New intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), sixth-generation stealth fighter jets and emerging hypersonic weapons are all benefitting from a vigorous Air Force push toward digital engineering. This is a method of weapons development that massively expedites innovation, specifications analysis and war preparations for new technologies.
The emphasis, which enables innovators and weapons developers to use computer simulations as a way of assessing performance analysis of different alternative applications and configurations, circumvents the need to build multiple systems for testing purposes in some cases. While bending metal and aggressive prototyping are very much fundamental to fast-tracking new technologies, the process can be greatly assisted by the effective use of “digital” technologies.
This strategy has already generated enormous results with programs such as Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent now building next-generation ICBMs or the now already flying sixth-generation jet fighter program, called Next-Generation Air Dominance, according to senior Air Force leaders such as the service’s acquisition executive William Roper.
Given all of this progress, Air Force is taking new steps to move weapons development more fully into the digital world by creating a new “e-series” designation for certain programs heavily focused upon digital engineering and cybersecurity.
The new class of “e-series” programs will, as announced by Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett, incorporate “aircraft, satellites, weapons systems and more that are digitally engineered.”
This strategy, not surprisingly, is also echoed in the Air Force Research Laboratories 2021 Commander’s Intent essay. The paper writes that, throughout the coming year, the service will “double down on digital transformation and fund more tools.”
These “e-Series” efforts all increasingly incorporate several pertinent technological variables to include cloud migration, simulation and the growing use of AI.
“We are working to bring together operators and technologists to look at the art of the possible. We look at wargaming and bring it into modeling and simulation and analysis. We are looking at how we find disruptive capabilities and change the landscape to harvest those ideas,” Mr. Chris Ristich, Transformational Capabilities Office Director and Director of Strategic Development Planning & Experimentation, told reporters at an Air Force Research Laboratory media event during the 2020 Air Force Association’s annual Conference, told reporters.
All of these elements are designed to reduce a hardware footprint, and can help expedite the “e-series” transformation by enabling broader access to time-critical information, technological progress and developmental interoperability. For instance, one node can more easily implement software-reliant network upgrades, patches and cyber defenses throughout an entire network.
Cloud-migration, greater automation and information sharing bring both security advantages and challenges. The cloud can increase security because many nodes will still be operational and accessible should one particular entry point be compromised. Yet, singular points of entry might run the risk of exposing an attacker to a wider swath of information to steal. Cloud migration can also benefit from many protective measures extending far beyond “perimeter security” and, by virtue of increased virtualization, patch, protect or upgrade across entire networks with one “fix.”
Also, when it comes to expanded digital operations, growing use of AI and automation can lead toward more real-time analytics such as that outlined in the Commander’s Intent, identifying anomalies more quickly and reaching entire networks quickly with new virtualized, or software-driven security enhancements. Current techniques include the greater use of encryption, stronger passwords and use of “dual” or “multi-mode” authentications engineered to better protect network access. The Cyber Squadrons, created a few years ago, are now accelerating a specific focus on cyber hygiene and advanced methods of recognizing and thwarting automated attacks and AI-empowered intrusions.
Kris Osborn is the new Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University. This article first appeared earlier this year.