AFMC Embraces Digital Engineering to Unleash Value of Disruptive Technologies

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Digital Engineering

The Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC) is responsible for innovation, testing, fielding, and sustaining the U.S. Air Force’s capabilities. Under the leadership of Gen. Arnold Bunch, Jr., the AFMC seeks to operate at the speed of relevance, while building and sustaining a lethal and ready Air Force. One way the Command is meeting its mission is by adopting digital engineering best practices.

Our editorial team recently had the opportunity to connect with Thomas M. Fischer, Director of Engineering and Technical Management, and the Chief Engineer for the Air Force Materiel Command, to talk through the advantages of taking a digital engineering approach, and how it provides rapid capability maturation, delivery, and readiness. Headquartered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Fischer is a member of the Senior Executive Service, ensuring the technical superiority and integrity of Air Force systems and overseeing 80 percent of the Air Force’s engineering and technical workforce.

We asked Fischer about the importance of digital engineering and the benefits he was seeing across several of the Air Force programs.

Here is what he shared:

Modern Integrated Warfare (MIW)Editors: What have been the advantages of taking a digital engineering approach? It is our understanding that USAF is using this approach for both Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) and the Next Gen Air Dominance (NGAD) programs. Are there future programs that will embrace this approach? 

Thomas M. Fischer: The use of digital engineering has already made a significant impact on the GBSD program. The Department has digitally analyzed over 6 billion GBSD variant designs prior to making a selection. GBSD will also ultimately produce a “digital twin” for every GBSD sortie, launch facility, and command and control element.  

Although classification concerns limit much of the information around the Next Gen Air Dominance program, their approach uses high fidelity models to troubleshoot potential design, assembly, maintenance, and sustainment issues before the physical systems exist.

There are many other current (and future) programs leveraging Digital Engineering Techniques. T-7, A-10 Re-wing, B-52 Commercial Engine Replacement, Long Range Standoff Weapon, B-21, Protected Anti-jam Tactical SATCOM, SKYBORG, and others are helping blaze the digital trail for the Department of the Air Force.   

MIW Editors: What lessons have been learned from taking the digital engineering and design approach for these two programs and how will you’ll leverage these best practices for future programs? 

Fischer: In 2020, the Department of the Air Force Digital Campaign interviewed various digital pathfinder programs, such as GBSD, T-7, NGAD, and others, to gather lessons learned, identify best practices, and understand execution pain points. This has enabled the sharing and institutionalization of their successes and an ability to break down various inhibitors across the Department’s acquisitions. 

The Department continues to gather Digital Acquisition enablers and populate them on a Digital Guide that’s accessible to organizations across the DAF. We’ve also established a public version of the Digital Guide, available here (https://wss.apan.org/af/aflcmc/default.aspx), to improve our coordination with industry and sister services.

MIW Editors: What role will open systems and standards have for USAF modernization programs and where do you see industry’s role in participating in the open systems approach? 

Fischer: It is DoD policy that non-government standards be used instead of developing and maintaining government specifications and standards as required by section 12(d) of Public Law 104-113. Therefore, open, consensus-based standards are, and will continue to be, a critical component of the DAF Modernization programs, and a key enabler for efforts like Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) and all Air Force acquisition efforts. 

During modernization efforts, programs will be assessing their affected interfaces and performing a cost benefit analysis of moving from proprietary to open standard interfaces and in creating modular systems when able. 

Industry will play a pivotal role in these efforts as many consensus-based standard organizations include coordination between government and industry members. What the Department has seen in recent years is a combination of government funded efforts and internally funded research and development efforts expanding the utilization of open standards moving towards a goal of greater portability and interoperability of systems. 

MIW Editors: How will these changes impact the procurement process? Are there any other acquisition trends you are seeing on the horizon? 

Fischer: One of the biggest changes in procurement is the type of products or data that is procured. The move to digital acquisition allows the Department to shift from procuring documents that are outdated as soon as they are produced to digital data and models that contain up-to-date information at any given time. The digital acquisition approach also allows for tradeoffs to be assessed more quickly. 

Additionally, these changes will result in improved collaboration with our industry partners within an integrated digital environment during system development. This will enable industry to share information with the government in the data and model formats they’re already using rather than repackaging and reformatting the information in ways that the government can understand. We expect to see program reviews being conducted via the program’s integrated digital environment rather than in a big board room with hundreds of people over several days reviewing drawings or PowerPoint slides of the contractor’s systems model.

MIW Editors: What can industry do to better support USAF in this process to ensure that you are agile and innovative? 

Fischer: Be open to conversations about data rights, increasing government access to system design and development data, and making more information available as Government Purpose rights. We acknowledge this may often come with increased cost to the government, but it’s essential to have an open and early conversation given the path we’re on. 

We also need continued industry support in the evolution of standards, especially consensus-based interface standards so we can get our systems speaking a common language. Additionally, we need our industry partners to properly safeguard their digital environments to protect the systems models and associated data from our adversaries. 

Finally, we acknowledge that more often than not our industry partners are further along in their own digital transformations, so helping us anticipate pitfalls in our approach to transformation and being open about ways we can coordinate with industry better will be mutually beneficial to all of us.

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Managing Director at Strategic Communications Group and Editor of Modern Military Today. Seawright oversees the direction of the publication and manages the editorial staff.