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FEATURE ARTICLE  

Robust Weapon Simulations Hinge on Close Collaboration 

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by Joshua A. Kutner 

Part of the new way of doing business at the Pentagon is to simulate the features and performances of weapon systems in computers before contractors actually bend metal. This method, known as simulation-based acquisition (SBA), has been successful for some of the Defense Department’s more bankable programs, such as the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) and the DD-21 surface combatant. But unless the Pentagon changes the way it pays for systems and forges more trustworthy working relationships with its vendors, SBA may be doomed before its full potential is even realized, experts asserted.

The Pentagon may have to switch to “incremental procurements” to fully reap the benefits of SBA, said Harold L. Jones, technical director of the Information Management Strategic Business Unit, at Litton TASC, in Boston. Those benefits include improved communications between designers and engineers and, ultimately, lower costs.

For the JSF and DD-21, the government funded the SBA technology as part of the programs, said Jones. But for smaller programs, it has been less successful. To get the best results from SBA, Jones suggested that the Defense Department provide dollars for SBA throughout the life of a program, not just during the initial development phase. “Incremental acquisition will make SBA more useful,” he said in a recent phone interview.

Jacques Gansler, the recently departing undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, in November, released the Pentagon’s new systems acquisition policy. The acquisition strategy states, “Modeling and simulation shall be applied, as appropriate, throughout the system life-cycle in support of acquisition activities, such as requirements definition, program management, design and engineering, manufacturing and logistics support. In collaboration with industry, program managers shall integrate the use of modeling and simulation within program-planning activities; plan for life-cycle application, support and reuse of models and simulations; and integrate modeling and simulation across the functional disciplines.”

The new rules, according to Gansler, are intended to provide the most efficient, least expensive means for systems acquisition. But the military services may not have enough funds upfront to pay for new systems, said Jones.

“It is difficult, by nature, to estimate the cost of a new weapons system,” said Jones. Nowadays, the majority of cost for a system comes not from acquisition, he explained, but rather from maintenance. A weapon’s life-cycle costs are difficult to predict. That is why Jones believes that the Pentagon will make a move toward buying in increments.

“A lot of cost implications will not come until the [system’s] out-years, after the vehicle is acquired” he said. “You can model [those costs], but it is a challenge. ... The government does not have the money up front to pay for SBA.”

The whole idea of SBA is to lower costs by providing better communications between designers and engineers, so that operational considerations are taken into account early in the design process. Improved communications are supposed to lead to faster turnaround times, and the services will be in less danger of over- or under-budgeting for their systems.

By incorporating simulation into the acquisition process, all individuals involved in bringing these systems to bear will have a common database to keep tabs on progress. And they will be notified when their work is affected and when they need to take action.

Designers vs. Engineers
“There is a tremendous gulf between the design and engineering world or the design and simulation world,” said Jones. “The connection between the simulation world and how [a weapon system] is built is a tremendous gap to bridge. There are ferocious separations between people who design things and people who put them together.”

SBA is intended to let those individuals involved know what the other side is thinking, said Jones. “There’s distinction between simulation vs. designing performance.” SBA especially is valuable when multiple contractors are developing a system, for it allows them to communicate across corporate cultures or barriers, he said.

SBA intends to foster a strong working relationship between the military and industrial sectors. The military services and contractors work together to simulate all aspects of a weapon system, such as design and performance, leading up to the development of a prototype. The military customer tells the contractor what properties it wants the system to have, and the contractor incorporates those into the simulation. The contractor then can offer suggestions to improve the system. Throughout the entire process, different entities are involved, whether it be designers, engineers or financiers.

For instance, if the Army is deciding between diesel and electric drive for one of its trucks, the simulation is supposed to determine which is the better option, said Jones. Or if the Army is choosing a particular type of armor for the truck, a simulation is used to predict the armor performance.

The practice of simulation-based acquisition has been in place for more than 10 years, said Jones, but the Defense Department did not adopt a clear SBA policy until 1997. At that time, then-Vice President Al Gore, in his National Performance Review, set a goal for cutting delivery time for new systems by 25 percent. The Defense Department then set its own goals of reducing acquisition cycle times by 50 percent and lowering total ownership costs. Though progress has been made in the SBA arena, the Defense Department has yet to choose a definitive system.

Data Sharing
SBA recently has experienced some ideological roadblocks. Defense officials claim that there has been a lack of model or database sharing among the military services, and the commercial proprietors of potential SBA systems are unwilling to part with the intellectual data that supports the technology—something over which the services want full reign.

Jones seemed surprised that the military services are perceived as unwilling to share information with each other. “The services are not necessarily protecting things,” said Jones. “They’re just protecting the way they do them.”

Getting commercial companies to give the military complete control of their intellectual data is a bigger challenge, Jones offered. “This is a classic relationship between industry and government,” he said.

The Defense Department plans to rely mostly on digital designs for source selections, said Jones. Digital designs are “an emerging art,” he claimed. Because companies are developing their own digital designs, they believe they are at a competitive advantage. “Many contractors feel they have a proprietary art advantage,” and do not want to lose control of it.

Litton TASC offers its own digital design, called “Domain Engineer and Director.” The company is working with the Navy on some next-generation platforms, which Jones declined to discuss in detail.

The Defense Department currently does not have a definitive SBA model, said Jones. One of the problems is that as the Pentagon evaluates these models, it is unable to look at them side by side. “They are not interoperable,” said Jones.

Data security is another issue. If the Defense Department is to have a definitive SBA system that is capable of transferring or submitting data across multiple locations, it must have guaranteed data security.

“Proprietary data security is a problem,” said Jones, “but it is maintainable.”

On the other hand, the military services handle a huge amount of classified intelligence data that they are not permitted to share with industry. This has frustrated both the commercial and federal sectors, because they constantly are stressing their need to collaborate with each other.

Some Pentagon officials believe that SBA will not thrive because those who handle the data are unwilling to share it (National Defense, November 2000, p. 32).

“From the standpoint of execution of SBA, it has to be a joint effort between the government side and the industry side,” said Bill Chen, vice president for engineering, at United Defense Armament Systems Division, in Minneapolis. Chen’s company has experienced success in the SBA arena with the Army’s Crusader program and the advanced gun system for the Navy’s DD-21.

In sharing data, “you have to have the right working relationship,” said Chen in an interview. The question of who owns the data depends on the contract, he said.

Usually, the data is shaped and provided by the government, said Chen. In an integrated data environment, the government may own the data, but the contractor may maintain it, he explained. In contracts where the contractor owns the data, the government has access to it.

The source of funding also has to be established upfront. “The government can’t say, ‘I want to do SBA,’ without realizing there has to be money upfront,” said Chen.

In the Crusader program, United Defense has been able to implement SBA processes, said Chen, because “there has been recognition that we can’t do this without the tools, the facilities and the investment.”

United Defense officials have praised the Army’s SMART—simulation, modeling, acquisition, requirements and training—model, which is designed to provide a seamless working environment for the Army and industry.

But SBA, as it has been applied to Crusader, will be different in the future, said Chen, if it is to be successful.

“A lot of emphasis today is on individual weapon systems,” said Chen.

In the future, he explained, the Defense Department will have to use SBA to “simulate a system of systems.” Chen cited the Future Combat System (FCS) as an example of this.

For FCS, each part of the model will be a separate, simulated entity. All of the simulations are to be interoperable, where multiple contractors can correspond from multiple sites.

Chen said SBA will become “a more advantageous method” as the government becomes able to transmit highly classified data over communication wires. “As [security] technology improves,” he added, “that [will make] SBA a more valuable resource,” he said.

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