, for example, funding research into quantum technology, which could have the potential to transform timing, navigation and sensing significantly.

While the research is cutting edge, it can involve techniques that could be of concern to the wider public. For example, Stansfield talked about the development of boron carbide, a ceramic material using a process involving e-coli.

“The technique we use to produce this ultra-tough armour is conducted in a fully contained environment, but I accept we need to re-assure the public that our work is responsible and conducted in a safe way. Part of my role is, therefore, to communicate the role of military research.

“It is critical that the UK builds a research and science environment that attracts and retains the best,” he said.

“I believe that, with the development of InnovateUK and the network of Catapults, the UK is putting in place the infrastructure necessary to support innovation in the UK.”

Stansfield also believes that the defence industry in the UK is well placed to exploit these new technologies. “However, these are technologies that will not only revolutionise the military but will also have a massive impact on the wider economy,” he concluded.


Neil Stansfield is head of the Knowledge, Innovations and Futures Enterprise at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. He leads the MOD’s programme for identifying and harnessing emerging and disruptive technologies.

He has spent 25 years in a range of senior defence and security policy, strategy, and science and technology roles, working across government and the private sector, nationally and internationally.