The Air Force Digital Century Series: Beyond the Buzzwords

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Highlights
  • The USAF intends for the Digital Century Series’ acquisition strategy to fundamentally shift industrial base incentives away from sustaining old systems and toward developing and delivering new ones.

Today, the USAF characterizes the Digital Century Series in terms of a “holy trinity” of agile development, open architecture, and digital engineering. But as was discussed at the Air Force Association’s 2019 National Convention, the Digital Century Series is more than just a series of buzzwords. My understanding of the USAF’s plan to implement and integrate these buzzwords—as well as that plan’s potential—are described in more detail below. THE ISSUE The United States Air Force’s (USAF) plan to acquire next generation fighter aircraft hinges on three buzzwords: agile development, open architecture, and digital engineering. Although none of these concepts are new to the acquisition community, their successful implementation in a large program would be. To move beyond these buzzwords and overcome past barriers to their implementation, the USAF’s proposed Digital Century Series will need to strictly adhere to a rapid and repeatable schedule. While managing the Digital Century Series on such a schedule will likely have costs, the potential benefits are worth exploring.

Although this plan shows promise, the Digital Century Series will be challenged to meet its potential. Specifically, while none of the buzzwords are new to the Department of Defense (DOD), their successful execution together in a large program would be. More importantly, moving beyond those buzzwords will require more than just overcoming the historic barriers to their implementation. As envisioned by the USAF, it will also require integrating the buzzwords through an acquisition strategy that emphasizes strict adherence to program schedule. This strategy depends on rapid and predictable technology development, short design lives, and a willingness to retire systems from operations quickly and on schedule. This proposed focus on schedule— potentially at the expense of cost and performance—is what that truly distinguishes the Digital Century Series from the F-22 and F-35 that preceded it.

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