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19 words that changed history: how a single sentence ignited the greatest peacetime collaboration

They’re some of the most famous images in history: the Saturn V rocket, supported by a cushion of pure fire, its fuselage climbing past the camera; the Lunar Module itself – odd, ungainly and a triumph of form-follows-function; Armstrong on the Moon, facing the camera, his expression unknowable behind the gold-tinted visor.

Mention the phrase ‘Apollo’ and everyone knows exactly what you’re talking about. They can literally picture it. Armstrong’s first step on the moon – an everyday movement made remarkable – was a clear and unequivocal goal from the start. But the path to put him there was one laced with unknowns.

It’s a similar story with the Army Collective Training System (ACTS). ACTS isn’t, of course, on the same scale as Apollo but it’s similarly singular in its aim: to turn individual world-class fighters into world-class fighting teams. The challenge lies in knowing how, exactly, to achieve this.

This challenge isn’t just inevitable. It is, I’d argue, a good and necessary thing at this stage.

Only eight years before Apollo 11 blasted off, nobody – not even Armstrong – would have been able to give you even a vague description of what the programme would entail. A lunar mission was little more than an idea, and a hazy one at that. All anyone knew was that, on April 12th, 1961, Yuri Gagarin had become the first human to orbit the Earth and so, a little over a month later, President Kennedy was standing in front of Congress and promising them the Moon.

“[The United States] should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” JFK, May 25, 1961

It has always seemed to me a slightly strange statement – or strangely worded, anyway. Given it relates to what’s arguably humankind’s greatest technical achievement, it’s oddly prosaic. The language is so formal, so simple, so lacking in emotion or demagoguery.

And that, to me, is its genius. Its brevity and clarity belies its overwhelming ambition. I think it’s a genius that’s worth reflecting on as the British Army embarks on one of its toughest challenges yet: the long-term, high-value, high-stakes transformation of collective training.

Clarity is the key to the ACTS

There are two aspects of JFK’s statement that I believe had a material impact on the success of the mission. On the one hand there’s the deadpan clarity, concision and specificity. On the other, there’s the sheer, stone-cold, breathtaking ambition.

The clarity, concision and specificity is key because Kennedy knew that what he was asking for would require the support and commitment not just of his audience (Congress) but from every government department and from across industry.

So he didn’t ask for something abstract or technical or remotely ambiguous. He asked for a result, and he used nineteen Plain English words to do so: ‘…before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

It was a sentence that every American could understand, remember and, he trusted, get behind. Here’s what I need you to do, he said, and here’s the deadline. The rest, he seems to imply, is up to you: to you, Congress; to you, NASA; to you, industry.

When it comes to the transformation of Collective Training, the British Army’s been very clear about what it needs. Behind all the documentation and technical requirements, behind the PQQ, SvRD and additional future tender documentation, there’s a single, simple, utterly compelling challenge: ‘To create the world’s best training engine for our soldiers.’

That’s a challenge anyone can understand. It’s also one that everyone can take up. It’s the challenge that the Strategic Training Partner (STP) will be invited to crystalise.

At its height, the Apollo programme would require up to a dozen prime contractors and the concerted efforts of over 400,000 skilled workers from over 20,000 different companies. It’s humbling to see so many of those same companies, half a century later, vying for ACTS. It shows there’s already a coalition of industry across the landscape that’s willing to meet the needs of the Army – but achieving its aims means acting as a single entity just as those contractors and companies did over fifty years ago. It means pooling technologies, expertise and skillsets to create a living, breathing ecosystem that can adapt to the pacing threat and scale to give the Army what it wants – to do what it needs.

As I mentioned before, the scale of ACTS and Apollo isn’t the same, but the same principle applies: the successful development, deployment, operation and ongoing evolution of the system will require an alliance on a grand scale. It’ll require a new kind of STP – an enterprise-wide, agnostic coordinator that can, in turn, draw on the specialist expertise of countless SMEs and the finest minds from across academia – all united in pursuit of the Army’s single-minded vision for collective training.

The breathtaking ambition of ACTS is a feature, not a bug

Now to the second point: the sheer, astonishing ambition of Kennedy’s challenge. The clarity of the challenge is matched by the complexity of the necessary solution. It’s vital to understand that the tremendous difficulty – the near impossibility of putting a human on the Moon – was a feature of Kennedy’s vision, not a bug. It was a challenge so far in excess of any existing capability that it effectively negated the Soviets’ lead in the Space Race. If the USSR had a 10-yard head start, the reasoning went, then there was no point in challenging them to a 20-yard race. But in a race all the way to the Moon, what would 10 yards matter?

It would require new technologies and techniques, new materials and – beyond all this – new commercial mechanisms and new ways of working.

In choosing to specify a platform approach to ACTS – a platform that will support the seamless integration of live, virtual and constructive training – the Army’s doing something analogous: it’s challenging its STP to develop, assure, deploy and operate the most sophisticated collective training capability on the planet. It’s envisioning a system that won’t just give it a competitive edge in the future but that will enable it to maintain that edge, too.

So when the Army talks about a ‘Future Collective Training System’, let’s not confine ourselves to thinking about synthetics, VR headsets and state-of-the-art simulators, though these things will be crucial. And let’s not get monomaniacal about data – though data is going to be the lifeblood of this system.

We first need to think of a technological and commercial framework that will prepare the UKs soldiers to survive and thrive in the future battlespace. We need to think of a system in its broadest sense: one that’s as flexible and adaptable as it is secure and resilient; one that’s accessible and frictionless, and also able to evolve to meet developing threats and changing needs.

The toughest challenges are the only ones worth taking on

When you take a step back to take in the daunting scope and scale of the Army’s ambition for the ACTS, it’s tempting to wonder, ‘Does the Army really understand what it’s asking for?’ and ‘Do they really believe it can be done?’

The answer, of course, is a sober ‘yes’ on both counts. And they need an STP that agrees that not only can it be done – it has to be done. The Army needs a team that can inspire and support an entire ecosystem of collaborating partners and interoperable systems. Above all, the Army needs the support of people and organisations that relish the challenge of achieving something nearly impossible. To channel JFK again:

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.” JFK, September 12, 1962

The Army’s committing a vast amount of money – money that’s hard-won, despite recent increases in defence funding, and that must be spent sparingly and wisely.

But the Army isn’t just putting up its money; it’ll be putting its trust in industry. For an institution that values self-reliance so highly, this isn’t easy. In the years to come, this trust will have to be repaid again and again. The skill, operational effectiveness and ultimately the safety of its personnel will depend not just on the British Army’s collective training expertise but on third parties across industry and around the world.

Given how far the Army is willing to go to preserve our collective safety, security and prosperity, it’s essential that those third parties – whoever they are – are truly committed to making good on a promise rather than simply fulfilling their contractual obligations. They need to be prepared to do whatever it takes to see that the Army succeeds.

Author bio
Matt Chuter, Campaign Director, joined Babcock in August 2023 to lead Team Crucible,
having spent more than twenty years in the defence sector managing teams
within big primes, SMEs, start-ups and government departments.