The Potential Impact of the new Defense Digital Engineering Strategy on DOD Procurement

Published: July 18, 2018

Federal Market AnalysisAcquisition ReformAcquisition WorkforceBig DataContracting TrendsDEFENSEDigital GovernmentInformation TechnologyPolicy and Legislation

Digital engineering makes good sense, but how practical is it in a big culture like DOD?

The Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Systems Engineering (ODASD(SE)) recently published a Department of Defense Digital Engineering Strategy intended to help the DOD acquire and harness advanced and emerging technologies. The strategy recognizes that “current acquisition processes and engineering methods [across the DOD] hinder meeting the demands of exponential technology growth, complexity, and access to information.” Furthermore, contend the authors, “acquisition engineering processes are document-intensive and stove-piped, leading to extended cycle times with systems that are cumbersome to change and sustain.” The solution to these challenges, they suggest, if for the department to adopt a digital engineering approach that shifts program offices “from the traditional design-build-test methodology to a model-analyze-build methodology.”

What is meant by model-analyze-build and what are the potential impacts for the defense technology market?

The authors define the proposed digital engineering process as the use of “models throughout the lifecycle to digitally represent the system of interest (i.e., system of systems, systems, processes, equipment, products, parts) in the virtual world.” Enabling the modeling process will require that the DOD “incorporates technologies such as advanced computing, big data analytics, artificial intelligence, autonomous systems, and robotics to improve the engineering practice.” This approach can “enable DOD programs to prototype, experiment, and test decisions and solutions in a virtual environment before they are delivered to the warfighter.”

The expected benefits of a digital engineering approach include the following:

  • Informed decision-making through greater transparency
  • Enhanced communication
  • Greater flexibility/adaptability in design
  • Increased confidence a capability will perform as expected
  • Increased efficiency in engineering and acquisition processes

Concerning acquisitions specifically, what are the potential impacts?

In order for digital engineering to work effectively, the authors contend that DOD offices need to streamline business and contracting practices. As anyone experienced in this area knows, however, changing these processes is probably one of the most difficult outcomes to achieve because of the policy, legal, and cultural complexities involved. It is simple to suggest the adoption of digital engineering, but actually adopting it as a business practice is far less so. As the authors note, digital engineering will require a, “department-wide effort to inform, involve, and mobilize the DoD and its partners toward capturing, discovering, and implementing improvements in digital engineering practice.”

The onus for driving such a cultural and, ultimately, practical change is placed squarely on leadership to provide a framework for the transformation. Leaders need to be selected from stakeholder organizations like academia, laboratories, and Federally-Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs) to guide how a new digital engineering methodology can be implemented in acquisitions. Such guidance must lead to metrics for measuring success, as well as guidelines, monitoring of efforts, and the creation of incentives for adopting the change.

Of course training and educating the acquisition workforce will be necessary to implement the desired processes and to achieve the desired outcomes. The authors point to leveraging new, digitally native acquisition personnel as providing a solid basis for encouraging the change in DOD acquisitions. Train these young professionals properly and the new methodology will flourish.

Lastly, the report recommends the establishment of coordinating efforts by the ODASD(SE) so that DOD components can develop digital engineering implementation plans and pilot programs to learn lessons for how strategies can be improved.

The report is chock-full of ideas that make a good deal of sense in today’s digital world. Let’s face it, though, changing culture, especially acquisition culture, can be one of the most difficult and challenging undertakings in any enterprise. In an entity as large as the DOD the difficulty of that challenge is orders of magnitude greater. Human nature is also inclined to take the path of least resistance and presently that path is using Other Transaction Authority to rapidly acquire technology solutions. If the ideas of the digital engineering strategy become socialized I would expect to see more OTA requirements coming out of the DOD. A larger number of smaller, short-term prototype efforts procured using traditional procedures could also become common as the DOD tries to fail fast on the cheap vs. spending millions of dollars on large requirements that may eventually prove ineffective.