As the Department of the Air Force embarks on its digital transformation journey, the service is looking at how digital twins and other digital engineering tools can simultaneously bolster its high-end weapons systems while rapidly delivering weapons to warfighters in theater.
Brig. Gen. Heath Collins, program executive officer for weapons and director of the armament directorate at the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, said that although we’re emerging from a low-tech threat era (one that was marked by the global war on terror) into a more sophisticated one, the Air Force is still operating with high-end weapons systems that are more than two decades old.
“We’re back into the mode where we have a very sophisticated adversary, a very driven adversary, and one that has been keenly focused on us and how we fight over the last two decades,” said Collins during ExecutiveBiz Events’ Digital Twins Forum.
“They’re delivering at an incredibly rapid pace. They have incredible focus, resources, agility and openness in how they get to and deliver these capabilities. And today the weapons enterprise is not the weapons enterprise we need in that world, but we’re certainly doing a lot to get after that,” he shared.
Range, lethality, survivability and cost per effect are the “big four” factors that Brig. Gen. Collins takes into account when making decisions about acquiring and developing weapons for the future fight. Digital twins, he said, can help optimize this process while promoting open, agile methods.
“We’re in the middle of developing hypersonic weapons, and a key part of that is going to be the capability delivered versus the cost delivered versus the survivability of the weapon – and all that’s got to tie together to inform decision makers,” he explained.
As the Air Force is anticipating what the future cruise missiles and maritime strike weapons might be, Brig. Gen. Collins said these efforts need to be informed by physics space models and digital twins.
Shifting focus from the future fight, Collins noted that digital twins can help continually assess the operational utility of existing and legacy weapons systems as warfighter needs change.
“Something you started eight years ago may actually not be the weapon you actually need today because the threat has changed,” he said. “How do you continually inform the decision making to ensure you’re actually developing a weapon that is still effective when you deliver it? How can digital twins help augment what we need to do to make sure the weapon is the weapon that the warfighter needs, and that it delivers?”
One major remaining challenge, Collins shared, is “tying everything together” in an integrated digital environment that can reach across security barriers and eliminate stovepipes.
“We have a lot of different security constructs and caveats – every program is a little different, and historically, we don’t tie those programs together,” commented Collins. “But to really truly benefit an enterprise, you’ve got to tie them together. And we have not solved that challenge.”
Today, as the geopolitical landscape continues to see massive shifts, the Air Force is making sure to prioritize both the high-end future fight as well as the current one being fought by operators in the field.
“We are still very much in the infancy of doing this digital transformation because we’re still fighting wars, we’re still delivering systems,” Collins said. “And so we’re kind of trying to change the tires on the car as we’re driving down the road.”
Join ExecutiveBiz Events for its next program, the Defense Software Modernization Forum, on May 17 to learn about the implications, challenges and opportunities surrounding the Department of Defense’s new software modernization strategy.