The Air Force Digital Campaign kicked off the first Virtual Industry Exchange Sept. 21, 2020, hosting industry and academia to share the Digital Campaign strategy, invite input from the commercial and private sector, and to prepare participants for how the Department of the Air Force will conduct business in the digital age.
The event follows the Air Force’s recent announcement of the eSeries approach to developing aircraft, weapons and satellites which will be digitally engineered and virtually tested before ever taking physical form.
The strategy is to use digital engineering to achieve acquisition agility and disrupt the nation’s adversaries.
More than 1,500 people tuned in for the virtual event, co-hosted by Dr. Will Roper, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, and Gen. Arnold W Bunch, Jr., Commander, Air Force Materiel Command.
Bunch noted the Digital Campaign is well aligned with the National Defense Strategy, AFMC’s strategic plan, and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles C.Q. Brown, Jr.’s “Accelerate Change or Lose” white paper calling for innovation, collaboration and risk taking to deter and win a high-end fight against a peer adversary like China or Russia. The intent is to use digital tools to drastically speed weapon development, acquisition and fielding.
“This is an effort that we started as a team back in February with [the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition Technology & Logistics,] Space and Missile Systems Center, and all of Air Force Materiel Command centers being represented, as well as all the program executive officers laying out what we thought it would take to go toward digital engineering and to have a Digital Campaign across AFMC which we hope will grow out even broader,” said Bunch.
Roper described the scale and pace of China’s military modernization, fueled by determined leadership, a controlled economy and a massive force of cheap labor. He added the U.S. will not be able to match that, absent a disruptive force to level the playing field.
“I think that digital engineering and digital transformation have the potential to be that (force),” Roper said. “We’ve got to make this work. Having interconnected models that also connect to our supply and the need to use technology and digital engineering approaches to supply chain and assembly process is a noble ambition that will snowball as we continue in future programs, but there’s so much more we can do and will have to do if we are to truly be a disruptive designer.”
Digital engineering is so much more than computer aided design, according to Roper. The acquisition executive said he’s been working with many companies and consulting firms to learn how they are using digital tools and models to dramatically reduce the time to develop, build and test virtually, hundreds of times, before metal is bent for the first time in the physical world. He offered Formula One auto racing as an inspiration space where this is being done successfully.
“Formula 1 with Digital Twins is a great example as one of the things I believe we can use as a way to evolve. The entire design, development, verification and training of the driver is all accomplished digitally because the models are that good, they’re one-to-one with the real world. The digital world actually supersedes the physical one. We will always require that real world data and our reason for getting it should be to come back to come back to the digital world,” said Roper.
Roper noted the T-7 Redhawk, Next Generation Air Dominance and the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) programs among only a handful of examples where digital engineering tools and models are now being used in the acquisition process, not only in design, but across the entire lifecycle of the weapon system. He and Bunch want to share these lessons, build “digital fluency” knowledge across the department’s acquisition workforce and scale the capability to become the standard for both the Air Force and Space Force.
“The more complicated, the more risky something is, the more digital engineering makes sense, the more you are likely to see amazing results,” Roper said.
Three exemplar acquisition programs where digital tools are being incorporated were briefed: Air Force Nuclear Weapon Center’s GBSD replacement for the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile weapon system; Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s WeaponONE; and the Space and Missile Systems Center’s Protected Anti-jam Tactical Satellite Communication System (PTAS).
Bunch identified Six Lines of Effort (LOEs) for AFMC, along with senior leader champions who will provide focus and drive the accomplishment of the command’s objectives in support of the Air Force Digital Campaign.
Industry questions and comments ranged from intellectual property considerations, to theft of technology by adversaries, to model based simulation, visualization and analysis tools, and their limitations. A significant focus of the discussion centered on policy issues, along with educating and incentivizing the acquisition workforce to embrace digital engineering principles.
Bunch reiterated that uniformed and civilian Airmen will be the most important piece of this digital transformation.
“Our Airmen will be the driving force of this future we’re discussing today. We must recruit, equip, and retain our talent to get to the Air Force we need.”
Jackie Janning-Lask, director of the Air Force Research Laboratory Sensors Directorate, also leads the AFMC Line of Effort focused on Workforce and Culture. “Culture eats strategy for lunch,” she said, to underscore the criticality of getting workforce buy-in to the Digital Campaign. The task of implementation across the workforce will be difficult, she said, but will enable the fast fielding and disruption Dr. Roper seeks for the nation.
Nick Shouse, an engineering technical advisor with the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, and event organizer, acknowledged he sees this as the first of many such events as the Air Force continues its digital journey.
“The partnership with industry and academia is critical for getting this right. We all look forward to continued dialog and engagement.”