BUILDING DEFENSE SINCE 2017

Abu Dhabi 2020 | DEFENSE | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Tim Allen, CEO of Houbara, on the company's new facilities at Tawazun Industrial Park, making prototype warfare more effective, and the future of UK/UAE defense collaboration.

Where is Houbara situated within the UAE's defense sector? Furthermore, as a joint venture between QinetiQ and Middle-East General Enterprises (MGE), what technological and scientific synergies are created between these organizations?

Houbara was formed in 2017 and is based primarily in the Tawazun Industrial Park. Our core business is providing target services to the UAE Armed Forces. We intend to bring QinetiQ's unique portfolio of products and services to the UAE, primarily for the benefit of the armed forces as well as some security agencies. The synergy with MGE dates back to when we first established an office in Abu Dhabi; they were initially our sponsors and are now our Joint Venture partners. We initiated the joint venture once we were confident of a sustainable business stream. MGE has a diverse portfolio; however, they are relatively new to the defense sector. They are a reputable partner that can support us in several different capacities, with logistics arguably being the most important. As long-term partners of DHL Express, MGE have substantial logistics and warehousing capabilities.

Could you highlight how your current suite of products is fulfilling the requirements of military operators?

Essentially, we help our customers by providing representation of different types of threats. That representation can vary; for example, it can be a fast jet, a missile, or a fast attack vessel. Targets provide a configurable platform to create different signatures, be they visual, radar or thermal (IR). The target payloads are tailored as appropriate for testing or training a crew or platform, or a particular sensor or weapons system. We work closely with our customers to identify their requirements. Our ambition is to provide these services and products regionally. Consequently, our investment in the facility at Tawazun Industrial Park gives us the scope to support our targets supply chain across the region. As threats evolve, we are continually looking at new ways to innovate and develop our threat representation. For example, we will shortly bring to the market new products that will address specific threats related to drones, ballistic missiles and anti-ship missiles. Aerial targets and maritime surface targets are the foundation business, and we are interested in developing this offering further. Moreover, we are also in discussions with new customers on how to bring elements of our autonomy and robotics expertise from targets to bear on other areas of the military market.

What do you see as some of the most interesting developments regarding innovative technology within the defense sector?

This is a broad subject area. Regarding autonomy and robotics, it offers some important new capabilities for the UAE as it has the potential to deliver a force multiplier effect. The UAE Armed Forces are highly capable but numerically small. Their operational effectiveness can be multiplied by using systems that increase mass, agility and visibility of the battlespace. This allows for the application of force with greater precision and improves their ability to operate in a challenging and demanding environment. While this opportunity is not unique to the UAE, it is a major area of interest. There are significant commercial and civil use cases as well, making a natural adjunct. Improving survivability is another element - these systems help reduce exposure in high-risk scenarios. It is encouraging that our customers here want to understand this technology better, not simply as a consumer but in a collaborative way to help develop these capabilities. There is therefore a strong desire to participate in international programs and partnerships related to these technologies. This is an area where QinetiQ has a particularly strong track record, and through Houbara, we are looking to bring this expertise to the UAE. Philosophically, we see a step-change in the way people approach the adoption of these disruptive technologies, reflecting recent operational experiences. When confronted with asymmetric threats, where the adversary can exploit technology faster, conventional militaries quickly become frustrated with their ability to procure and capitalize on what new technologies can deliver. There is an increasing appetite to take risks earlier, rather than waiting for systems to mature and be comprehensively tested and evaluated. This needs to happen in an informed and measured way - so that commanders deploying these technologies have realistic expectations and manage the risks in a balanced way.

What is your estimation of 'prototype warfare,' and what are some of the practical advantages of this concept? How can this radically change the dynamics of defense industrial production processes as well as military procurement?

In the Cold War, there was substantial R&D investment from governments, which cascaded down to industry. Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a rebalancing of funding for defense research. The emphasis is increasingly on industry to generate ideas and absorb the costs associated with development. Industry has a real hunger for gaining operational insights that their customers obtain from using their technology. So, we advocate bringing industry and the military closer together earlier in a process we have termed 'prototype warfare'. This leads naturally to a spiral development path that can rapidly adapt the technology to deliver tangible benefits. This also shares the costs between government and industry, who are encouraged to invest more deeply when they can put immature products into the hands of the user and gather appropriate feedback. The investment risk is rebalanced in this scenario. But it needs to be a rigorous and thorough process, following a deliberate and measured approach. As a result, a product at a lower Technology Readiness Level (TRL) can be fielded significantly earlier, which gives the warfighter an incremental improvement in his capability – not perfect but a significant improvement. The traditional acquisition systems are no longer fit for purpose, so we have no choice but to adapt. We are encouraged that the UAE is receptive to Prototype Warfare, and we hope that, over time, it will become embedded in the UAE's defense industrial strategy. We expect to witness a progressive shift away from a traditional transactional approach to a much more collaborative one. The key is to allow the UAE's defense industry to become a knowledge-based, value-added industry through investment in human capital. QinetiQ is committed to contributing to this process through the JV.

What is your perspective on Tawazun Industrial Park (TIP) and the role it serves in helping to build an indigenous defense sector?

Being based in TIP is commercially beneficial and makes sense, strategically. We are investing in a UAE defense cluster where our proximity to other stakeholders will create opportunities for collaboration. We believe that, over time, we will be able to introduce other prominent engineering and technology services from QinetiQ. That will help support other aspects of the UAE's defense industry. The UAE's defense industry has been through significant restructuring and this is going to continue this year after which we hope that planning for the wider eco-system will be re-energized. From initial spot investments in specific manufacturing areas, there is now a need to bring additional elements into the supply chain. An example is the gap in facilities for test, evaluation and certification. These are all typical components of a more mature defense industrial base. I should add that there is an appetite for the private sector to invest in filling these gaps, but this will take time and require initiation at a federal level.

Houbara is evidence of UK/UAE strategic collaboration within the defense sector. Looking more broadly at this relationship, how can UK companies contribute to the UAE's defense sector?

The UK has a long, and profound relationship with the UAE, one that has always been underpinned by a solid mutual commitment to defense and security. Where I think the UK has a real interest in the UAE is around the area of sharing and developing knowledge. The UK remains a leading powerhouse for research and development in diverse fields, including defense and security. There is certainly potential for the two countries to collaborate more deeply through joint programs and partnerships. We are excited because we are seeing international interest in our programs being run for the UK Ministry of Defense, through organizations such as Defense Solution Center - the DSC. I think there is also a strong feeling in academia here that the UK is an important research hub that can contribute more to UAE. We have to create the right environment for this to mature, and it will probably start through bottom-up initiatives. Overall, we are optimistic about the future and very much see the UAE's defense sector heading in the right direction.