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UK Gov Launches BattleLab, but questions remain as to what will be “innovated” in its military laboratory

In August 2020, the Ministry of Defence (MOD), in partnership with Dorset Council and Dorset Local Enterprise, launched a new entity called BattleLab. It was, they declared, and “Army ‘battle lab’” designed “to lead the way in technology innovation.”

What we do know is that some 1,100m2 of office space and 450m2 of workshop space, has become the “central hub for innovative defence in the UK”. It’s underpinned by a £3.1million investment from the MOD and £2.6milllion from Dorset Council and Dorset Local Enterprise, but the result for its technological and laboratory innovation is far from certain.

The carefully worded rhetoric promising high innovation output is that BattleLab’s vision is to seek closer collaboration between defence and industry. That it seeks, using a certain consultancy-speak that is renowned in the army, to be “challenge-centric and end-user obsessed”

What it ultimately aims is to bring forth a new period for defence “to do things differently and do different things”. Whether this means taking into consideration ethical, moral and legal questions surrounding new defence technologies is not addressed. The realist may interpret BattleLab as a centre to explore the possibility of  “killing differently”. 

After all, BattleLab has already created the Expeditionary Robotics Centre of Expertise (ERCOE) – their vision for which sounds rather dystopic and vague: “the freedom to cohere and accelerate the development of expeditionary robotics.”  The extent to which this implies the proliferation of unmanned drones and other more anonymised, less accountable weapons is clear.

Is the road to hell paved with good intentions?

So, looking to the future of BattleLab, what might next occur? The first phase of BattleLab was to create an infrastructural hub, and now, a year down the line, they have launched their second phase.  This involves pitching to and, in turn, being pitched by commercial industry to collaborate on the venture and maximise investment.

In particular, the Army are calling out for partner organisations, proposed projects and technological developments to work under the BattleLab jurisdiction in what it calls “a new frontier for operational military technologies”.  Again, what exactly this entails is not clear. Taking into consideration the partnership with ERCOE the possibility for further development into robotic defence systems, drone swarms, biological warfare and the plethora of previously unknown technical weaponry that efficiently kills, is not unlikely.

Set up, primarily, by the British Army, Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S), and The Royal Navy and Defence Science Technology Laboratory (DSTL), the real power-house of ideas is sought from industry.  They are hungry for collaboration with small, medium and large industry specialists and academics, and with that comes the promise – rare in the world of research – of significant funding opportunities.

Of special note, there is a new innovation loan scheme through the Army’s Rapid Innovation and Experimentation Lab (ARIEL) which has some £25 million worth of funding.

The Royal Navy has also manipulated BattleLab in its naval innovation including the development of more than 30 projects such as NEMESIS, NavyX, DARE, NELSON and CAR – the transparency of what exactly some of these projects are, is needed.

The launch of the ‘Autonomous Advance Force 4 Exercise’, though, does sound like it is getting into ‘killer robots’ territory.  Whilst the Royal Navy’s ‘RN Mission Module’ – “modularised pods that can be deployed by a number of hosts and contain within a spectrum of effect” – sound like they are dangerously imagining a future war cleaned bare of accountability with the savage flesh and blood reality of combat replaced by officials behind an operating system.

What is of most concern, perhaps, is that according to the Army, “everything is on the table”.  There are ventures into Forensic Explosives Labs, Chemical and Biological Defence Research, Cyber and Quantum, and the possibility of further weaponry all in-reach with funding hefty funding opportunities. These will be kept, no doubt, largely from the public eye in the belief that the weapons the military develop to defence the nation are best not scrutinised by the nation they are designed to protect.

This is an issue of concern – both the development of weapons which removes human accountability in face-to-face conflict, but also how BattleLab’s development removed from the public eye amputates the plethora of critical discourse, activism and scholarship surrounding the legalistic and ethical use of new weapon developments.

One thing is clear. BattleLab looks set to be central to the future innovative defence for the UK, but exactly what form such innovation will be and whether the priorities of BattleLab are framed in humanitarian and ethical concerns is far less certain.

The centre touts itself as a place where new frontiers of technologies can be conquered via collaboration with industry experts and academics. However, whether new frontiers of ethics and laws will also be conquered through its expansive defence technologies is not clear from their PR push.

In a world where the development of technologies resembling killer robots are becoming increasingly possible, where critical discourse surrounding weapon innovation becomes more and more detached, and where civilians, not troops, are all too often the innocent bystanders to military violence, questions remain over the future of BattleLab.  Will it be a force for good, or will the road to hell be paved with its best innovative intentions?