The Future Capability Group (FCG) within Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S) – the procurement arm of the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) – placed a contract on 7 February 2024 to explore the potential of Free Space Optical Communications (FSOC).

FSOC is a capability that reduces the ability of adversaries to detect and intercept communications sent wirelessly in ‘free space’.

Under the contract, DCE Leicestershire and their subcontractors will develop a prototype system designed to ensure the security of uncrewed aerial systems (UAS).

The payload will deliver an extended range targeting more than five kilometres, which unlike Radio Frequency (RF) capabilities, will have no detectable signature, be resistant to jamming, and offer improved bandwidth.

FSOC potentially removes a known vulnerability of UAS, providing increased bandwidth and reduced latency, allowing quicker transmission of richer data for better situational awareness.

The British Army Sentinel UAS is prepped for use by industry partners as a part of the Army Warfare Experiment Exercise Blunting Strike in Copehill Down, 22 November 2023. Credit: Crown Copyright/UK MoD.

This is an essential enabling technology as we transition from classical to quantum information, suggested DE&S in its statement.

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“The value of our commercial framework approach talks for itself. FCG are proving how rapidly DE&S can support the customer in carrying out competitive activities if we are prepared to think differently,” James Morris, the maritime head of FCG stated.

“This is just one of a large number of tasks that have been put through the framework in the last three months and we will continue to utilise this approach to provide rapid routes to market at a speed of relevance that the customer community deserve.”

FSOC is just the latest military capability the MoD is eager to deliver at pace. Since spring 2023 the department has been committed to a new mode of procurement in which it prizes delivery time more than it ever has before.

In the Defence Command Paper (2023), the UK Government stated:

“The experience of Ukraine has reminded us that accepting 80% can deliver effective and robust capability into the hands of the users today. Waiting for 100% – the exquisite solution – may mean losing strategic advantage.”