Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force Chengdu J-20 single-seat, twinjet, all-​weather, stealth, fifth-generation fighter aircraft performs at an air show in China on November 6, 2018. David Chao
Photo Caption & Credits

Strategy & Policy

July 22, 2021

The Players Changed, But Digital Engineering and Modeling Is Here to Stay

Former Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper raised eyebrows in 2018 when he proposed a “Digital Century Series” of quickly designed and fielded new fighters. The Air Force needed a better, faster way to innovate to stay ahead of Russia and China. 

 Roper is gone, but his revolution remains, and there’s no going back, according to acting acquisition chief Darlene Costello.

The “pivot to a digital architecture and a digital acquisition approach” is critical to keeping up with China, Costello told an Air Force acquisition conference in July. China’s command economy is unfettered by acquisition rules and can move with greater speed. While it took 30 years for China to match the F-15 with its J-30 fighter, “it only took 10” to match the F-22 with the stealthy J-20, she said.

“They’re finding ways to do this faster. We must also,” she stated. “The case for change has never been more acute than now.” 

Costello sent out a memo in May formalizing the requirements for digital engineering, agile software, and open-systems architecture, what she called the “digital trinity.” This will allow USAF to “replace, automate, or truncate real-world activities” and pay benefits in time, cost, and precision.

The trends in acquisition programs are “not good,” as it now takes 10 to 20 years to turn a requirement into a fielded capability, she said. The pace incentivized “bad behavior” among contractors, prompting some to favor long-term sustainment of aging platforms over new programs. Those timelines will put the U.S. permanently behind fast-moving adversaries.

“We want the industrial base to be robust,” Costello said. USAF is “motivated to broaden that group,” because competition tends to drive capability up and prices down. Digital will make that possible.

Fully digital acquisition and development was not an option until recently, Costello said, noting a “10,000 times” increase in computing power since 2000, with a corresponding plummet in the cost of data storage. Now aircraft can be designed digitally, producing not only blueprints for production, but 3D models whose performance can be simulated and tested before production ever begins.

While the model “may take as long” to design and build as a prototype airplane, modifications, upgrades, changes, and testing can be made with far greater speed, she said.

Numbers Speak Volumes

The Air Force has had great success with digital approach in its newest programs, Costello noted. The B-21 bomber and Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) missile are exploiting digital methods, and they are considered two of the Air Force’s best-run programs. Both are on schedule and within cost, and in the case of the GBSD, the design went through “six billion iterations” to find the exact sweet spot of cost and performance, Costello said. That could not have been done with previous methods.

Boeing’s T-7 trainer was also designed digitally, and that program went from “a computer screen” to first flight “in 36 months,” Costello noted.

Some older systems are getting a hybrid digital treatment. With the A-10 re-winging, “we did not go and turn the entire A-10 into a digital model,” just the elements that were needed, she said.

Likewise, for the B-52 Commercial Engine Replacement Program (CERP), the Air Force created a digital model “for the engines, connections, and interfaces, but not the entire B-52, per se.” The approach is expected to shave “many, many months” off the development and installation of the new engines. Contractors are also proposing their engines digitally, with no paper changing hands, to ensure all stakeholders have access to the same models and same “ground truth,” Costello said. Only after down-select will a “physical prototype” be produced.

She said programs like the A-10 and B-52, that use the hybrid approach, will be “e-programs,” while “e-series” programs are those designed digitally from the start—like the T-7 and the Next-Generation Air Dominance fighter. With a digital “twin” in hand, the Air Force will be able to rapidly update these systems, or simply move on to their successors after a decade or so. 

The T-7 goes together with 80 percent fewer assembly hours, and its software takes half as long to code as an aircraft designed the old way,  Costello said. The digital approach will also allow USAF to “bake in” airworthiness, safety, and cyber certifications from the outset. 

Costello said that the Air Force’s digital acquisition “journey” is only in its infancy, though, and that the Air Force “writ large” is only at a “two or three” on a scale of 1-to-10, although some individual programs are already at a 10. “We are just … making our plans, getting tools in place, doing our training, teaching people. … We’ve got a ways to go.”

The T-7A Red Hawk is an all-new advanced pilot training system designed for the U.S. Air Force that will train the next generation of fighter and bomber pilots for decades to come. Designed using a digital thread, the T-7A aligns with the U.S. Air Force’s Digital Century Series strategy by enabling the integration of new concepts and capabilities faster and more affordably through virtual testing. The Red Hawk builds off the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, paying tribute to the legends of the past and the heroes of the future. Boeing

See Something, Say Something

Military and commercial aviators have known since the 1940s: If something weird occurs in the sky, best keep it to yourself. Eyes would roll and careers could be unmade by reporting strange lights or objects performing impossible maneuvers, even if those objects were also tracked by radar or other sensors, or there was gun camera footage verifying the sighting. 

Not anymore. The Pentagon directed pilots, sensor operators, and others to report such incidents within two weeks. Under pressure from Congress, the Defense Department ordered combatant commanders (CCMDs), defense agencies, and field activities directors to promptly send such reports up the chain of command, under the assumption that if it’s not “one of ours” it’s a potential threat. A central clearinghouse of such documented reports, which are increasing, is being set up to figure out what’s going on. 

Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen H. Hicks issued the order in a memo dated June 25, the same day Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Avril Haines issued her report, “Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP)” (the new and improved version of the term “Unidentified Flying Objects”). The report was mandated by the last Congress, which ordered an unclassified report on the topic by the end of June. 

Hicks said DOD personnel must observe and “report whenever aircraft or other devices interfere with military training.” Safety and security at training ranges and installations depend on it, she said. The move coincides with a rising number of commercially available drones flying near or in restricted military or controlled civilian airspace, with a commensurate jump in the number of near-collisions with aircraft.  

The DNI report, Hicks said, “confirmed that the scope of UAP activity expands significantly beyond the purview of the Secretary of the Navy,” who’s been running the UAP Phenomena Task Force. She directed the undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security (USD/I&S) to take on and “develop a plan to formalize” the mission now performed by the task force. 

Open a New Blue Book

Hicks directed the undersecretary for security and intelligence to: 

  • Create procedures for reporting UAP phenomena and securing military test and training ranges,
  • Identify what’s needed—staffing, money and authorizations—to set up a new UAP investigative organization
  • Coordinate the creation of this new organization with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Service Secretaries and CCMDs, as well as the DNI.

The DNI report—prepared at the behest of Senate Intelligence Committee members such as Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and mandated in the fiscal 2021 Intelligence Authorization Act—concluded that there’s not enough “high-quality reporting” on UAPs to “draw firm conclusions” about what they are, or who they might belong to. It looked at military reporting of UAPs since 2004, many of which the DNI admitted “probably do represent physical objects” because they were tracked not only visually, but with sensors such as “radar, infrared, electro-optical, [and] weapon seekers.”

In a few cases, these objects “appeared to exhibit unusual flight characteristics,” according to the DNI report, saying this could be the results of sensor errors, “spoofing” by an adversary, or “observer misperception,” and more analysis is needed. 

Safety of flight is clearly in peril, the DNI said, noting that pilots must contend with “an increasingly cluttered air domain.” Moreover, if the UAPs are foreign intelligence collection platforms, they pose a threat to national security. They would be a sign that an adversary has developed “either a breakthrough or disruptive technology.”

A clearinghouse of reports will make it possible to use a whole-of-government approach to figuring out what UAPs really are, the DNI cited, but that activity could become “resource intensive” and will need further investment.

The DNI acknowledged that there is “stigma” attached to reporting UAPs, and while that’s diminished with more open discussion of the phenomena, “reputational risk may keep many observers silent, complicating scientific pursuit of the topic.” 

Is it China?

The DNI looked into 144 reports from government sources, of which 80 involved corroboration with “multiple sensors.” The objects observed are probably of “multiple types,” the DNI said, but probably fall into one of five categories: “airborne clutter, natural atmospheric phenomena,” U.S. government or industry secret projects, “foreign adversary systems,” or “other.” It acknowledged the possibility that they “may be technologies deployed by China, Russia, another nation, or a non-governmental entity.” 

In 11 of the cases, pilots reported a near-collision with the object, the DNI reported. 

There was “some clustering” of sighting during training events and at training grounds, as well as some common denominators about UAP “shape, size, and particularly, propulsion.” In 18 of the events scrutinized, the object exhibited “unusual flight characteristics,” such as hovering, moving against the wind, abrupt maneuvers, high speed, or extreme acceleration “without discernible means of propulsion.” These incidents are getting continuing scrutiny, according to the report.

The DNI said it’s waiting on the Air Force to provide more data on some of its encounters with UAPs. 

“Although USAF data collection has been limited historically, the USAF began a six-month pilot program in November 2020 to collect in the most likely areas to encounter UAP and is evaluating how to normalize future collection, reporting, and analysis across the entire Air Force.”

(ILLUSTRATION) — An illustration of an F-16 encountering three Unidentified Aerial Phenomena during a mission. ILLUSTRATION FROM A USAF PHOTO. Mike Tsukamoto/staff; Tech. Sgt. John Raven

Classified Annex

While the UAP report was unclassified, a classified annex provided to the Senate Intelligence Committee included information obtained through the FBI; the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency; national means of signals intelligence, measurement, and signatures intelligence, and human intelligence. It also identified specific threats to national security in UAP cases, as well as any information pointing to an adversary having obtained “breakthrough aerospace capabilities.”

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) said he’s been briefed on UAP phenomena for the last three years, and “the frequency of these incidents only appears to be increasing.” It’s essential the U.S. “understand and mitigate threats to our pilots,” whether those threats come from drones, balloons, or “adversary intelligence capabilities.”

Rubio, in a statement timed to coincide with the DNI report’s release, said military operators have too long been “ignored and ridiculed” with regard to UAP reports. He called the DNI report “an important first step” in understanding such incidents, but “just a first step,” and he pledged that the committee will work with the Pentagon to further explore the subject.