The Navy wants to embrace digital engineering to help speed up its acquisition process and cut its long-term sustainment costs. This includes using “digital threads” that span all the way from a new system’s initial design through its eventual retirement.
And to jumpstart the process, officials are considering ways to use the digital engineering platforms defense contractors have already built.
The Navy already started building “digital twins” — virtual replicas of physical systems that can dramatically speed up the process of integrating new innovations into the fleet by accurately predicting how they’ll work in the real world.
But as in other parts of DoD, the current thinking is that the biggest payoff will come when fully-digital engineering processes can account for the full lifecycle of a weapons system, letting the military services make better decisions about total cost of ownership and long-term maintenance.
After all, those long-term sustainment costs make up 70% of spending on an average weapons system, said Jay Stefany, the Navy’s acting acquisition chief.
“In an ideal world, it’s a single digital model to be used for the program’s requirements definition phase, the 3D design, and then that same model and data moves into the digital production phase, and we then use it for developmental testing and operational testing,” he said Wednesday during an acquisition symposium hosted by the Naval Postgraduate School. “Then, operator training and maintainer training should use the same digital thread, and ultimately for lifecycle sustainment and modernization. We need to figure out how to turn that single thread for the lifecycle of a program into a reality.”
And one way to accelerate those changes may be to piggyback on the work the Navy’s biggest vendors have already done to build digital engineering environments of their own. As of now, they’re for internal corporate use only, for understandable intellectual property protection reasons. But Stafany said big contractors have indicated at least an interest in collaboration.
“Every one of the major companies comes in and tells me they have great digital models, and my first question is, ‘Okay, when can we bring our warfare centers or research folks in and have a collaborative digital environment?’ And the devil’s in the details,” he said. “The contracts and the legal and the data rights are work to be done, but my goal is not to reinvent the wheel. If an OEM already has a model or they’re developing a model, we should be able to be in the middle of that. We just need the right licenses and the right authorities.”
Stefany said the Navy is in discussions with the House and Senate armed services committees on how to craft legislative language that would give the military clearer legal guardrails to make use of defense contractors’ digital engineering environments. He said those new authorities would need to make clear that the government will protect any intellectual property in their data environments from possible exposure to competitors.
“We’ll need to approach it collaboratively: you, the OEM, still own that environment, we just want to be in it and have access to it through acquisition, and be able to use it to sustain our own ships and airplanes and weapon systems,” Stefany said. “We don’t want to resell your stuff on the international market, but we do want our own sailors and Marines to be able to use it to sustain the equipment we’ve given them. At the president and CEO level, they’re all on board with that. It’s the third parties they worry about.”
Another challenge in crafting those new authorities is that they’ll need to be flexible enough to accommodate the types of data access the Navy might need for a particular system, whether it be an aircraft, a ship, or an electronic warfare platform.
In any event, Stefany said the Navy doesn’t envision a one-size-fits-all approach to accessing contractors’ digital engineering environments, and will likely negotiate over each one.
“I want the industry to come back and prove to us that there’s some special sauce the government shouldn’t have [rights to], and that they didn’t just stamp everything as proprietary,” he said. “So getting the dialogue going is the key. If not contract-specific, it will probably be company-specific or domain-specific.”
The Navy isn’t alone in wanting to work with contractors on digital engineering.
The Air Force, for example, envisions a future in which digital engineering can be accomplished with enough fidelity that it can award contracts for most major systems on the basis of digital models, not necessarily physical prototypes. But that service is looking to approach the problem from the other direction: Giving companies access to a government-operated digital engineering environment, rather than asking for access to the contractor’s.
And the Defense Department thinks there’s promise in the digital engineering approach the Air Force took on systems like its Ground Based Strategic Deterrence program. Stacy Cummings, the acting undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment, said it helped set the program up with the data rights it will need over its entire lifecycle without locking itself into a single vendor.
“Emerging threats and the challenging socio-technical operating environment require a fundamental change to the way we develop and acquire weapon systems and their supporting technologies,” she said. “DoD is committed to digital engineering efforts to drive agility and more informed acquisition decision making. In addition to modernizing the department’s digital engineering capabilities to include fully-digital programs, we are in critical need of standards that will enable collaboration.”
Cummings said digitizing the acquisition lifecycle could be especially helpful in areas like developmental and operational testing, and particularly with regard to software.
“Congress has encouraged us to reduce the timeline for how quickly we’re releasing software, because we simply can’t keep up the pace of the demand from our user if we have a very serial process of testing — contractor-led testing followed by developmental testing and then operational testing,” she said. “We also can’t continue to look at testing as being something that is only done in a physical environment. So we’re encouraging program managers to work with their developmental testing and operational testing teams to maximize automated testing. And both the developmental and operational test policy leaders are committed to create and implement policy that allows us to take advantage of technology for automated testing and integrated testing.”