In today’s global military environment, it is more critical than ever to provide our warfighters with the most innovative technology to ensure mission success. Our adversaries are incorporating it so the United States must set the pace. Technology has become inexorably linked with military superiority. While the DoD remains steadfast in training the most lethal warfighters on Earth, it takes collaboration with industry to place that technology piece completing the global defense puzzle.
Kenneth D. Watson, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Materiel Readiness, has stated in the 2018 Readiness Fact Book that the DoD is challenged by an increasing set of adversaries that demand a responsive and adaptive maintenance capability. Our technology advancements need to be aligned with the National Defense and National Military Strategies, which include a focus on readiness. Maintenance technologies, innovations, and modernization must address the materiel readiness required to prevail against any adversary with increased lethality and resilience.
In the commercial industry, we do not face the same challenges as in the defense industry. However, the issue of readiness does mirror business challenges faced by many companies. The DoD can realize through working collaboratively with industry that recombining innovations, approaches, and technologies of the industry in new ways or adapted for the DoD’s specialized needs can help solve similar challenges for the military. In this way, when a manufacturing company finds a solution to sagging efficiency, the same concept could be adopted within the DoD enterprise to boost readiness. Both need to know the location of their assets, the condition of key components, and whether the current status of equipment and personnel can meet the existing demand from orders. For the DoD, these three questions must be fundamentally addressed:
- What capabilities are needed to achieve mission readiness and success now and in the future? This requires knowing the need, which means aligning mission and force requirements to the capabilities needed to execute.
- What is the status of those capabilities? This requires knowing the weapon system assets, a real-time picture of the status of the Joint Force down to the individual ship, tank, aircraft, and service member.
- How should we allocate scarce resources to improve those capabilities? This necessitates a synchronization of data streams so that leaders can realize the best action. Correlating force requirements for likely scenarios with the current status of available people, systems, and infrastructure allows decision-makers to understand where shortfalls may exist and where additional funding could be most effective.
But what does that mean as each service looks to address their priorities in the National Defense Strategy? The Army’s goal is to fill critical personnel gaps and grow force structure. The Navy’s focus is on ship maintenance efforts: building workforce capacity in the shipyards and aviation readiness efforts to include increases in engineering and program- related logistics to speed the repair process. For the Marine Corps, it is to fully fund operating forces and associated maintenance while investing in information warfare, long-range precision fires, air defense, and enhanced maneuver capabilities. The Air Force investment is in additional military end strength to fill critical gaps in pilot, cyber, maintainer, and Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) career fields and to restore the readiness of the fleet, increase lethality, and cost-effectively modernize while also moving to multi-domain warfare. All of these priorities mean investment in new, advanced technologies to meet these mission-critical objectives to improve weapon system readiness and our national security. And, to accelerate the availability of these capabilities into the warfighters’ hands.
The defense sustainment sector includes technologies and capabilities required to maintain the readiness and operational capability of weapon systems, subsystems, software, and support systems. The new technologies that will impact future defense readiness fall broadly into the following categories:
3D Printing/Additive Manufacturing
The DoD’s current state of readiness requires high levels of customization and production of parts in remote and austere locations at low volumes and on tight timelines. Additive manufacturing (AM) has the potential to revolutionize the supply chain by changing the paradigm of transporting manufactured goods to moving design data to create products on demand in the forward operating theater or where the need exists. The physical supply chains have the potential to become digital ones.
The opportunities for the DoD are profound. Digital supply chains can help eliminate the need for large, centralized production facilities to achieve economies of scale. Eliminating these facilities would reduce the need to transport multiple parts to their point of use, which makes military forces significantly more agile through smaller and more secure supply chains. In addition, it will allow for highly customizable parts or combination of parts that were not able to be made as one component in the past. The DoD is relying on many legacy weapons systems that are past their expected lifespans. Gathering repair and replacement parts for these assets can prove to be extremely difficult. AM and reverse engineering are helping get grounded aircraft flying and other equipment functional.
Weapon systems must be ready at a moment’s notice and leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) to anticipate component and system failures will reduce the frequency of unplanned maintenance and increase readiness.
AI and machine learning enable the DoD to continuously monitor and analyze large volumes of data related to machines to identify anomalies and predict breakdowns. The use of sensors on older systems will also allow for the creation of a digital twin of the system which can be utilized virtually to test, evaluate, of optimize operations based on various scenarios.
Over time the use of AI and machine learning will enhance the capabilities of autonomous systems. This self-sufficiency would lend itself to creating and determining operational readiness decisions thereby freeing up resources to focus on the mission itself.
Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality
As DoD weapon systems increase in complexity and maintenance personnel training lags for new technologies, having the right technicians at the right time to maintain systems is becoming an increasingly difficult task to manage.
The benefit of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) is their ability to transform a complex, high-risk or potentially hazardous situation into an immersive interactive experience in a safe environment. The opportunity to practice maintenance and repair in a VR environment that simulates exposure to multi-faceted, potentially dangerous situations can enhance an individual’s readiness to perform practice responses without risk of harm to personnel or equipment.
AR/VR technologies are disrupting the maintenance, repair, and operations (MRO) business by providing engineers more information about critical parts and visibility to maintenance activities. It also provides maintainers with the ability to experience a virtual ride along to see critical equipment behavior in theater. In addition, when these technologies are integrated into the MRO systems, the maintenance operator can quickly report and complete repair jobs—getting mission-critical systems ready for the warfighter. And just as important, to bring that collective intelligence back to the designer for next technology advancement.
Today, the sheer volume of data produced by weapon systems, their maintainers, and new digital ecosystems is overwhelming. If unsecured, this data has the potential to harm through counterfeit, maliciously modified, and poor-quality technology data packages.
Blockchain allows digital files to move through the design, distribution, manufacturing, and in-field phases of the supply chain with the assurance of provenance and traceability. It protects all layers of digital exchanges and enables new manufacturing and sustainment models across DoD. It will enable provenance with traceability on a per part basis so that the history of a part through the design-manufacture- use cycle (digital twin) is known. It will also enable secure data transport through the digital path and digital rights management and licensable transaction.
Creating this secure digital supply chain will help eliminate non-value-added steps in the traditional supply chain model with a reliable means to produce spare parts when needed, reduce turnaround, and increase speed to need. Additionally, the DoD will have a sure means to push spare parts forward to units underway or forward deployed, thus providing more agile warfighter support.
Historically, weapon system developers did not adequately consider and address cybersecurity threats. With the technologies of today, the potential for intrusion into DoD systems is a daily concern. Recognizing new and emerging cyber threats to weapon systems is essential. Timely and accurate intelligence, through continuous communication among the maintenance communities, is vital to the weapon systems sustainment process. Ensuring that the maintenance process and the parts are secure from design through production and use is essential to top performance and availability of systems.
By adhering to standards and protocols, maintainers can create an infrastructure to prevent leakage of proprietary data and assure compliance and cybersecurity. The industry must also monitor the cybersecurity capabilities of their suppliers to establish an environment of trust.
Internet of Things
Supporting the DoD goal to increase asset availability and reduce maintenance expenditures, internet of things (IoT) and sensors enable collection and analysis of vast amounts of operational data from maintenance assets and critical components. This data is leveraged to track and predict maintenance needs of critical assets and prevent unscheduled maintenance stoppages.
IoT and sensors enable DoD maintainers to avoid time-consuming disassembly during inspections and troubleshooting and instead make targeted maintenance decisions. Distributed intelligence of sensor-connected assets helps sustainment managers make the right decisions on the shop floor improving efficiencies and availability of limited resources. In addition, monitoring and analysis of critical parts can be used to improve machine productivity and reliability by taking proactive and non-interfering maintenance actions.
IoT in defense maintenance will address critical topics such as the identification and repair of legacy systems and development of new materials with longer projected lifetimes. Sustainment technologies will include advanced processes and practices that include improved forecasting, lean processes and practices, manufacturing, diagnostic and prognostic tools and procedures, personnel education and training, and integrated databases.
Mission trades, risk analysis. and asset performance predictability can be quickly defined for determining availability and where to apply maintainer resources. Deploying IoT and combining it with other key technologies will create closed-loop intelligence for the operating conditions and behaviors of the equipment and warfighter for mission readiness trade-offs, preparation, and ultimately, success.
The maintenance and sustainment environment will continue to be impacted by rapid technological advancements and the changing nature of warfare. The high-end conflicts we must prepare for now will not be like the last one, nor the next one, from a sustainer’s perspective. All the technologies and ecosystems discussed here are fueling the DoD maintenance digital transformation of DoD ultimately ensuring that they meet the challenge of a more lethal, resilient, and rapidly innovating sustainment ecosystem. Working as a collaborative team, government and industry are delivering upon a common vision and mission for safeguarding America’s and her global allies’ security around the world.