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Ancient MoD IT systems could cause supply issues for frontline troops

Deliveries of inventory to the front line are being put at risk due to legacy IT systems and poor data, according to the National Audit Office

Slow IT upgrades to legacy systems at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) are undermining its ability to make effective decisions on inventory, according to a National Audit Office (NAO) report.

The report, looking at the MoD’s inventory management, found that while the department has changed its strategic objectives for inventory management, ageing IT systems are still putting inventory delivery to troops at risk.

This includes inventory management systems used by the Army and the Navy, which are nearly 40 years old.

“The MoD has been slow to upgrade its legacy IT estate, and its inventory data still have limitations, which undermine its ability to make effective decisions. The MoD manages inventory management information and processes across multiple bespoke systems in different organisations, embedding the variations in working practice between them,” the report said.

“The MoD’s inventory systems often cannot easily communicate with each other, meaning that inefficient manual interventions are required so that data can be taken from one system and recorded or processed in another. This makes data too inaccessible to easily generate an overarching picture of the inventory.

“Many of these systems are old, increasing the risk of cyber security incidents or operational service failure,” the report added.

While the Ministry of Defence has enough data to support financial controls, the limitations in place due to poor IT can prevent the information from being useful enough to understand the inventory.

As an example, the Navy’s Crisp inventory management system is able to record that an item is damaged, but is not able to provide any further detail, which makes it hard to know whether it can be fixed or requires disposal.

The report added that the MoD was planning on moving the Army and Navy onto the RAF’s newer core inventory system.

The MoD also has inventory managed outside these systems, such as shipping containers. This means that once the ministry has sent out a container to the front line, it’s very difficult to track it.

While the Ministry of Defence has made several attempts over the past 15 years or so to invest in better IT, as well as reducing the number of logistic support systems from 250 to 89 between 2010 and 2022, there are still data issues.

“Its data remain siloed and difficult to access, preventing its inventory management being fully information-led,” the NAO report said.

“For example, the MoD recently completed investment in a Digital Decision Centre within Defence Support Chain Operations and Movements (DSCOM), which allows it to examine the flows of material between different locations,” the report added. “While this has allowed it to understand how it can structure its logistics networks better, it could not carry out further analysis of the performance of these networks because of the difficulties in accessing the rest of the MoD’s legacy IT and data.”

NAO head Gareth Davies said it was “vitally important that the UK armed forces have the inventory they need”.

“The MoD has taken steps to improve its inventory management, and these have resulted in improvements in logistics and commodity procurement and reductions in over-purchasing. However, long-standing weaknesses with its inventory management remain, primarily from legacy IT systems,” he said.

“The MoD must ensure it prioritises the resources it needs for its transformation programmes, otherwise its ability to build resilience and deploy the people and equipment it needs in the right places will be frustrated.”

The ministry holds more than 740 million individual items of inventory, with a total value of £11.8bn. In 2022, the MoD launched a wider Defence Support Strategy, which also covers inventory management.

“This includes a £2.5bn pan-defence transformation programme, which will update its legacy IT systems and implement standardised processes across the MoD. However, the MoD’s ability to refine and deliver this programme faces risks because it does not currently have in place all the staff it needs for the programme,” the report said.

A prior NAO report cited the same issues around legacy IT systems. The report, which was published in March 2011, said the same, ageing IT systems – then around 30 years old – had a high chance of suffering catastrophic failure, which would have a huge impact on the ability to maintain frontline operations.

In February 2023, a report by the Public Accounts Committee said the MoD was “not well set up to implement digital change at pace and scale” and that change was needed.

Read more about the MoD and digitisation

  • While the Digital Strategy for Defence seems to be going well, the National Audit Office is concerned there is no overarching plan to implement it, or a clear way of measuring whether it is on track.
  • A Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report says the department is ‘not well set up’ to effectively implement its digital change, and calls for both a cultural and organisational shift.
  • Ministry of Defence struggling with its £196bn defence capabilities programme, as 10 of 32 projects, including several technology ones, are in trouble, according to the National Audit Office.

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