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Where physical meets digital: Balancing opportunity and risk in defence in 2019

IFS Aerospace & Defense tells us how military organisations and defence contractors can make the most of the digital transformation. 

Whether it’s through technology such as intelligent planning tools, digital twins, virtual and augmented reality, or combating threats in new domains, the dividing line between the cyber and the physical world is beginning to blur. For the military and commercial organisations in the defence sector, this means getting ahead of the digital curve and putting in place solutions that can act as a strategic enabler to manage this shift. 

Here Evan Butler-Jones, director of defence product line at IFS’s Aerospace & Defence Business Unit, discusses the three key areas where digital will impact the physical world in 2019 and beyond.

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Autonomous tech is bringing undersea operations into the digital fold

There is now an increased focus on the development and adoption of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) which are generally less mature than autonomous aerial vehicles. AUVs are now being deployed in a number of military applications across intelligence, surveillance, inspection, underwater repair maintenance, navigation and communication.

The global underwater robotics market is seeing significant growth and is expected to reach a market size of $6.74bn by 2025. In part, this is being driven by investment such as the 2016 announcement by the US Department of Defense to dedicate $600m over the period of 2016 to 2020 for the development of variable payload unmanned undersea vehicle capabilities. This is seconded by Canada’s call for an integrated and persistent sensor, information, and decision system for surface and near-surface monitoring in order to enhance its maritime domain awareness. 

  • Security under the surface 

The need to protect networks and critical undersea communications infrastructure, monitor territory disputes and combat trafficking is driving increased undersea activity. The growing risk from non-state actors that have access to relatively inexpensive commercial off-the-shelf technologies also poses a significant threat to shipping and maritime activity. 

It is these areas where autonomous and robotic technology will have serious cost-saving potential for defence and protection organisations, with much smaller autonomous vehicles able to accomplish tasks previously only achieved by fully crewed submarines and surface vessels at great expense. 

In 2019 and looking further ahead, I expect to see defence forces pay more attention to how to manage and operationalise the digital ecosystem which comes with a more complex undersea operational domain, including new robotic hardware, software and data gathering and management tools.

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The intersection of asset readiness and integrity: where digital impacts physical

It’s no longer the case that a system will spend ten years in development and testing and 30 years in operations before being decommissioned and replaced. The traditional long and complex defence procurement process has often resulted in service personnel in the field waiting months or years for critical capabilities and software updates. This is because the procurement of new software has been typically based on the same procurement process for hardware – but this is changing. 

Software development practices have changed. In commercial sectors, patching, updates and feature roll-outs can happen on a weekly basis. With software increasingly becoming an integral part of military forces’ equipment, from wearable tech in the field to flight control software, the ability to take advantage of software updates to improve capability is critical to maintaining the relevance of new equipment acquisitions.

Military forces are realising that their procurement and sustainment processes must adapt, because modern digital solutions are having a real impact on the physical operations. This is equally valid in how militaries manage the complexity within their own organisations. In terms of optimisation and enabling asset and mission readiness, enterprise software is no longer being seen as a necessary evil, but a real strategic enabler.

It is a safe bet to say that this trend will only continue, and the most agile organisations will learn to balance the risks and complexity of software upgrades with the benefits they can bring.

  • New technology and reporting tools combine to become a gamechanger for defence

Improvements in modelling technologies and computer power, combined with the digitisation of equipment, have put more focus on the concept of the digital twin. This concept stands on the idea that by creating a digital replica of a physical asset, its owner/operator can harvest the benefits of real-time monitoring, analytics, and simulation to improve performance, reduce operating costs and extend the lifespan of critical assets.

On the operations side, when dealing with asset readiness this new data stream must be taken into account. This is where reporting tools come under scrutiny – simple business intelligence tools do not have the flexibility to cope with a slew of new information being fed back from a growing number of digitally connected assets. New tools such as enterprise operational intelligence can span this complexity and provide the capability to model operational readiness by drawing data together from different source systems, such as digital twins. Mapping readiness posture by accurately identifying assets, resources status and any required maintenance enables issues to be addressed to ensure a mission deadline is met.

“In 2019 and beyond, it is no longer enough to look at the digital world and the physical world as two disconnected realms, but to understand how the two interact and the resulting implications for operations and support functions.”

Asset integrity has also taken on a whole new meaning, as advanced digitisation is having a profound effect on the definition of “serviceable”. With a diversifying military supply chain, it is critical that software is configured to enforce processes which ensure all required compliance steps are completed to protect the integrity of military assets, parts and components. 

These checks must span a wide range of areas, from ensuring compatible software loads to administrative issues such as managing export control. For example, software needs to ensure that licences are in place prior to exporting controlled goods or information, including denied party check, part specifics, assembly level, licence application, licence usage and document management.

In 2019 and beyond, it is no longer enough to look at the digital world and the physical world as two disconnected realms, but to understand how the two interact and the resulting implications for operations and support functions. In many cases, taking advantage of the opportunities presented by this shift will be achieved by breaking down all the legacy and inflexible stove-piped systems that stand in the way of establishing adequate information assurance and full asset visibility. 

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Redefining cyber warfare: where the digital hits the physical the hardest  

As defence departments get to grips with cybersecurity, we can expect to see a lot of attention paid to securing weapons systems to defend against advanced cyberespionage and cyberattack capabilities over the coming years. A recent report from the US Government Accountability Office on weapon systems cybersecurity points to various vulnerabilities and exploitable flaws in components that are at risk from increasingly sophisticated cyber threats.

The study found that from 2012 to 2017, US DoD testers routinely found mission-critical cyber vulnerabilities in nearly all weapon systems that were under development. Using relatively simple tools and techniques, testers were able to take control of these systems and largely operate undetected.

In the past, cybersecurity was not a key focus of acquisition and requirements policies for weapons systems, nor was it a focus for documents that inform decision-making. Now, the increasing reliance on networked connectivity for weapons systems has shone a light on the need to reassess this as a fundamental priority. 

  • Closing the loopholes 

Even when next-generation tech designed with cybersecurity in mind is rolled out, there will still be an inherent risk where this technology needs to be connected to the older, less secure systems that are still pervasive within defence ecosystems. 

As weapons systems are becoming more connected, so is the supply chain. It is a growing ecosystem that involves military organisations, OEMs, contractors and third-party providers maintaining equipment via service-based agreements. Add a mix of new materials and software, legacy equipment and emerging technology, and you have a large, varied attack surface.

“Every player in the supply chain has a digital footprint, and the chain needs to get more rigorous in terms of cybersecurity.”

Digital and physical information flows across the supply chain through multiple networks between manufacturer and service provider enterprise systems. Today each one of these represents a potential security risk. Every player in the supply chain has a digital footprint, and the chain needs to get more rigorous in terms of cybersecurity. 

With tier one vendors stepping up their cybersecurity game, bad actors are shifting focus to tier three and tier four manufacturers and service providers, and as supply chain attacks have the potential to hit many different machines through one single compromise, cybersecurity will be a priority for every player in the industry. As more attacks are uncovered and reported, expect cybersecurity to become more ingrained in the manufacturing element of the A&D supply chain with governments and regulatory bodies stepping up compliance and security demands.

  • Shifting mindsets to meet new challenges

In combating new threats and meeting the need to manage complex supply chains and more sophisticated assets, digital technology is having a more pronounced effect in the physical world. In 2019, getting to grips with the speed of this change will become a priority for all stakeholders across the defence supply chain. 

The good news is that we are seeing a shift in mindset which recognises the power of modern software solutions to optimise supply chains and maintenance programmes, deal with more complex procurement models and remain compliant with international operating standards. 

Among the many lines of action required to ensure success as this reality continues to emerge in 2019, enterprise systems should be considered as a strategic enabler allowing defence organisations to merge their digital and physical worlds. Done right, this will enable leaders not only to cope with the current state, but actually deliver performance improvements, aid decision-making, and increase awareness of asset readiness.