LONDON — British defense analysts have access to more data and information sources than ever before, but are desperate for mature automation tools to properly sift through them all, said the nation’s top intelligence officer.

The U.K.’s defense intelligence arm has “ambitious plans” to increase the use of automation systems across its enterprise, and relieve its human analysts of performing repetitive tasks, said British Army Lt. Gen. James Hockenhull, chief of defense intelligence.

“Open source intelligence and automation together will fundamentally change how intelligence operates,” he said Thursday at the biennial DSEI conference. “We’re going to need access to data of all sorts, commercial expertise to help us to build our own open-source tools, and the ability to buy open source-derived commercial assessments.”

For several years now, intel officials have looked for solutions that can turn vast troves of information into manageable portions for analysis. That’s still the case today, but the requirements for such solutions have changed, Hockenhull noted.

Open source information gathering has come a long way from the early days of social media scraping, and “treasure trays” abound from the dark web and financial data resources, “if you can manage the volumes of data,” he said.

That last point is key: “If you talk to our analysts, many will wince at the idea of even more information and intelligence,” he noted. What they ask for is “a way to manage the deluge of data.”

To tackle that problem, the MoD is investing in mature automation, machine learning, and data science solutions, and wants to work with industry to further refine and hone more sophisticated artificial intelligence systems, Hockenhull said.

“As real artificial intelligence matures, I know it will play a vital role in our future. But it will also bring with it a host of challenges around exploitability, fragility and ethics,” Hockenhull said. “Our focus, at least initially within defense intelligence, will be on exploiting the more mature technologies, while ensuring that we play our part in helping shape the future ones.”

Today, he’s looking for data sets with open interfaces, rather than pre-packaged platforms, tools and data.

“As we mature our information systems, there will be less willingness to buy bespoke architectures or standalone platforms,” he noted. He said he envisions an open source intelligence automation system as “a blend” of tooling built in-house, bespoke software for specific needs and industry support to match, along with commercial-off-the-shelf products.

Space capabilities are being more closely scrutinized, he added. “With new commercial space collection [techniques] and other novel approaches coming online daily, this is something we can no longer dismiss, perhaps, as we have done in the past.”

To accomplish these goals, the MoD and its industry partners need to find new ways of working together, he acknowledged. “This is so difficult to achieve with hand-to-mouth annual contracting.”

In an effort to engage more fruitfully with the private sector, the defense intelligence unit is hosting an industry day on Oct. 14, he noted.

Vivienne Machi is a reporter based in Stuttgart, Germany, contributing to Defense News' European coverage. She previously reported for National Defense Magazine, Defense Daily, Via Satellite, Foreign Policy and the Dayton Daily News. She was named the Defence Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2020.

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