2020 Aerospace and Defense Predictions

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Military operators are facing tough decisions about lengthening the service life of key equipment, while simultaneously having to prioritize procurement of next-generation assets.

Set this against an industry experiencing a readiness crisis and shortage of personnel, particularly in maintenance and engineering, and asset management takes center stage—and becomes a real challenge. Fortunately, there are some significant technology developments that are coming of age in 2020 to help military operators, original equiment manufacturers (OEMs) and in-service support providers alike turn the tables on force readiness and unlock strategic operational advantages. And the plus point? They’re ready for deployment now.

1. AI takes the predictive maintenance maturity curve to new heights

It seems like for the last five years predictive maintenance and the potential of artificial intelligence has been a hot topic on the military agenda. But actually, the principle has been around longer than that. Take the F-35 for example, it’s maintained through the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), the most advanced sustainment system currently in use for any military asset. ALIS provides a strong IT backbone, processing while the F-35 is in flight and selecting the most appropriate sustainment plan to reduce operations and maintenance costs, while also increasing aircraft availability.

But IFS has been involved in the ALIS concept since 1999! Mark Adams, Logistics and Technology Development, Lockheed Martin, explained in his IFS World Conference breakout session, “If we were to do it all again, we would probably do something different, just like anything we’re talking about and building today. If you were to roll the clock forward 15 years from now, it will be like, ‘why were they building those things like that?’ It doesn’t make any sense.”

Given the long-term nature of designing, manufacturing and deploying complex new assets expect artificial intelligence to play a prominent role in their sustainment, maintenance and support. It’s already making its way into day-to-day operations now, over the course of the last year all of the U.S. military services have launched predictive maintenance projects to shrink the readiness gap, and the UK Royal Navy is experimenting with an AI predictive maintenance system on its front-line Type 45 destroyers.

2. UAVs and drones become frontline warfighters

In fact, AI is doing more than just help sustain military equipment through secondary support, it’s making the leap to frontline operations too. My colleagues and industry peers highlighted the potential of unmanned military vehicles (UAVs) in their predictions last year, but AI is now able operate multiple UAVs in a co-ordinated and tactical way—enter the ‘drone swarm’.

Drones in a military context have existed for a while, but a squadron of AI controlled drones or drone wingmen is now a very real possibility. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently tested a swarm of autonomous drones and ground robots to assist with military missions. Meanwhile the U.S Air Force have tested the XQ-58A Valkyrie ‘Sidekick’ drone, a robotic supersonic aircraft designed to be flown alongside a manned F-35. Alongside this, the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory’s Skyborg program is developing artificial intelligence for a wider wingman-drone effort.

AI controlled UAVs deliver two key operational benefits to defense forces:

  • Firstly, drone swarms are incredibly difficult to defend against because they can be scaled significantly to overwhelm existing defensive weaponry
  • Secondly, they remove the need to put service personnel in harm’s way

Ultimately, because of the reduced need for frontline personnel and complex manned equipment a force’s logistics footprint shrinks, and that’s a big bonus for military organizations.

2020 Aerospace and Defense Predictions

3. Electricity proves its worth on the battlefield

When talking reduced logistics footprint, I also anticipate another tech development that will remove more military personnel from frontline danger. Supporting units in a challenging to reach operational environment comes at a significant cost to military forces both financially and personnel-wise.

A typical forward operating base can easily use 1000s of kWh a day, a need which is mostly met by fossil fuels delivered in tankers and stored in vast tanks vulnerable to enemy attack. There was an alarmingly high number of casualties in the Iraq and Afghanistan from the thousands of fuel re-supplies required during the conflicts. But renewable energy sources can help drastically cut this fossil fuel reliance and reduce logistics footprint.

While fully-electrified assets are some way off – the U.S. Army only expects to produce two prototype electric tanks by 2022 – electrification of secondary support is already realizable. The was made clear by the U.S. Army during Operation Dynamo, a mobile electric power initiative that consolidated 13 generators at a forward operating base into two “hybrid sites”. These sites included a trailer with a generator, battery pack and solar panel, to provide power for very specific missions. Key benefits were less fossil fuel consumption and significantly reduced maintenance requirements—meaning a leaner operating base, less fuel resupply and reduced attack vulnerability.

Unlocking asset management success in 2020

These three interlinked technology developments will be key to forming a successful logistics strategy for military forces, OEMs and in-service support providers into the next decade. Not only will they reduce overall logistics footprint, but they will also ensure a balance is struck between prolonging the life of older assets in service today—while taking the necessary steps to support assets of the future.

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