COMMENTARY DEFENSE CONTRACTING
Demand Grows for Multi-Skilled, Flexible Engineers
Emerging digital technologies deeply impact all aspects of society, and modern warfare is no exception.
Adversaries are growing more sophisticated — disrupting the battlefield and contesting the United States in all domains. As the threat and national security landscape rapidly change, it is imperative the defense industry ensures the nation outpaces its opponents.
To maintain a high-tech competitive advantage and influence across all domains, U.S. industry must track the evolving needs of the armed forces by understanding their challenges and equipping them with the capabilities required to deter and counter any threat.
Amidst this changing character of warfare, the talented engineers of the aerospace and defense industry must place a heavier focus on digitally powered, data-focused and centralized technology. The true lethality of the Joint Force is not any one platform or capability, but the ability to connect all sensors, shooters and command nodes across all branches of the military and across all domains.
It’s clear that this requires a vastly different skill set and preparation than in the past. Traditionally, industry prioritized developing “specialized” engineers who would focus on one or two core areas. Today, the defense engineering industry values “T-shaped” engineers — those with a broad knowledge base, but who can also go deep.
For example, engineers with hardware skills should also understand how to integrate software. And software engineers must be knowledgeable of the artificial intelligence NeoPulse Modeling Language network.
As engineers follow a “T-shaped” approach to developing their skill set, expertise in AI is not the only in-demand area of knowledge. They must also understand how these tools can be connected to other technologies such as machine learning and 5G. These technologies allow for greater connectivity among domains, helping armed forces navigate complex, highly contested battlefields. Engineers must possess an understanding of data analytics to make use of large quantities of both structured and unstructured data. They must understand edge computing so that data can be used to enhance decision-making in real time. By placing a new focus in these areas, current and future engineers can upgrade their skill set.
Technical skills are refined over time through continuous training and learning on the job. Today’s aerospace and defense engineers must combine their expertise with new learnings in emerging areas to drive innovation forward.
Lockheed Martin experienced this firsthand as it developed an AI-based tool for predicting spare equipment demands across multiple aerospace and maritime application areas. In this instance, the company needed engineers who could configure a holistic solution that had the same look and feel for both maritime and aviation systems, streamlining multiple legacy systems previously requiring separate solutions.
As the military engages in new initiatives like joint all-domain command and control, defense engineers must further understand how to apply their expertise to a variety of different application areas. This requires a “build once, use many” mindset. This is common with data analytics, where the tools and techniques are platform agnostic, allowing engineers to configure them with their engineering know-how to a variety of different application areas.
Through experimentation, continuous improvement and rapid prototyping, new and better ways to solve challenges can be discovered. Technology companies will work with each of the military services to accelerate integration between intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; command and control; and fire control systems.
The key is using AI and ML in an open, standards-driven environment for cross-service integrated air-and-missile defense.
This includes developing machine-to-machine interfaces to connect the Army and Navy in a long-range precision fires mission as was demonstrated at last year’s Northern Edge exercise.
Whereas larger programs tend to have months, if not years, of scheduling to certify, install and test capabilities in operational environments, exercises such as Northern Edge challenge the service and industry teams to install and test systems in days — and sometimes hours.
The most in-demand areas of expertise required for engineers today go beyond AI and data analytics. They also include 5G, autonomy, cyber, electric propulsion, electronic warfare, program management and radio frequency.
To develop in-demand skills for engineers, there must be programs that foster hands-on training with specialists acting as mentors. With proper mentorship, learners can pursue new paths and pave the way for the next generation. This has been an effective method of upskilling, particularly in the areas of cyber, DevSecOps, program management and data analytics, and works best at all career levels.
As we see great hiring demand for systems, software and project engineering, colleges and universities are not the only pipelines which we must tap into. Apprenticeships for recent high school graduates and young adults are also effective in filling needs across a number of areas.
These programs train young engineers on basic skills, and they are provided with an opportunity to grow their careers with continued mentorship, training and opportunities. The key is to ensure proper education and training to drive future interest in the profession, while developing a pipeline of talent who possess the skills required of future defense engineers.
Engineers are the creators of great innovations and scientific marvels. The best engineers are those who seek out and embrace diverse perspectives and ideas. The more talent from varying backgrounds, whether educational or professional, the more diversity of thought we bring to the industry. And just as important, we need engineers that come ready to challenge the status quo, who aren’t afraid to experiment and fail fast and share their ideas openly to help their teams move forward.
Stephanie C. Hill is executive vice president of Rotary and Mission Systems at Lockheed Martin.
Topics: Defense Department