DSET: Strength to Strength

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DSET
Source: DSET / Laura Palmer

In terms of longevity, DSET is still very much the ‘new kid on the block’ in the field of European S&T events. However, the impressive growth in both attendance and military and industry participation, particularly the last couple of years, means that it now ranks alongside IT2EC, a huge achievement in view of the pandemic hiatus.

There are, however, some fundamental differences: IT2EC has historically been a trade exhibition with a multi-stream, and mainly academic, conference running in parallel, whereas DSET started off as a more practically oriented conference with a few companies and organisations – mainly the sponsors – demonstrating their wares as something of a sideshow. Latterly, the growth in the number of sponsors has led to a much larger exhibition, and complementary events have been added to run alongside the main conference.

The Ashton Gate Stadium is home to Bristol City Football Club and the Bristol Bears Rugby Union team; sadly, the pitch had been dug up for resurfacing during the off-season, denying attendees the chance of a quick game of 5-a-side or Sevens during the coffee break. The venue provided ample space and facilities for the event.  Indeed, although the main conference room was one of the most spacious we have seen, it was packed with over 550 delegates for the opening keynote session.

Admission, by virtue of prior online badging, was snagless, and the catering arrangements life-sustaining if not gourmet.  As an aside, a word of advice for anyone contemplating taking a car into Bristol city centre: don’t.

The DSET format, a legacy of pandemic restrictions, was hybrid, all events being live-streamed, and recordings available less than 4 hours after the close of the final session. The first day was virtual-only, and consisted of a series of presentations by exhibitors, supported by promotional videos. The main conference took place on Days 2 and 3, and comprised four daily sessions of about 90 minutes, interspersed with coffee and lunch breaks, which, alongside post-programme social events, provided ample opportunity for networking and perusing the exhibition.

In parallel with the main conference, complementary events took place: a Wargaming Conference; a Serious Games showcase; and the first live broadcast of the Warfighter Podcast. Day 4 was devoted to Stakeholder Workshops and a meeting of the Defence Women’s Action Board.

WO2 Ian Ferguson of the RSA remarked: “I see DSET as the golden thread that unites us all. This event provides unparalleled opportunities for discussion and networking, unlike any other I have attended in the UK."

Growth Factors

DSET has grown exponentially in recent years (by a factor of 4 in the last 2 years alone). This year, there were more than 1500 attendees (doubling last year’s total), of which 1200 were in-person; 44 nations were represented, and there were 70 sponsors and exhibitors. Fully 72% of the attendance were military, government and academia, against a norm for this type of event of about 50/50.

There is little doubt that the addition of non-mainstream activity has contributed to this rise in numbers, but there is a certain synergy in the inclusion of organisations, such as the Police and Fire Services, which face challenges similar to those of the military and industry. One of these is the issue of inclusion and equality of women in these services, both in training and on operations; it was not lost on the audience that the chair for every one of the main conference sessions was female, and that the conference opened with a rousing rendition of Dolly Parton and ‘9 to 5’ – unconventional perhaps, but an indicator of a certain exuberance apparent in this gathering which may be absent in other more staid events.

In her opening address, Tess Butler, the CEO of the organising company Ruddy Nice, emphasised the themes of ‘People’, ‘Collaboration’ and ‘Action’. We certainly had the people, and the delegates were focused on collaboration, both between military and industry and also between military allies; the speakers for the keynote session, entitled ‘Delivering Training & Education to Match Complex Modern Warfare’, were from Estonia, Brazil and UK. Diversity of scale in meeting common challenges was highlighted by the fact that the land area of Brazil (8.51m km2) dwarfs those of the UK (243,610 km2) and Estonia (45,228 km2) by factors of 35 and 188 respectively. They are correspondingly more distant from the current focus of warfare in Europe (Ukraine) and, if there is an uncomfortable feeling that Western nations are becoming somewhat complacent about that conflict, such complacency is certainly not shared by Estonia. Estonia’s population (1.33m) necessitates the use of a high proportion of reserves for defence, and this highlights the particular problems of availability of training and equipment to ensure that reserve forces are ready and able to discharge their roles at short notice.

Developments in the UK

There are currently major training upgrade initiatives taking place in all 3 UK services under the former overarching Defence Operational Training Capability (DOTC) programme – the Collective Training Transformation Programme (CTTP) for the Army, Gladiator for the RAF and Spartan for the Royal Navy; the RN also has in train Project Selborne, which embraces both individual and collective training.

MS&T took the opportunity to speak with two of the bidding consortia for CTTP: Omnia, a collaboration of Raytheon, Capita, Cervus, Improbable Defence and Rheinmetall; and Alliance, comprising Lockheed Martin, Turner & Townsend, Ravenswood Technologies, 4GD, KX and Splunk.

We spoke separately with Capita, who are also leading Team Fisher, the Project Selborne partnership, and with Bohemia Interactive Simulations (BISim), the DSET Tech Sponsor, who have just released VBS4 and the associated VBS Blue IG.  Gladiator, which is more advanced than the other two DOTC programmes, held an update workshop on the last day.

The conference sessions proved both interesting and informative. The subject matter was too varied to be reported in detail here, but prevalent themes were data collection and analysis, and the proliferation, advantages and hazards of Machine Learning and AI. The sessions were well-marshalled by their respective chairs, who introduced a distinguished array of speakers.

The overall effect was somewhat marred by some audio-visual glitches in the conference hall, most specifically with the only online speaker, but there was no lack of questions from both the live audience and their virtual counterparts and lively discussion; we are told that the online platform worked extremely well for virtual attendees.

Are Current Processes Up To The Job?

The only session which we found disappointing was somewhat simplistically entitled ‘Military & Industry Collaboration’ which, after all, was the central theme of the whole conference. There are two principal aspects to this: contracts for services; and equipment acquisition and support. There is a widely held view on both sides of the Atlantic that current military acquisition processes are insufficiently agile to exploit the pace of technological innovation; this mainly applies to equipment programmes, but is also relevant to services. It was perhaps unfortunate that this session was chaired by, and included as panellists, representatives of the UK’s Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S) who are, themselves, partial custodians of those processes. There was, therefore, an element of ‘marking one’s own homework’, and the session tended towards mutual back-slapping. The issue of dealing with under-performing contractors was only addressed as a result of a question from the floor, and that of process agility barely addressed at all.

Duplication of Effort

There was some frustration in the audience at the apparent duplication of effort between the UK services in programmes that have commonality – Command & Staff Training (CAST) was quoted as a case in point – and the apparent absence of UK Strategic Command (UK StratCom) intervention to resolve this. Indeed, the single services often seemed to be focused on themselves with little reference to the other arms, let alone multi-domain integration; it was telling that nobody seemed to have a good answer as to why each service plus ‘joint’ all need their own constructive simulations (4 in total).  Paradoxically, it was left to the ESports representatives to demonstrate real enthusiasm for communicating and co-operating across the inter-Service divide.

DSET may help in the long run to foster greater co-operation between the Services but, frankly, it's not the job of industry to bring this about; perhaps there needs to be a culture change at the higher levels of the MoD. In the S&T arena, the relatively newly formed Defence Modelling & Simulation Organisation (DMSO), a branch of UK StratCom, would seem to be the appropriate agency, but it will need an emphasis on innovation rather than a reliance on historic process and precedent in order to be effective.

Kevin Williamson of Matrix Games tweeted: " More collaboration is needed within the Defense Industry and my hope for next year is that we go from "These are the problems" to "Can anyone help us solve xyz?"

The final day contained many interesting events, including MoD, Dstl and SISO workshops and a Serious Games showcase. Unsurprisingly in view of the many other commitments of participants, these sessions were not so well attended, and the organisers may give some thought to modification of the format or ploys to keep the punters there for the extra day.

The DSET Future

DSET continues its upward path towards becoming Europe’s most significant MS&T event, and this year’s iteration was both useful and enjoyable, exhibiting a laudably dynamic and practical approach to serious issues. The organisation was a prodigious effort from such a small team, and Ruddy Nice are in the process of canvassing for volunteers to form a DSET Committee, and spread some of the load for future events. Notes Butler: “We have grown beyond 'just us'! We invite representatives from different military and government organisations from across the world, as well as representatives from our industry and academia. This is everyone's forum and event and we want everyone to have the opportunity to shape DSET to what they need to be successful in their field."

DSET 2024 is already scheduled in Bristol between 3-7 June.

Harking back to the central themes, the ‘People’ were certainly there, and the commitment to ‘Collaboration’ evident; whether this will translate into ‘Action’ remains to be seen; hopefully DSET will prove to be more than another talking-shop.

We will leave the last word to Tess Butler: "The attendance and engagement this year at DSET 2023 is testament to our team being embedded in the Military, Simulation, Education and Training community. This year we invested further in future talent with the Serious Games Showcase and Challenge, Wargaming Conference and ESports teams. The young talent involved in these programmes is enthusiastic, highly educated and motivated. We will continue to accelerate this aspect of DSET.”

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