COVID-19 and Accelerated Digital Military Transformation

By Graham Grose

While 2020 was a turbulent and uncertain year across many industries, for the defense sector, it has been a wake-up call. Military organizations in particular have been forced to adopt new ways of working due to social distancing and the need to collaborate remotely. This has driven a need for more technology and less traditional, paper-based, processes.

This increased use of technology by military organizations and their in-service support partners is spawning a proliferation of valuable data being fed back by their assets, their people and their software. This data backbone is the common thread which underlies my three key developments that will shape the industry in 2021 and beyond.

  1. Simulated data – AI, machine learning and predictive analytics moves from maintenance concept to practicality

There has been significant discussion in recent years about the potential for AI and predictive analytics among military, industry and academic commentators. But now, in a practical sense, we are now closer than ever to translating these principles into ‘on the ground’ maintenance strategies to revolutionize military asset readiness. The U.S. Congressional Research Service has recently published a paper which outlines how AI will directly impact National Security going forward.

It explains that research is underway in the fields of intelligence collection and analysis, logistics, cyber & information operations, and in a variety of semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles. In fact, AI has already seen action in military operations in Syria and Iraq. In the UK, General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, chief of the general staff, has shared a vision for the transformation of the British Army for the digital age, predicting human-machine partnerships would be “commonplace” by 2025.

5G is a key enabler for practical AI for military operations. With the proliferation of technology such as 5G connectivity allowing as close as possible real-time data exchange, the stage is set for live maintenance updates from military assets such as aircraft or vehicles to be fed back into a logistics system. This system can then optimize maintenance personnel on the ground to make seamless scheduled or even unexpected repairs.

Adding in machine learning is the next step to make maintenance as predictive as possible, bringing the ability to aggregate this data and use AI to simulate assets in a digital twin environment. Add in pre-set requirements such as number of sortie hours required of individual assets, and AI and machine learning will allow OEMs and military organizations to simulate wear on critical components such as engines in a fully digital environment. These models can then be used to inform decision-making for the physical asset—turning simulated data into an ‘on the ground ‘strategic advantage.

  1. Anywhere operations – a key armed forces requirement becomes achievable in disconnected environments

But even in today’s increasingly digital world, there will still be situations where constant connectivity to analyze this data in real time is simply not possible, and nowhere more so than in military operations. Gartner projects ‘anywhere operations’ to be one of the top strategic technology trends of 2021 across all industries, not just defense. It defines anywhere operations as “an IT operating model designed to support customers everywhere, enable employees everywhere and manage the deployment of business services across distributed infrastructures.”

The military often performs mission-critical ‘disconnected operations’ in difficult to reach locations beyond a forward operating base, which means they are perhaps the sector with the most pressing strategic need to embrace the idea of ‘anywhere operations’. Optimizing operations in such a disconnected setting means ‘racing data’ back from these forward operating bases to a main operating base which has the connectivity to inform maintenance and repair requirements.

And here’s where data connectivity becomes key. AI, machine learning and predictive analytics capabilities cannot optimize maintenance cycles without data to work with. As a result, expect in the coming months to see much more focus on supporting software that must have the ability to collect data in the field then upload, sync and action that information when an asset returns to base.

  1. Sustainable operations – what was once considered a luxury is now a strategic goal

An area which will also see increased focus and scrutiny going forward will be sustainability, something that militaries and their in-service support partners may have felt immune from given their remit to maintain national security at all costs—but times are changing.

In August 2020, a joint UK MOD/Industry white paper was announced entitled ‘Roadmap for Sustainable Defence Support’, which outlines the MOD drive to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The Swedish Armed Forces is committed to making changes based on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) of the UN Agenda 2030. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has published a comprehensive sustainability report and implementation plan to fully outline a comprehensive approach to sustainability.

Adopting a more sustainable approach will be a force-wide undertaking, but also one which directly involves logistics and support. This is exactly why Lieutenant General Richard Wardlaw, Chief of Defence Logistics and Support at the UK MOD, has gone on record with the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, and at an interim briefing as part of the Defence Information Defence Sustainability Conference, to outline the strategic implications of climate change for the British Army, and how the Army is responding.

Measuring sustainability efforts from a logistics standpoint also keys into the increasingly data-driven environment military organizations are introducing. Firstly, more efficient asset management in terms of predictive maintenance will vastly reduce the logistics footprint associated with supporting complex equipment such as aircraft and vehicles. Secondly, the same software components which use data streams to help track asset performance and assess financial costs can track environmental costs as well. Environmental impacts can be assigned to each asset and rolled up into a reporting structure to detail the overall environmental impacts of military operations.

Three key developments, one common theme – reliance on a consistent data thread

COVID-19 has impacted industries in different ways—in the military it has actually accelerated digital change. The job is now for military organizations and defense in-service support providers to prioritize their digital initiatives and make sure they have the correct software infrastructure in place, because the benefits of these initiatives will not be achieved in isolation.

While these three developments are differing focus points for defense logistics and support, there is a common digital thread linking them all together—the reliance on data collection, access and analysis. Only by making sure their software infrastructure is able to exploit this common digital thread will they be able to give frontline soldiers, maintenance personnel and commanders alike a data-driven picture of military operations they need and crave for.

Graham Grose

Vice President and Industry Director, IFS.

Graham Grose is responsible for supporting all IFS business development within the A&D industry, together with associated industry marketing and overall product direction. Graham has specialized in the supply of Logistics IS tools in a variety of senior appointments within Sema, BAeSEMA, BAe, BAE Systems and IFS since leaving the RAF in 1991, where he was a Supply Officer serving in a variety of operational and IS appointments. Graham is a supply chain specialist and business analyst and is also a Fellow of the Institute of Management Accountants and a Member of the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply.