Opinion

As mission-capable rates languish, Pentagon should embrace digital engineering

While many Pentagon initiatives face a change of course under new Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, its digital engineering strategy deserves a push forward.

The strategy, issued in 2018 by then-Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin, aimed to help military services harness modern sustainment methods like additive manufacturing, digital twin and augmented reality. For the Department of Defense, enterprisewide implementation of these techniques would lower costs, increase weapon systems’ mission-capable rates and afford flexibility in fleet modernization.

But digital engineering requires digital, 3D data — and the DoD doesn’t have enough.

Modern sustainment practices hinge on the availability of what’s known as the model-based definition, 3D models and digitized descriptive information for a system or component. Using computer-aided design programs, engineers can manipulate the data to enable practices like condition-based maintenance, eliminating weapon systems’ unnecessary downtime. Digital data can facilitate seamless transit from original equipment manufacturers, or OEM, to procurers and sustainers in the field and at maintenance depots worldwide.

However, the technical data for most weapons systems remains elusive to the services and their program management offices, or PMO, or the datasets are available only in 2D documentation, such as blueprints.

Meanwhile, readiness suffers. Of 46 weapons systems reviewed by the Government Accountability Office, only three achieved annual mission-capable targets at least five times between 2011 and 2019. More than half (24) failed to meet their goal even once, according to GAO’s November 2020 report.

The KC-13OJ Super Hercules air refueler and the MV-22B Osprey tiltrotor were among the programs to miss their target all nine years. GAO cited inaccessible technical data as a contributing factor for both programs. Of the Super Hercules, the report says: “The Navy and Marine Corps were unable to obtain the technical data of the aircraft ... the lack of the technical data compromises [their] ability to analyze and resolve sustainment issues.” Similar concerns were raised about the P-8A Poseidon anti-submarine aircraft, saying “technical data needed for maintenance has not been readily available to the Navy.” Dozens of systems, including the F-35 fighter jet, face similar obstacles.

Notably, the GAO report referred not to 3D, model-based data but rather legacy incarnations: blueprints and documents that may have been converted “digitally” into PDFs. This is a far cry from the machine-readable formats required to use digital engineering technologies across the enterprise.

The GAO cited the production of 170 “structural repair manuals” as a means of narrowing the Osprey’s technical data gaps. The labor-intensive replication of physical documents — the PMO projected five years to deliver all of them — is a piecemeal solution, at best. Troublingly, modern sustainment methods seem beyond the reasonable expectation of not just PMOs but even forward-looking organizations like the GAO.

To foster its DoD-wide implementation, the digital engineering strategy needs reinforcement, which could take the following forms:

  • Champion the availability of model-based technical data in policy. Modern sustainment requires a shift from decadesold practices. Paper data that supports secondhand manuals and haphazard 2D-to-3D conversion should no longer be the norm. Services cannot lead this transition on their own, however. Federal guidance on the acquisition, creation, use and management of authentic, model-based technical data would jump-start the movement toward digital sustainment.
  • Educate PMOs to acquire technical data rights strategically. Policy must be partnered by the right mindset. One reason PMOs don’t have technical data is that sometimes they never asked for it. An afterthought at the time of procurement, technical data is often overlooked until maintenance is needed. Then it’s too late — or too expensive — to acquire the needed rights. Leadership can encourage PMOs to identify potential sustainment solutions — and the technical data rights needed to execute them — at the time of acquisition.
  • Assert the government’s rights to model-based technical data. A sea change in sustainment depends on building unprecedented trust between OEMs and PMOs. OEMs understandably need to protect intellectual property, but their grip on model-based technical data must loosen for digital sustainment to flourish at scale. This can be accomplished without OEMs surrendering their competitive advantage. In many cases, OEMs need not transfer custody of the data itself for sustainment activities. Limited-rights agreements and trusted third-party arrangements can be tailored to enable data availability only when needed or to execute specific solutions. Giving OEMs confidence in these approaches will entail extensive dialogue and commitment by DoD leaders. Given the GAO’s assessment, seeking a breakthrough is worth the attempt.

Operationalizing the DoD strategy requires work in other areas as well, particularly in removing intra- and inter-organizational stovepipes, and securing the data’s transmission and storage. But the first step toward a model-based sustainment enterprise is ensuring the availability of modern technical data. This need will only grow more crucial.

Today’s sustainment practices too closely resemble those of 30 years ago, not what they should be 30 years from now. We’re already playing catch up. It’s time to view sustainment with 3D glasses.

Ben Kassel is a senior consultant at LMI. He previously worked with the U.S. government on defining and exchanging technical data used for naval architecture, marine and mechanical engineering, and manufacturing. Bruce Kaplan is a fellow at LMI. He previously served as technical director of logistics for research and development at the Defense Logistics Agency.

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