AFRL digital transformation progresses enterprise communications

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFRL) – Earlier this fiscal year Air Force Research Laboratory commander, Brig. Gen. Heather Pringle directed AFRL to prioritize ongoing efforts of digitally transforming AFRL to better enable the warfighter against U.S. adversaries.

Pringle issued a charter in late December establishing an AFRL Digital Transformation Team with the vision of “One AFRL”: a flexible, synergistic enterprise “that capitalizes on the seamless integration of data and information through the use of modern methods, digital processes and tools and IT infrastructure,” according to the charter.

“Our mantra is going to be collaborate to innovate,” Pringle said. “It’s about having a data-informed human capital strategy. We’re wanting our alpha nerds to be uber-connected, and we really want to up their proficiency in this digital culture because we want data to be our third love language, if you will. So, we’re looking at incorporating digital engineering into everything we do in science and technology.”

This vision spread from the top down, starting with the U.S. Air Force 2030 Science and Technology Strategy set forth by former Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson in 2019 to conceptualize the next decade of Air Force innovation and dominance. In July 2020 Air Force Materiel Command commander Gen. Arnold W. Bunch Jr. launched the AFMC Digital Campaign with a call to create and leverage a fully digital research, acquisition, test sustainment and mission support enterprise across all functional areas—not just engineering.

Using newer digital technologies like many non-military industries do could greatly improve time-to-market, avoiding the often-lengthy acquisition cycle times sometimes referred to as the “Valley of Death,” Bunch said.

“Today’s adversaries are rapidly delivering new systems and are threatening and, in some cases, surpassing our capabilities,” Bunch said. “The increasing time it takes us to field new capabilities is our greatest hindrance to maintaining our Air Force dominance in the future.”

David Shahady, AFRL Digital Transformation Program Manager, said AFRL, as the $2.5 billion science and technology arm of the AFMC acquisition effort, is a very natural part of the overall digital transformation and that AFRL actually has been adopting modern digital tools for several years now, as new IT capabilities have become available.

“This isn’t anything shocking or new,” Shahady said. “We’re already living in this reality. So, the digital campaign and digital transformation is really about focusing our efforts, stepping up, prioritizing and acknowledging that the world has changed and making sure that we’ve made the proper adaptations and are unifying our changes to capitalize and build on those investments.”

Shahady likened the digital progression, from how business IT was developed to what AFRL is currently implementing with the Enterprise Business System Modernization effort, to society’s progression from rotary phones to cell phones.

“To say, ‘When did it start?’” Shahady said. “Well, it just sort of happened—a migration over time, a transformation. The same level of comfort that we’ve established with the cell phone is something we want to get when we think about information. All of the different directorates and functionals—they’ve always been working on better ways to process [information] and have been doing a very good job in their areas of expertise. But now we’re in a place to ask, ‘What can I do better because I have that [technological capability]? How can I capitalize on those experiences to implement Digital Engineering in AFRL?’ We want to work at the next level, becoming interoperable across AFRL and with the rest of the AF enterprise.”

For example, Pringle asked the AFRL Research Collaboration and Computational Directorate to assess what infrastructure and tools would be required to allow personnel across all AFRL technical directorates and functional areas, to share information back and forth easily, quickly and efficiently.

“We miss opportunities to find solutions by relying on email; [we] need speed—something beyond email—in reaching all our experts,” Pringle said.

Director of AFRL’s Research Collaboration and Computational Directorate, Michael Hanke, highlighted that the directorate is designing and architecting an IT solution, dubbed the Digital Laboratory Environment, to assist AFRL’s scientists and engineers in accomplishing their work in such a collaborative environment. These subject matter experts will be able to access and exchange AF program data, such as modeling and simulation, to get to authoritative sources of truth on platform specifications and requirements and run computational models simultaneously over an isolated network across different directorates, partner organizations and dispersed physical locations. Some other capabilities being designed into the DLE include access to general purpose engineering and code development tools and the ability to run simulations over a period of time in lieu of using workstations.

As part of the effort, the directorate will stand up a demonstration of capability in an Impact Level 2 Cloud environment in August 2021. The directorate plans to mature the design and move toward approval for an IL 4/5 Cloud environment by November 2021.

Such capabilities allow real-time analysis from numerous perspectives, dramatically increasing productivity, furthering multiple experiments and research efforts simultaneously, as opposed to the older process that required data to be repeatedly shipped between locations to iterate on results.

“The era of working on technology that fits only one directorate and is focused on one area of functional support is gone. Being able to treat data as a strategic resource and share it with key stakeholders is critical to ensure S&T 2030 implementation,” Hanke said.

As demands on scientists and technical personnel have increased in this age, providing this kind of digital access and these kinds of capabilities offers a solution by optimizing speed and efficiency, said Hanke.

“So, there’s a part of this initiative that is saying, ‘Let’s get back to where our scientists and engineers have more time available to do science and engineering. Let’s figure how to optimize things so that our experts can actually spend less time processing information and being required to look for data and spend more time on their “no-kidding” research.’”

Beyond increasing accessibility, data transparency and the streamlining of business processes, AFRL’s lines of effort also extend to looking at how digital concepts can be used to design architectures, such as weapons systems, and solve weapons systems and science and technology challenges.

Air Force Vanguard programs: Navigation Technology Satellite-3, Golden Horde and Skyborg provide real-world examples of how AFRL is leveraging digital concepts by incorporating game-changing technologies into prototyping and experimentation.

The NTS-3 highlights Pringle’s “One AFRL, Two Services” priority by aligning similar AFRL and U.S. Space Force digital engineering and transformation goals, said Col. Charles Galbreath, deputy chief of technology and innovation for the Space Force.

“We in the Space Force, and particularly the Chief of Technology and Innovation Office, have a great relationship with AFRL from our work in pushing science and technology forward,” Galbreath said.

The NTS-3 will test new technical and technological capabilities, similar to the Space Force’s Global Positioning System constellation, such as detecting and mitigating interferences to position, navigation and timing, via a year-long geosynchronous Earth orbit.

Experimentation aims to bring better PNT and enhanced signal stability, availability, integrity and accuracy to the warfighter by testing electronically steered, phased array antennas; flexible and secure signals; software-defined GPS receivers; increased ground control segment automation and use of commercial ground antennas.

Vanguards Golden Horde and Skyborg test autonomous, collaborative weapons and aircraft, respectively, that can rapidly respond to their battlespace without real-time human intervention. In the next phase of Golden Horde the AFRL Munitions Directorate plans to use AFRL’s WeaponONE program technology: digital twins, i.e., a real-world physical counterpart, such as a weapon, and a virtual clone, to test larger numbers of weapons without having to spend a lot of money on actual weapons systems.

The AFRL Munitions Directorate is partnering with AFLCMC’s Weapons Program Executive Office and Eglin Air Force Base’s 96th Test Wing on these Golden Horde technologies to possibly benefit their programs as well, said AFRL Munitions Directorate director, Col. Garry Haase, conscious of AFRL’s Digital Transformation lines of effort and desired end state.

“The mindset culture is in place to continue that ‘move faster, be more agile, take some risk mentality,’” Haase said. “It’s recognizing that we no longer have this huge technological lead and advantage over our adversaries; so, we need to up our game in terms of how we can stay ahead of the technological curve, to keep us advancing and more capable.”

Responding to this need for efficiency and speed across organizations, Shahady described the digital initiatives as an “all-in” proposition.

“Every organization within the Air Force [and the DoD] has a purpose,” Shahady said. “Every aspect of our Air Force operations is going to be playing in this new digital field; so, if we’re going to change the field that we’re playing on, we’ve got to make sure that every one of those positions is covered on that playing field. Otherwise, we’re going to fail. This is a massive initiative across the Air Force to move to that digital era, whether it’s digital engineering, digital science or digital business.”


illustration of locations

The Air Force Research Laboratory’s “Digital Transformation” adopts IT solutions to enable its scientists, engineers and subject matter experts more instant and efficient collaboration, across AFRL’s 40 worldwide operational locations, for faster development and deployment of technologies that help the warfighter maintain the technological advantage over U.S. adversaries. (U.S. Air Force graphic/Randy Palmer)

image of weapon

The Air Force Vanguard program, Golden Horde, uses digital technologies, such as digital twins and integrating datalink radios, in weapons system design to validate that networked weapons systems, such as small diameter bombs, can work together, autonomous of human intervention, to defeat targets. (Courtesy photo)


image of aircraft

With the Skyborg Air Force Vanguard program, AFRL leverages new business practices and open architecture digital engineering for rapid, streamlined development of future hardware and software components to turn low-cost aircraft into unmanned, autonomous aircraft capable of teaming with manned aircraft in combat to multiply the force’s air power against adversaries. (Artwork courtesy of AFRL)