The U.S. Department of Defense has made it clear: Digital engineering is critical to the future of our national defense. Many in government and the defense industry already know the foundational necessity of digital engineering, yet adoption lags behind the urgency. That will all need to change soon.

At the end of last year, the DOD made reliance on digital engineering official, with new guidance that requires the use of “digital engineering methodologies, technologies, and practices across the life cycle of defense acquisition programs, systems, and systems of systems to support research, engineering, and management activities.”

The reason for this guidance is clear, given the increasing demand to acquire weapons systems faster as well as the greater complexity behind current and emerging technologies.

For example, in the latest Block 4 upgrade for the F-35 fighter jet, 80% of the cost came from software changes and 20% from hardware. There is five times more software on the F-35 than on any previous fighter. Just to control the systems and surfaces to fly, the aircraft relies on about 2.5 million lines of code; the engine has nearly 1 million lines. This was a huge leap from previous generations, and future platforms and systems will only be more complex.

The DOD’s instructions also mandate the use of mission engineering, which adds another layer of modeling to get a clearer sense of performance of systems within an environment. For example, you might apply high-fidelity modeling of low Earth orbit, including radiation from the South Atlantic Anomaly, to better predict the true durability of your satellite’s design.

Many departments and organizations are working to respond to the new DOD guidance with various approaches to adopting software or building their own. Yet, satisfying the DOD’s instructions will come down to three steps:

  1. Quickly digitalize processes or workflows that have not yet been converted.
  2. Adopt mission engineering.
  3. Connect models and data across disparate workstreams, tools and teams to create authoritative sources of truth.

Many of the organizations looking to adopt the DOD’s guidance are still in the first phase. How can organizations rapidly adapt to satisfy this guidance in the absence of clear industry standards, and without an expensive restructuring of their current processes and workflows? They should begin by implementing proven commercial software solutions that enable them to create open ecosystems for their nascent digital engineering environments.

Creating an open ecosystem relies on the enterprise-level adoption of software that possesses open application programming interfaces. To benefit from digital artifacts, digital threads, digital twins and other elements that the digital engineering ecosystem may provide, organizations need to ensure that the new can integrate with the old. Open APIs allow for this, with existing infrastructure connecting into a digital engineering environment, not brushed aside by one.

Building a digital engineering environment with an open ecosystem eliminates or substantially reduces reinvention of effective legacy tools and processes. It also enables organizations to adapt workflows in a way that keeps their human expertise fully engaged while making the most of the new technologies.

In the scramble to comply with the DOD’s instructions, defense organizations risk creating a sort of Wild West of digital engineering practices and standards. Instead, if organizations focus on adopting an open-ecosystem approach, the whole industry will be able to rally around specific best practices and standards, and each individual organization will be equipped to implement those practices and standards as they become formalized.

Something similar happened with protocols for routing data on what became the internet, when the open publication of interfaces led to agreed-upon standards.

This will preserve much of the technology that still works while remaining flexible as industry standards evolve and settle. Best of all, building an open ecosystem will achieve the vision the DOD seeks: an industry with the agility to respond to the quickening pace of adversarial competition.

As it has throughout its history, the DOD is challenging the defense community to rise to a new level of innovation and sophistication. The stakes are nothing less than our national security. We must answer the call.

Retired U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Steve Bleymaier is chief technology officer for aerospace and defense at software firm Ansys, where Kevin Flood is president of government initiatives. Bleymaier previously served as director of logistics, engineering and force protection with the service.

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