Dreams and Nightmares

British Army Bowman Radio
The demise of the Ministry of Defence’s Project EVO initiative to move the Bowman tactical communications architecture into an open configuration has raised questions regarding the longevity of this architecture.

A major part of the UK’s Project Morpheus military communications initiative was recently cancelled. Where does the initiative go from here?

Back in mid-August 2023 the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence (MOD) stressed it was “committed” to the Project Morpheus military communications system. Just over four months later, the programme appears to be in serious trouble. That the procurement of a new communications system to replace the Bowman architecture, primarily used by UK land forces, was in trouble is no secret. Armada has previously reported on Project Morpheus’s difficulties.

Bowman, chiefly used by the British Army, entered service early this century and was expected to remain in use until 2026, according to open sources. The current Bowman architecture includes a plethora of tactical radios, and command and control systems. Bowman’s capabilities have steadily improved throughout its life via a series of spiral upgrades. The latest of these is known as the Bowman Combat Infrastructure Platform-5.6 (BCIP-5.6) initiative.

Evolve to Open

EVO was tasked with taking the BCIP-5.6 architecture and evolving it into an open, modular design so it can easily and safely accept new hardware, software and capabilities when they become available. The MOD said that this approach would “enable (it) to integrate and deploy new capabilities selected from across (i)ndustry in a faster and more cost-effective manner.”

Writing back in July 2022, we stressed that the Evolve To Open (EVO) element of the programme “cannot be allowed to fail” given Bowman’s age. On 14th December James Cartlidge, the UK’s minister for defence procurement, announced that EVO had done exactly that. Mr. Cartlidge acknowledged that EVO had suffered problems: “We have been open that progress on the MORPHEUS project has fallen short of what was expected.” He added that the MOD had worked closely with EVO’s contractor, General Dynamics, to resolve problems and determine a way forward.

Sources close to the programme told Armada that the MOD and General Dynamics were at an impasse, with the Ministry and company at odds over the expectations of EVO and its deliverables. Although EVO is dead, General Dynamics will sustain Bowman to ensure it continues to support UK military commitments. Nonetheless, it seems certain that Bowman’s life will now have to be extended beyond the original 2026 planned retirement given EVO’s demise.

What happens now? Mr. Cartlidge’s statement said that the MOD has commissioned the UK’s Cabinet Office Infrastructure and Projects Authority “to conduct an independent review of the Morpheus project, with the aim of understanding where the (MOD) can improve in future projects.” The Cabinet Office supports the Cabinet and government to coordinate the delivery of policy objectives via government departments.

A senior UK MOD source told Armada that EVO ultimately failed “due to ineptness on both sides of the fence,” referring to the situation existing between the Ministry and the contractor. “The dream was good, but the people allocated couldn’t deliver … It was a great idea, but simply not plausible in practice.” That said, EVO has not been in vain: “We will take the work that was done and use that, and look for a way forward that is a mix of owned and beholden (systems and capabilities).”

Dead monoliths

The MOD appears to have ruled out simply buying a new tactical radio architecture from a single, or small number, of suppliers in a similar fashion to programmes ongoing in France and Germany, for example. “Monolithic systems are dead,” the source continued. “The future is in accepting that we … try to own what we can and then accept that we will be beholden to a supplier” for certain additional capabilities.

The future of Morpheus in general is clouded by the prospect of a general election in the UK which must be held by the end of January 2025. The poll could yield a change of government should the ruling Conservative Party be defeated. As of mid-January, aggregated UK opinion polls show the Labour Party enjoying an almost 20 point lead over the Conservatives.

A senior Labour Party source said that any decision on Morpheus’s future would have to wait until after the election assuming the party is victorious. Labour’s shadow minister for defence procurement Maria Eagle accused a ‘broken’ defence procurement system of “wasting ($19 billion) of taxpayer’s money since 2010.” Ms. Eagle told Armada in a written statement that “delays and MOD mismanagement of vital defence contracts like Morpheus … undermine our UK capabilities to fulfil our full North Atlantic Treaty Organisation obligations.” She added that the party would prioritise defence procurement reform if elected. The EVO dimension of Morpheus may be dead, but it seems that the programme’s future writ large is far from decided.

by dr. Thomas Withington