Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC) has embarked on an ambitious effort to employ digital modeling and engineering techniques across the service’s myriad programs, in the hopes that these technologies will speed up program lifecycles and improve long-term sustainment.

Earlier this spring, AFMC launched a new “digital campaign” that aims to modernize the lifecycle progress of Air Force systems by incorporating new techniques such as digital engineering into the program from the very beginning. Several of the service’s biggest capability areas are already using digital engineering processes during the R&D period, such as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program to replace the Minuteman III missiles, and the B-52’s Commercial Engine Replacement Program (CERP).

Gen. Arnold Bunch, who took over as AFMC commander in May 2019, said the goal is to put a digital foundation in place for each of the service’s platforms and systems that will improve design and development, fielding and ultimately sustainment. In his prior role as the military deputy for Air Force acquisition at the Pentagon, he noticed that several service programs that were progressing well had incorporated digital engineering and modeling from an early stage.

“We realized that we had some programs that were doing pretty well by using digital engineering, digital models, and sharing that information. But we didn’t really have a holistic look at, ‘How is that going to work across the lifecycle of a system?’” Bunch said in an exclusive June 17 interview with Defense Daily.

Now, a team led by former Air Force Research Laboratory Commander Maj. Gen. Bill Cooley is gathering data from across the AFMC and larger Air Force enterprises to better understand what the service needs to do to incorporate digital modeling processes on a large scale, and quickly. Six lines of effort are being worked, to include integrated information technology infrastructure; models and tools; standards, data and architectures; lifecycle strategies and processes; policy and guidance; and workforce and culture.

The team is working with the service’s program executive officers, with members of the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics at the Pentagon, with the Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base, and with industry partners, Bunch said.

“We are looking at how we do need to set up our teams? How do we need to look at our infrastructure? What kind of computing capability do we really need to be able to make all that happen? What kind of manpower do we need, and how do we need to train them, and what kind of skill sets do we need? How do we get them educated?” Bunch said. “And how do we get at the cultural piece of this, because if you start doing everything digitally, that’s different than printing out reams of paper and asking for a whole lot of data products to be turned in.”

The results of the digital campaign will be critical to shape Air Force program management for the long term, he noted. “We have some programs that are really doing a great job in this area. We have other programs that are really doing a great job in one part of that lifecycle, but not across the whole spectrum,” he said.

“We’re trying to more broadly apply that [process], and I think that’s going to be one of our bigger undertakings this year,” he continued.

Sometime in calendar year 2021, the command should have a set of guidelines to help implement digital engineering and modeling across its portfolios and the Air Force at large. “Within the next year, we’ll have a better idea of what kind of skill sets we need,” and the command can then establish training methods and data collection standards, Bunch said.

The digital campaign will at times work in tandem with the Air Force’s broader Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) program, for example, when it comes to developing a new cloud IT network. The campaign’s team will also look at legacy airframes and see where it makes sense to incorporate some digital modeling efforts that could keep them in the inventory for a longer period of time, Bunch said.

Partnering with industry will be key to success, he added. “We need to listen a little bit and learn.”