Experts: Digital Engineering Can Help Field New Weapons Faster Than Acquisition Reform

Embracing and incentivizing digital methods in design and manufacturing can help the U.S. match or outpace its adversaries, a new report from the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies argues—and top Pentagon and industry officials say they are working to do just that.

Digital methods go beyond computer-aided design in that all participants in the design, development, test, and production enterprise can see a design in real-time and be aware of any changes being made as they are happening. This allows these efforts to proceed concurrently, rather than wait for the handoff from one phase to another.

During a virtual rollout of their new policy paper, analysts Heather Penney and Brian Morra said digital engineering will speed up the fielding of new systems far more rapidly than trying to reform and accelerate the existing acquisition system.

Jeffrey Reed, director of engineering/digital transformation at Northrop Grumman, offered tangible examples of that speed, saying his company has applied the digital approach to 140 programs and is seeing increased velocity across the board. The company applied some “automated checks” to compare progress on old-style programs against the digital ones, and found “rework rates are going down.”  

Northrop found “a dramatic decrease … in a completely apples-to-apples comparison in the hours to manufacture.” It was a “surprising decrease” because of digital engineering, and “it moves the learning process left, and you do it earlier,” he said.

Gaining widespread acceptance of digital engineering is a work-in-progress within the Pentagon. David Tremper, deputy assistant secretary of defense for acquisition integration and interoperability, said the DOD is working on converting the “mindset” of the acquisition community to accept and exploit the digital approach.

Older employees, he said, may distrust the new format, especially because they have been evaluated their whole career on doing things in the prescribed way laid down in decades-old acquisition law. Younger employees, however, “demand” doing things the new way. They don’t have the patience for plodding, paper-intensive methods, he said. New—and shorter—courses in applying digital methods are being required at Defense Acquisition University, he said.

“The Department has set up something called the Digital Engineering credential,” he said. It’s “a series of courses. It’s five courses mixed in with some webinars that allow learning on digital engineering and acquisition programs. And…1,200 folks have come through that credentialing process since 2019, and it’s continuing to evolve.”

Older acquisition professionals are coming along, he said, because they can see that digital makes their jobs easier.

That buy-in is crucial, Penney and Morra argue, because the current ponderous U.S. acquisition system of sequential development and production milestones won’t work against the “blistering” pace with which China is fielding new systems.

“China is outpacing us in development and fielding of advanced weapon systems,” Penney said. “They have 200 J-20s,” China’s premiere stealth fighter considered comparable to the Air Force’s F-22, she said, “and they’re building more at a rate of 100 a year. Compare that to Air Force recapitalization rates.”

While acquisition reform is a “noble” pursuit and must be pursued, digital offers a faster way to catch up to U.S. competitors, Penney said.

“Digital engineering has the potential to accelerate defense capability development and fielding without the need for acquisition reform, and this could have a major, major impact on our strategic positioning against China and Russia.” She quoted Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall’s oft-uttered warning that “we are out of time,” and faster ways must be found to correct the Air Force’s status of being “the smallest, the oldest, and the least ready that it’s ever been in its history.”

Penney said she and Morra originally intended the paper to be a “primer” on digital methods and lexicography, but it became apparent that digital offers a quicker means of achieving faster acquisition results that reformers have sought for years. It pairs well with acquisition reforms and authorities recently granted by Congress to skip steps and accelerate programs.  

For the past three years, Air Force Materiel Command has been shifting its processes to a digital approach and will apply them not only on the front end of programs, but in the sustainment phase as well.  

And while digital works best on new systems like the B-21 and Next-Generation Air Dominance fighter, it can also be applied to older systems, Penney said. Creating a “digital twin” of a B-52 bomber wing can accelerate the process of fitting new-design pylons and engines, as is being done with the B-52 Commercial Engine Replacement Program (CERP).

Overall, there has been a push to emulate the successes of lean organizations like the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office, but Penney said that these efforts haven’t worked because their approach is impractical for large programs.

“They’re important organizations that focus on a small number of often highly classified capabilities,” she said. “These offices go fast and deliver good stuff, but their organizations and their approach simply cannot scale; consider all of the programs the Air Force has in its portfolio and its recapitalization needs.”

Still digital efforts are yielding good success by allowing all elements of a design, development and production enterprise to pursue those phases in parallel rather than sequentially, and Penney and Morra offered six recommendations in their report to help the process along.

  1. The Department of the Air Force should “incentivize the use of comprehensive digital engineering” for new-start acquisition programs. This approach should be rewarded in contracting because it will save time and money in development and sustainment.
  2. DAF leadership should review all programs to see if they can be all-digital, or “hybrid digital” programs, or how legacy (pre-digital) programs could benefit from some digital applications, then put these into effect.
  3. DAF leadership needs to invest in training its acquisition workforce in understanding and using digital tools and processes.
  4. DAF leaders should promote “open standards” for digital systems, so programs can talk to each other and expand the possibility for reuse of some elements, to save on time, money and sustainment.
  5. The DAF should maintain a library of digital engineering tools and make them available to small businesses, sub-tier suppliers, and other elements of the vendor base that may lack the sophistication to develop or buy such tools on their own. This would also provide benefits in cyber resiliency, improve quality and “ultimately expand the larger digital ecosystem.”
  6. The DAF and its prime contractors and their vendor chains “must ensure their IT infrastructures are modernized and secure.”