Published on
Dec 2, 2021

The material was assigned a clearance of CLEARED on 23 Nov 2021.

The United States is engaged in a strategic competition. Not since the end of the Cold War has our country been challenged politically, economically, and militarily as it is today. As a result of these new and emerging challenges, the National Defense Strategy has shifted focus to near-peer adversaries. U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff, General Charles Q. Brown has challenged all Airmen and their industry partners to “Accelerate Change or Lose.” But what does “Accelerate Change or Lose” mean to Airmen and industry partners involved in acquisition and technology development? Moreover, what are the current and emerging Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC) strategies that address rapid capabilities development and the transition of innovative technologies required for a near-peer competition?

Air Force Materiel Command’s plan of attack

In July 2020, AFMC released an updated AFMC Strategic Plan, highlighting four Lines of Effort (LOEs) needed to ensure U.S. Air and Space Forces remain ready to fly, fight, and win, today and into the future: increase readiness and lethality, deliver with disciplined speed, strengthen the AFMC team, and foster trusted partnerships.

Line of Effort #2: Lethality Delivery with Speed and Discipline has five supporting objectives to accelerate the competitive edge of the U.S. Department of the Air Force:

  1. Lines of Authority – Propose and modify authorities and business rules to increase velocity between and within our organizations
  2. Information Technology – Provide the infrastructure necessary to execute our mission
  3. Digital Enterprise – Deliver new strategies for digital operations in logistics & engineering
  4. Science & Technology 2030 – Implement the U.S. Air Force’s Science and Technology 2030 Strategy
  5. Innovation Partnerships – Integrate functions within test, innovation, and joint acquisition communities

According to the AFMC plan, the command will “Revolutionize AFMC business practices to accelerate delivery of relevant technologies and capabilities to guarantee joint force competitive advantage. We will rapidly buy, build, and deliver warfighting technologies and capabilities that the warfighter demands. To do this, AFMC will adapt their culture and mindset to create processes with clear and consistent lines of authority that drive speed of decision-making and synchronize efforts across the command.”

Let’s take a closer look at objective #4: Science and Technology 2030.

The Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) supporting AFMC strategy

In April 2019, the Department of the Air Force released its Air Force Science and Technology Strategy for 2030. It said, “The guiding vision of the U.S. Air Force Science and Technology 2030 Strategy is a U.S. Air Force that dominates time, space, and complexity in future conflict across all operating domains.” This means the U.S. Air Force operates at an unrivaled speed.

Additionally, the National Defense Strategy calls for building a more lethal, resilient, and rapidly innovating Joint Force. The 2030 Science and Technology Strategy aligns with this call, but it also requires transformational strategic capabilities that must be driven by scientific and technological advances. “The Air Force scientific and technical enterprise will predict where adversaries cannot easily go and then ensure the Air Force gets there first.”

The keys to achieving this vision are:

  • Objective I: Develop and deliver transformational strategic capabilities

  • Objective II: Reform the way science and technology are led and managed

  • Objective III: Deepen and expand the scientific and technical enterprise

Supporting concepts and activities include Vanguard Programs, re-focused science and technology investments via AFWERX/AFVENTURES’ Department of the Air Force Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) awards, and various Pitch Day Events.

While HQ AFRL has re-tooled their planning, strategies, and activities to facilitate rapid development and harvesting of transformational technologies, the persistent challenges of transitioning even generational technologies into meaningful Programs of Record (PoR) remains. Perhaps, the key to integrating these newly developed, transformational technologies into current and future PoRs resides in another supporting objective of AFMC’s Line of Effort #2: Delivery with Speed and Discipline-Digital Enterprise.

Leveraging the Digital Enterprise

The Air Force Digital Enterprise emphasizes the need for Airmen to have access to data when and where they need. While digital initiatives are typically associated with data management, IT infrastructure, and related business operations, digital engineering, a subset of emerging digital capabilities, may prove the most critical. We must change how we develop and acquire technologies if we are to stay ahead of accelerating peer and near-peer threats. Traditional acquisition and engineering methods are inefficient and error prone because they rely on stove-piped data sources, domain specific models, and static disjointed documentation. Digital engineering is a shift from disparate document-centric engineering practices to a model-centric engineering approach, resulting in an integrated set of engineering views across the system’s lifecycle, serving as an authoritative source of truth.

Digital engineering will move the systems engineering discipline towards an integrated, model-based approach using digital environments, processes, methods, tools, and digital artifacts. As a part of the digital trinity, digital engineering when coupled with modular open systems architectures and agile software development, may provide the critical elements necessary to bridge the notorious “valley of death” in defense technology. But how can the digital trinity help tech transition and deliver increased capabilities to U.S. Air Force operators? Let’s take a closer look.

Value of the Digital Trinity

According to the National Defense Industrial Association, “Digital acquisition emphasizes a commitment to open architecture and agile software, as well as digital engineering and management. Simply expressed, this ‘digital trinity’ is meant to foster a virtual acquisition process where hundreds of programs and systems can be designed, assembled, tested, and even sustained before the first parts are purchased or used. Former Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, Dr. Will Roper, called it this ‘matrix-like simulation realism’ with the newer slogan of ‘eCreate Before You Aviate’ that is so exciting for both the Department and industry.”

Furthermore, when digital engineering is coupled with Agile Software Development and Modular Open System Architectures (MOSA), or digital trinity, the aggregate effects on U.S. Air Force acquisition programs can be substantial in terms of cost, schedule, and performance. These aggregate cost, schedule, and technical performance benefits are providing rationale for digital trinity-based engineering and business practices to buy their way into emerging Air Force program portfolios. This digital trinity value proposition may also open the door for more rapid system technology refresh cycles, greater innovation, reduced integration times and costs, and enhanced competition.

Ultimately, the ability to model innovations and capabilities at the system and subsystem levels, and to design, assemble, test, and sustain them in a digital, virtual acquisition environment will reduce the barrier to entry for small business innovators. It is the confluence of significant, re-focused science and technology investments, via AFWERX/AFVENTURES, in small, innovative companies and technologies, coupled with the emerging dynamics of the digital trinity on U.S. Air Force acquisition and their industry partners that may provide optimal benefits. How? The net effect is a small business smorgasbord of various, relatively well-funded emergent technologies in the pipeline and a more agile acquisition system capable of effectively catching and integrating them into U.S. Air Force systems.

Opportunities and Challenges: digital acquisition transformation

While the U.S. Air Force has a clear vision and plan to institute the digital trinity across their portfolio of acquisition programs, many gaps must be addressed to fully realize the promise of open, agile, and digitally designed systems. Chief among these concerns are intellectual property (IP) protections, lack of small innovative technology businesses’ familiarity with bureaucratic acquisition organizations and processes across both Department of Defense (DoD) government and industry ecosystems. Additionally, information technology (IT) backbone, standardized tools to facilitate the free flow of required systems engineering and programmatic data, and the lack of proliferated digital engineering tools, training, and best practices for these small business innovators are problematic. Fortunately, the U.S. Air Force and DoD have, or are developing, plans to address IP, IT backbone, and Tech Stack related issues. Additionally, several credible organizations have emerged over that last few years to address the challenges previously highlighted with respect to aiding small business innovators bridging the “valley of death” and with assisting both government and industry partners on their digital journey.

The Academic Partnership Engagement Experiment or APEX, for example, is providing a myriad of capabilities to not only small business innovators and Air Force acquisition organizations but also academic institutions. Specific examples of support that APEX provides to address the above highlighted challenges include, but are not limited to:

While organizations like APEX are vital to bridging critical U.S. Air Force technology connection and transition gaps, implementation of digital acquisition not only provides opportunities but new challenges. Small business innovators, U.S. Air Force acquisition organizations, and even well-funded, large prime contractors could use a digital engineering “Lewis and Clark” to guide them along their digital journey. Fortunately, companies like Strategic Technology Consulting (STC) provide robust, agile, and affordable digital engineering capabilities for critical U.S. Air Force acquisition organizations, prime contractors, and small business innovators. Key to STC and their clients’ success is an organizational culture steeped in systems engineering discipline and expertise and digital competence, including model-based systems engineering and associated tools and processes, keen knowledge of DoD Government Reference Architectures (GRAs), and expertise in applying design patterns that result in MOSA conformant systems. Understanding the digital trinity and how to best implement it and utilizing commercial experiences and experience from multiple DoD pathfinder initiatives are examples of demonstrated STC discriminators vice a sea of other entities professing to be digital engineering firms.

The Uncertain Future of Digital Enterprise Transformation

The USAF, USSF, DoD, and our country will face numerous challenges as China and Russia continue to challenge the U.S. in near-peer competition. It will be interesting to see how the digital transformation, and the digital trinity will manifest itself across acquisition programs. Will digital engineering realize its promise of better cost, schedule, and performance for AFMC? Will the aggregate effects of the digital trinity finally enable more small business innovators to bridge the “Technology Valley of Death” and deliver capability to our warfighters; better, cheaper, and faster? Will digital acquisition tools and processes hold the key to accelerating innovation and change in our acquisition system? While the coming chapter of acquisition history remains to be written, AFMC has clearly made a large investment on the promise of digital enterprise transformation, as it represents AFMC’s #1 priority in support of the Gen. Brown’s call to action: Accelerate Change or Lose.