The next stage of military transformation
Assessing the capability of military forces can require piecing together of readiness data from many disparate sources, many of which are outdated. Matt Medley, senior product manager at IFS, explains how to transform these streams of information into one infrastructure platform with a single view.
The US Department of Defense defines operational readiness as ‘the capability of a unit/formation, ship, weapon system, or equipment to perform the missions or functions for which it is organised or designed’. For military forces, achieving total asset readiness may sound like a simple term, but attaining high availability across all the equipment in an entire defence force is a hugely complex enterprise.
Readiness issues are a constant headache for military forces. In early 2020 the German Army faced ‘groundhog day’, with its armed forces commissioner saying the defence ministry had “failed to significantly improve the combat readiness of Germany’s main weapons systems, such as aircraft, helicopters and ships—a problem that has dogged the Bundeswehr for years”.
Even a new-generation asset such as the F-35 has its problems. Based on data from fiscal year 2019, the director of the Pentagon's Operational Test and Evaluation Office said all variants of the aircraft remain ‘below service expectations’, with a goal set for 65% availability.
Failing to achieve the required level of asset readiness not only means wasted expenditure and personnel time, it can also compromise mission success. Commanders must know exactly what assets are available when planning critical missions – and an inaccurate or partially complete picture is simply not good enough.
The transformational staircase
Military asset procurement, sustainment and support have been on an evolutionary path for some years. Gone are the days of the ‘traditional’ model of the military purchasing a complex asset from an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) and then taking on the responsibility of keeping that asset operational during its lifecycle.
Armed forces have taken several steps up the ‘transformational staircase’ since this scenario. The first stage of contractor assistance was termed as buying ‘spares and repairs’ from the OEM. Following that, the risk and availability associated with supporting an asset throughout its military lifecycle has increasingly involved industry assistance. The generally accepted model for procuring and supporting military equipment is now on a performance-based logistics (PBL) basis.
PBL strategies work well when applied to particular assets, or components of assets such as engines and other complex parts. But these service-based agreements can be taken to another level – what we at IFS call total asset readiness – when it comes to force-wide asset mobilisation.
This next evolutionary step is geared to putting in place a clear and consistent framework across a military fighting force. Disparate reporting mechanisms and software systems can be consolidated with an all-encompassing solution to track asset readiness, giving commanders a clear real-time view of the assets at their disposal, in the context of the mission they need to complete.
The US Navy is one military organisation which is targeting such an approach with its Naval Operational Business Logistics Enterprise family of systems. The programme is reported to allow for the consolidation of over 23 standalone application systems and elimination of over 700 application/database servers, with the ultimate aim to improve material and shore readiness.
Of course, putting in place such an integrated data environment requires close collaboration from military and industry players. Such system implementations must span hundreds of thousands of users and thousands of assets. With this in mind, here are five key areas which must be focused on in order to achieve total asset readiness.
1. Get as close to the asset as possible
According to Deloitte, the rise of Industry 4.0 technologies will have a hugely positive effect on asset readiness, bringing a new approach to availability based on real-world data. The US Navy has adopted a framework to leverage technology such as artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), predictive analytics and blockchain. Meanwhile the US Air Force has prioritised use of predictive analytics to address a slide in readiness across its fleet of 5,400 aircraft.
IoT-enabled sensors on individual components provide a huge data set on the exact status of a given asset wherever it is; a subsystem such as an aircraft engine can provide terabytes of data in a single flight. By analysing this data stream with AI/machine learning functionality in enterprise software, real steps can be taken to make the maintenance of connected assets more predictive than ever before.
An early example is the work on the F-35 ALIS project, although the software was designed before the first F-35 rolled off the production line, so the capabilities available today can even surpass this.
But these data-producing assets will often be deployed in a disconnected setting, in a hostile environment without forward infrastructure and often with an essential mandate to keep operational security. In this case, software infrastructure must also be configured to support such disconnected operations – that means aggregating, consolidating and storing data and technical records to be sent once connectivity is re-established.
2. Scaling up from normal business levels
When putting together an integrated data environment across an entire fighting force, the scale required is far bigger than even the largest business. A recent report outlined that going from analysis of alternatives for a technology system, defining the requirements, through to initial operational capability typically takes corporate technology companies six to nine months, but takes the US DoD an average of 91 months.
Military deployments can mandate upwards of 100,000 users to have access to at least some elements of a software platform, requiring differing roles and permission sets on a per-user basis. It is this scale and level of security complexity which makes developing, integrating and activating an IT system an extremely difficult task.
This is where strategic use of APIs can help reduce implementation times and link previously unconnected IT systems. We have already discussed the huge amount of newly accessible data generated by military assets, but these streams may have previously been produced in siloes through upwards of 20 disparate systems. An integrated data environment must make strategic use of APIs to make sure data is visible and delivered to the right person at the right time, or it is worthless.
3. Apps and containerisation: meeting UX and UI expectations
The representation and accessibility of asset data is just as important as accuracy, from two perspectives. Firstly, in an age where military personnel and industry technicians are using intuitive apps in their everyday lives, ease of use by maintenance controllers, commanders, industry experts and other users is vital for any universal software system. Significant importance must be placed on user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) to make sure the system, right down to individual screens for specific task requirements, is usable and streamlined with the end-user in mind.
Secondly, there is so much happening behind the scenes at the back end of such an IT consolidation project; apps are at the heart of this. There are a few layers of technology in the middle of the tech stack which are invisible to the user at the UX level, but drive how software is delivered, particularly in application form.
Containerisation is key and involves bundling an application together with all of its related configuration files, libraries and dependencies required for it to run in an efficient and bug-free way across different computing environments. A ‘docker image’ can be created to pack up the application and environment required by the application to run. These docker images effectively allow an app to be scaled, reproduced and used on desktops or any mobile devices in a secure manner.
4. Security and information assurance paramount
This containerisation approach also has benefits from a security standpoint and, as with any military infrastructure deployment, security is top of mind. Military software solutions must be deployed in a secure environment and meet strict regulatory requirements such as International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), cloud security mandates and the US DoD Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC) Version 1.0.
While we’ve already touched on how managing finely tuned permission sets and roles becomes more critical as an organisation scales up its user base, but several other considerations also come into play. For example, operational security concerns often mandate strict controls on who within the contractor’s organisation and their supply chain have visibility into part and inventory status based on those user roles and permissions.
Furthermore, electronic signatures are becoming increasingly essential to guarantee full transparency and traceability for audit and investigatory purposes. Clearly, total asset readiness must incorporate these ever-evolving requirements while staying on the leading edge of new and emerging security threats, known and unknown.
5. Information insights at your fingertips
Snapshot reporting through excel exports are a thing of the past, but highly configurable dynamic dashboards should allow command centres to see exactly what assets are ready across the forces required for their specific mission.
The culmination of a software infrastructure consolidation must translate into something which can give commanders an up-to-date and accurate picture of their asset readiness—usually represented as a force-wide availability percentage. How do you know your assets are available if you can’t represent this data in a dashboard which is configurable to a commander’s needs?
Systems that support RESTful APIs at the back end can knit together information from multiple data streams, allowing personalised information insights to be delivered to commanders. KPIs can be introduced into reporting and tracked in real-time according to the force in question – when it comes to readiness examples, we are talking differing requirements for nuclear forces vs. a non-weapon carrying airlift squadron running C-5 Galaxy aircraft.
Asset readiness leads to mission effectiveness
Answering the ultimate question about mission readiness requires getting a total view of asset status. You cannot have a mission without your assets. When a commander is asked by their commander whether their assets are available to complete a given mission, the best answer is ‘Yes’, the worst is ‘I don’t know’.
With a single software environment in place to measure asset readiness, every commander will know the status of the assets at their disposal. Any unexpected hiccup in mission planning – an aircraft is awaiting a part refit, for example – can be easily rectified and factored into the planning procedure. Total asset readiness enables defence organisations to perform required tasks and missions on time, every time, while achieving significant reductions in sustainment costs.
For more defence industry comment and analysis, visit GlobalData’s Aerospace, Defense & Security Intelligence Centre.
// Image: Outgoing US President Donald Trump during a meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Credit: NATO