When we think about how military aircraft have evolved over the years, the silhouette of the plane, its aerodynamics, or its stealth capabilities may first come to mind. But a key component of that evolution often goes unseen to the civilian eye: the critical mission systems powering those aircraft. Adapting these systems to the needs of the modern warfighter pose nuanced and complex challenges for defense industry leaders, but many are rising to the occasion when they are able to approach the ask from the right angle.
“The concept of developing critical mission systems can be summed up by undergoing a comprehensive re-imagining of how the aircraft operates from the ground up,” stated Carlo Rossi, Senior Manager for Business Development at Collins Aerospace in an interview with Modern Integrated Warfare. “We need to account for everything from operator cohesion to workflow, to user interface. You quickly discover that much of the remaining processes take care of themselves if you put the operator at the center of consideration behind addressing key components.” Collins Aerospace continues to demonstrate this thoughtful approach on a variety of mission computers throughout the fleet.
A crucial part of this holistic system view includes incorporating technologies that are backwards and forwards compatible with legacy and future systems, respectively. “Being able to build that bridge between those technologies can be really challenging,” remarked Christopher Mees, Senior Manager, Value Stream Leader at Collins Aerospace, told us. “That challenge fuels the demand for more open, modular systems in the aircraft.”
But effectively marrying systems across different iterations isn’t the only challenge for those developing critical mission systems in current and future aircraft. The ever-present concern of security in an increasingly contested and congested battlespace is not lost on experts like Rossi and Mees.
“For military IT, it used to be about minimizing code and ensuring it was succinct and elegant enough to get the job done well,” said Mees. “Now, that expectation still exists with the added layer of thinking critically about how an adversary could use that optimum code to their advantage. Today, we have some very smart, well-funded adversaries out there that are focused solely on figuring out how to break our stuff, to put it simply.”
“We’re locking down our systems while also ensuring the right protections are in place to guarantee their functionality, particularly when needed most,” Rossi added.
It’s important to note that the streamlined update of critical mission systems is not solely focused on the ones and zeros of that system, according to Rossi and Mees. It’s about leveraging new to modernize the entire updating process. “Not only do we need the right technology and software, but we need more efficient processes to update those systems” Rossi explained. Mees supported this point, looking at the DevSecOps pipeline as a whole and better understanding how those pieces fit together in the bigger picture to create a more effective critical mission system.
Looking forward, both Rossi and Mees see a shift in how innovation takes place in the defense realm. “There was an era in which evolving defense requirements drove technological innovation,” Rossi said. “But looking ahead, I don’t think those requirements can keep pace with innovation anymore.”
Mees expanded on this challenge, urging decision makers to take a step back in their solution selection process and approach it with more forethought. Specifically, Mees spoke to the importance of understanding a solution’s lifecycle and how building an architecture that supports innovation without rewarding short-sighted technology is important.
“We’re trying to create solutions for the warfighter that are going to stand up to whatever they face for 10, 15, 20, 50 years. In order to do that, we need to look at the entire lifecycle of a product and think about not just the off-the-shelf cost, but the maintenance and eventual replacement costs and processes.”
As depicted by Mees and Rossi, there are many moving parts to be considered in the creation and maintenance of critical mission systems, and with the right perspective and a holistic approach, the defense industry is poised to answer these demands for both today and tomorrow’s warfighter.