Scoping out the Grey Zone: Sub threshold AI: Competition Document

Sub Levels


1. Introduction:

This Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA) competition seeks novel and innovative proposals to help explore the role Artificial Intelligence (AI) can play in improving the Ministry of Defence (MOD) ability to conduct Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) of the sub-threshold information environment[1].

The sub-threshold encapsulates all activity up to, but not crossing, the legal definition of armed conflict.

For the purposes of this competition, we are treating the definition of AI as follows; Machines that perform tasks which are normally performed by human intelligence, and how machines perform these tasks, when they learn from data.

We are facing many specific challenges within the sub-threshold information environment. This competition is focusing on three of those challenges. We are interested in ideas that can help Defence to apply and use AI to:

  • identify actions in the sub-threshold information environment which are hostile?

  • understand the intent and attribution of those actions?

  • generate courses of action and plausible response options?

The intent is to improve the options for the MOD in developing the technology and understanding to enable processing and exploitation of vast quantities of data at machine speed, improving the our ability to:

  • Understand actions in the sub-threshold, and identify which are, or appear to be hostile

  • Understand the implications and reach of activities in the sub-threshold

  • Attribute actions to actors

  • Identify likely or plausible intent or consequences

  • Propose plausible response options

We are looking to fund proposals across a range of maturity levels. We are interested in lower TRL ideas for acceleration, through to ideas which apply AI at TRL6.

Dstl has produced a biscuit book on this theme. Learn more here: The Dstl Biscuit Book on Artificial Intelligence, Data Science and Machine Learning.

2. Competition key information

2.1 Submission deadline

Midday on 6 June 2023

2.2 Where do I submit my proposal?

Via the DASA Online Submission Service for which you will require an account.

Only proposals submitted through the DASA Online Submission Service will be accepted.

You must not submit any information classified above OFFICIAL.

2.3 Total funding available

The total funding available for Phase 1 of this competition is £800,000 (ex VAT). This is expected to fund multiple proposals over a maximum project duration of 6 months and must be complete by March 2024.

We are looking to fund proposals across a range of maturity levels. We are interested in lower TRL ideas for acceleration, through to ideas which apply AI at TRL6.

Additional funding for further phases to increase the TRL may be available. If there will be a future phase, it will be open to applications from all innovators and not just those who submitted Phase 1 successful bids.

3. Supporting events

3.1 Dial-in session

Tuesday 25 April 2023

A dial-in session providing further detail on the problem space and a chance to ask questions in an open forum. If you would like to participate, please register on the Eventbrite page. To get the most out of this session, we strongly advise that you attend with a good knowledge of the competition document.

Register now

4. Competition Scope

4.1 Background Information

AI is a growth area of interest for Defence and Security. There is a significant amount of investment being made in AI technology and research across MOD, wider government and within the wider commercial sector outside of defence and security. The vision for AI across Defence is for the MOD to be the world’s most efficient, trusted and influential Defence organisation for our size as recently outlined in the Defence Artificial Intelligence Strategy which can be accessed here.

The Dstl AI Programme will deliver the underpinning research required to harness the game-changing nature of AI for Defence, building on research delivered outside of Defence (working with industry, academia and international partners.

Within the Dstl AI Programme, there are a number of projects, one of which is the AI and Autonomy Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance project (A²ISR Project). This project is looking to tackle a number of ISR challenges with AI. Within A²ISR is the sub-threshold theme, under which this Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA) competition sits. The aim of the sub-threshold theme is to research and develop AI techniques that enable us to identify and understand malicious actions taking place in the sub-threshold information environment.

The recent Integrated Review refresh 2023 highlights the importance of this area. It specifically refers to the MOD’s interest in the sub-threshold; “We will further strengthen the UK’s ability to tackle state and non-state threats below the threshold for armed conflict”.

5. Competition Challenges

This competition is looking for proposals to research and develop Artificial Intelligence (AI) techniques to understand malicious actions in the sub-threshold information environment[1].

We have developed a simplified model (below) covering the three primary areas of interest:

  • Indicators & warnings – what hostile activities are taking place in the sub-threshold information environment?

  • Intent & attribution – who is undertaking the activities and why?

  • Courses of action – what are the possible courses of action we could take?

The illustration below shows how we believe that ‘indicators and warnings’, ‘intent’ and ‘attribution’ fit into the broader intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance picture.

Figure 1: Simplified model of ISR of the sub-threshold information environment

The number of activities and areas of interest with the sub-threshold information environment is large. To help define this, we have outlined 57 activities across: diplomatic, information, military and economic dimensions (though recognising that in the sub-threshold these will overlap). An extract of this work is available here. We have shared this to help give context to the different dimensions to activities within this area. Proposals are expected to centre around one or more of these areas.

Proposals should be focused on lower TRL ideas for acceleration, through to ideas which apply AI at TRL6.

This competition has three challenge areas. Suppliers are invited to submit proposals against one (or a combination) of the following challenge areas:

5.1 Challenge 1: Indicators and Warnings

We are interested in all proposals that consider the development of AI techniques to enable to aid analysts in identifying likely hostile actions in the sub-threshold information environment. Examples of these capabilities may include;

  • Validating third party data, for example foreign news sites or social media. For example manipulated media and detecting AI-generated media or data.

  • Detecting and characterising the emergence and spread of adversary narratives (in social media and news media).

  • Using AI to examine supply chains, for example technology acquisition or natural resources.

Proposals against this challenge should not be constrained by the examples listed above, we are interested in all proposals that consider the development of AI techniques to enable hostile actions in the sub-threshold information environment to be identified.

5.2 Challenge 2: Intent and Attribution

Having identified that potentially hostile activity is underway (Challenge 1), we are interested in the use AI to attribute their actions and infer the adversary’s intent.

Examples of AI applied to inferring intent and attribution may include;

Proposals can be framed around the examples above but we welcome proposals that consider the application of alternative AI techniques including signature detection.

5.3 Challenge 3: Courses of Action

The third, and most demanding challenge area that we are considering proposals against – is how AI techniques can be applied to support the generation of potential courses of action. This is due to the levels of uncertainty introduced in challenges 1 & 2 as well as reasoning of possible courses of action and how AI may evaluate these.

AI technology against this challenge may include formulating and planning information activities and evaluating the courses of action.

5.4 We are interested in…

  • novel ideas that ultimately bring benefit to end-users working in UK Defence and Security

  • proposals that are focussed on one of the three challenge areas listed above. This competition is specifically looking at the application of AI to ISR of the sub-threshold, and so proposals should be focussed on the application (or potential application) of AI within that environment

  • proposals that consider the MOD’s position on ethics for AI: ‘Ambitious, Safe, Responsible’

  • planned use of open source information should be included in the proposal and will have to be compliant with relevant UK legislation and MOD policy regarding publicly available information and open source intelligence (OSINT).

  • innovative or creative approaches with ambition to deliver workable demonstrations of new concepts

  • theoretical development, method of advancement, or proof of concept research

  • potential for practical demonstration in phase 1 or later phases for example, demonstrations on standalone IT with software codes to be delivered to Dstl

  • clear demonstration of how the proposed work applies to the sub-threshold information environment

  • how you will work in a flexible manner with the Dstl team, including regular updates on progress and some flexibility in approach

5.5 We are not interested in…

Our focus is on the subthreshold information environment and AI technology that can be applied to the challenges (1-3) in this space. We are not interested in:

  • AI proposals that are not focussed on the sub-threshold information domain, though these could be relevant to the current Artificial Intelligence IFA competition

  • consultancy, paper-based studies or literature reviews which summarise the existing literature without any view of future innovation

  • demonstrations of off-the-shelf products requiring no experimental development (unless applied in a novel way to one of the challenges)

  • proposals that offer no real prospect of out-competing equivalent technologies

  • proposals that utilise existing commercially restricted algorithms where the software code cannot subsequently be delivered to Dstl for exploitation and further development.

  • proposals from organisations not willing to co-operate with defence strategic suppliers in potential subsequent phases

6. Accelerating and exploiting your innovation

It is important that over the lifetime of DASA competitions, ideas are matured and accelerated towards appropriate end users to enhance capability. How long this takes will be dependent on the nature and starting point of the innovation.

Lower TRL proposals could be exploited through the existing Dstl research programme. There is potential for high TRL proposals to be further developed and deployed through Defence AI Centre experimentation hub (DAIC-X). Which is part of the Defence AI Centre seeking to exploit innovative AI research at pace. DAIC works closely with partners across Defence, including the Commands.

6.1 A clear route for exploitation

For DASA to consider routes for exploitation, ensure your deliverables are designed with the aim of making it as easy as possible for collaborators/stakeholders to identify the innovative elements of your proposal.

Whilst DASA recognises that early identification and engagement with potential end users during the competition and subsequent phases are essential to implementing an exploitation plan, during the competition phase there should be no correspondence between suppliers and DASA other than via the DASA helpdesk email at accelerator@dstl.gov.uk, or their local Innovation Partner.

All proposals to DASA should articulate the expected development in technology maturity of the potential solution over the lifetime of the contract and how this relates to improved capability against the current known (or presumed) baseline.

6.2 How to outline your exploitation plan

A higher technology maturity is expected in subsequent phases. Include the following information to help the assessors understand your exploitation plans to date:

  • the intended defence or security users of your final product and whether you have previously engaged with them, their procurement arm or their research and development arm

  • awareness of, and alignment to, any existing end user procurement programmes

  • the anticipated benefits (for example, in cost, time, improved capability) that your solution will provide to the user

  • whether it is likely to be a standalone product or integrated with other technologies or platforms
  • expected additional work required beyond the end of the contract to develop an operationally deployable commercial product (for example, “scaling up” for manufacture, cyber security, integration with existing technologies, environmental operating conditions)
  • additional future applications and wider markets for exploitation
  • wider collaborations and networks you have already developed or any additional relationships you see as a requirement to support exploitation
  • how your product could be tested in a representative environment in later phases
  • any specific legal, ethical, commercial or regulatory considerations for exploitation

6.3 Is your exploitation plan long term?

Long term studies may not be able to articulate exploitation in great detail, but it should be clear that there is credible advantage to be gained from the technology development.

Include project specific information which will help exploitation. We may collaborate with several organisations outside of the UK Government and this may provide the opportunity to carry out international trials and demonstrations in the future.

7. How to apply

7.1 Submission deadline

Midday on 6 June 2023

7.2 Where do I submit my proposal?

Via the DASA Online Submission Service using Chrome, for which you will be required to register. Only proposals submitted through the DASA Online Submission Service will be accepted.

7.3 Total funding available

The total possible funding available for this competition is £800,000 (ex VAT), and we expect to fund a number of proposals of up to £300k (Exc. VAT) each in value, over a maximum project duration of 6 months and must be complete by March 2024. However, DASA reserves the right to fund one outstanding bid up to £800,000 (Exc. VAT) that demonstrates value for money, provides high quality supporting evidence of platform performance to date and a detailed project plan to deliver on the competition challenges.

Additional funding for further phases to increase the TRL may be available. Any further phases will be open to applications from all innovators and not just those that submitted Phase 1 bids.

7.4 For further guidance

Click here for more information on our competition process and how your proposal is assessed.
Queries should be sent to the DASA Help Centre – accelerator@dstl.gov.uk

7.5 Conflict of Interest

  • As part of the assessment process we will review any conflict of interest between this themed competition and the Dstl project AI and Autonomy for the ISR Enterprise (A²ISR). Therefore bidders are expected to include a short statement as to whether they are currently involved in the Dstl project AI and Autonomy for the ISR Enterprise (A²ISR) and who you are working with.

8. What your proposal must include

  • the proposal should focus on the Phase 1 requirements but must also include a brief (uncosted) outline of the next stages of work required for exploitation

  • when submitting a proposal, you must complete all sections of the online form, including an appropriate level of technical information to allow assessment of the bid and a completed finances section

  • you must include a list of other current or recent government funding you may have received in this area if appropriate, making it clear how this proposal differs from this work

  • a project plan with clear milestones and deliverables must be provided. Deliverables must be well defined and designed to provide evidence of progress against the project plan and the end-point for this phase; they must include a final report

  • you should also plan for attendance at a kick-off meeting at the start of Phase 1, a mid-project event and an end of project event at the end of Phase 1, as well as regular reviews with the appointed Technical Partner and Project Manager; all meetings will be in the UK. Meetings may also take place virtually.

  • your proposal must demonstrate how you will complete all activities/services and provide all deliverables within the competition timescales (March 2024). Proposals with any deliverables (including final report) outside the competition timeline will be rejected as non-compliant

9. What your resourcing plan should include

Your resourcing plan must identify, where possible, the nationalities of proposed employees that you intend to work on this phase.

In the event of a proposal being recommended for funding, the DASA reserves the right to undertake due diligence checks including the clearance of proposed employees. Please note that this process will take as long as necessary and could take up to 6 weeks in some cases for non-UK nationals.

You must identify any ethical / legal / regulatory factors within your proposal and how the associated risks will be managed, including break points in the project if approvals are not received.

MODREC approvals can take up to 5 months therefore you should plan your work programme accordingly. If you are unsure if your proposal will need to apply for MODREC approval, then please refer to the MODREC Guidance for Suppliers or contact your Innovation Partner for further guidance.

Requirements for access to Government Furnished Assets (GFA), for example, information, equipment, materials and facilities, may be included in your proposal. DASA cannot guarantee that GFA will be available. If you apply for GFA, you should include an alternative plan in case it is not available.

Failure to provide any of the above listed will automatically render your proposal non-compliant.

9.2 Export control for overseas partners

All relevant export control regulations will apply if a company ultimately wants to sell a developed solution to a foreign entity. All innovators must ensure that they can obtain, if required, the necessary export licences for their proposals and developments, such that they can be supplied to the UK and other countries. If you cannot confirm that you can gain the requisite licences, your proposal will be sifted out of the competition.

Additionally, if we believe that you will not be able to obtain export clearance, additional checks may be conducted, which may also result in your proposal being sifted out of the competition.

10. Cyber risk assessment

10.1 Supplier Assurance Questionnaire (SAQ)

On receipt of a ‘Fund’ decision, successful suppliers must prove cyber resilience data before the contract is awarded. The start of this process is the submission of a Supplier Assurance Questionnaire. The SAQ allows suppliers to demonstrate compliance with the specified risk level and the corresponding profile in Def Stan 05-138, and the level of control required will depend on this risk level.

To expedite the contracting time of successful suppliers we ask all suppliers to complete the SAQ before they submit their proposal. The SAQ can be completed here using the DASA Risk Assessment RAR-879260945 and answer questions for risk level “Very Low”.

10.2 Defence Cyber Protection Partnership

The Defence Cyber Protection Partnership (DCPP) will review your SAQ submission and respond with a reference number within 2 working days. The resulting email response from DCPP should be attached (JPG or PNG format) and included within the DASA submission service portal when the proposal is submitted. You will also be asked to enter your SAQ reference number. Please allow enough time to receive the SAQ reference number prior to competition close at midday on 6 June 2023.

If the proposal is being funded, the SAQ will be evaluated against the CRA for the competition, and it will be put it into one of the following categories:

  1. compliant – no further action

  2. not compliant – if successful in competition and being funded, the innovator will be required to complete a Cyber Implementation Plan (CIP) before the contract is placed, which will need to be reviewed and agreed with the relevant project manager

Innovators can enter a proposal without all controls in place, but are expected to have all the cyber protection measures necessary to fulfil the requirements of the contract in place at the time of contract award, or have an agreed Cyber Implementation Plan (CIP).

The CIP provides evidence as to how and when potential innovators will achieve compliance. Provided the measures proposed in the Cyber Implementation Plan do not pose an unacceptable risk to the MOD, a submission with a Cyber Implementation Plan will be considered alongside those who can achieve the controls.

A final check will be made to ensure cyber resilience before the contract is placed. Commercial staff cannot progress without it. This process does not replace any contract specific security requirements.

Further guidance for completing this process can be requested by emailing the DASA Help Centre: accelerator@dstl.gov.uk.

Additional information about cyber security can be found at: DCPP: Cyber Security Model industry buyer and supplier guide.

10.3 Public facing information

When submitting your proposal, you will be required to include a title and a short abstract. The title and abstract you provide will be used by DASA, and other government departments, to describe your project and its intended outcomes and benefits. They may be included at DASA events in relation to this competition and in documentation such as brochures. The proposal title will be published in the DASA transparency data on GOV.UK, along with your company name, the amount of funding, and the start and end dates of your contract. As this information can be shared, it should not contain information that may compromise Intellectual property.

11. How your proposal will be assessed

At Stage 1, all proposals will be checked for compliance with the competition document and may be rejected before full assessment if they do not comply. Only those proposals that demonstrate compliance against the competition scope and DASA mandatory criteria will be taken forward to full assessment.

Mandatory Criteria  
The proposal outlines how it meets the scope of the competition. Within scope (Pass) / Out of scope (Fail)
The proposal fully explains in all three sections of the DASA submission service how it meets the DASA criteria Pass / Fail
The proposal clearly details a financial plan, a project plan and a resourcing plan to complete the work proposed in Phase 1 Pass / Fail
The proposal identifies the need (or not) for MODREC approval Pass / Fail
The proposal identifies any GFA required for Phase 1 Pass / Fail
Maximum value of proposal is £300K (excl VAT) Pass / Fail
The proposal demonstrates how all research and development activities / services (including delivery of the final report) will be completed within 6 months from award of contract (or less). Pass / Fail
The bidder has obtained the authority to provide unqualified acceptance of the terms and conditions of the Contract. Pass / Fail
Bidder has confirmed if they are involved in the Dstl project AI and Autonomy for the ISR Enterprise (A²ISR) Pass / Fail
Bidder has confirmed they have consider the MOD’s position on ethics for AI: ‘Ambitious, Safe, Responsible’. Pass / Fail

Proposals that pass Stage 1 will then be assessed against the standard DASA assessment criteria (Desirability, Feasibility and Viability) by subject matter experts from the MOD (including Dstl), other government departments and the front-line military commands. You will not have the opportunity to view or comment on assessors’ recommendations.

DASA reserves the right to disclose on a confidential basis any information it receives from innovators during the procurement process (including information identified by the innovator as Commercially Sensitive Information in accordance with the provisions of this competition) to any third party engaged by DASA for the specific purpose of evaluating or assisting DASA in the evaluation of the innovator’s proposal. In providing such information the innovator consents to such disclosure. Appropriate confidentiality agreements will be put in place.

Further guidance on how your proposal is assessed is available on the DASA website.

After assessment, proposals will be discussed internally at a Decision Conference where, based on the assessments, budget and wider strategic considerations, a decision will be made on the proposals that are recommended for funding.

Innovators are not permitted to attend the Decision Conference.

Proposals that are unsuccessful will receive brief feedback after the Decision Conference.

12. Things you should know about DASA contracts:

12.1 DASA terms and conditions

Please read the DASA terms and conditions which contain important information for innovators. For this competition we will be using the Innovation Standard Contract (ISC), links to the contract: TERMS and Schedules.

We will require unqualified acceptance of the terms and conditions; if applicable, please ensure your commercial department has provided their acceptance.

Funded projects will be allocated a Project Manager (to run the project) and a Technical Partner (as a technical point of contact). In addition, the DASA team will work with you to support delivery and exploitation including, when appropriate, introductions to end-users and business support to help develop their business.

We will use deliverables from DASA contracts in accordance with our rights detailed in the contract terms and conditions.

For this competition, £800K is currently available to fund proposals. There may be occasions when additional funding may become available to allow us to revisit proposals deemed suitable for funding. Therefore, DASA reserves the right to keep such proposals in reserve. In the event that additional funding becomes available, DASA may ask whether you would still be prepared to undertake the work outlined in your proposal under the same terms.

13. Key dates

Competition closes Midday 6 June 2023
Feedback release August 2023
Contracting Aim to start October 2023 and end 6 months later in March 2024

Competition queries including on process, application, commercial, technical and intellectual property aspects should be sent to the DASA Help Centre at accelerator@dstl.gov.uk quoting the competition title. If you wish receive future updates on this competition, please email the DASA Help Centre.

While all reasonable efforts will be made to answer queries, DASA reserves the right to impose management controls if volumes of queries restrict fair access of information to all potential innovators.


[1] Actions below the threshold of war which have a signature in the information environment, although the action itself may be in the physical or the information domain.



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