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Impact of AI, battlefield electrification and UAVs in 2020

Posted 1 March 2020

Graham Grose, VP and Industry Director, Aerospace & Defence, IFS, outlines three tech initiatives changing the logistics and supply chains of the military, OEMs and providers of future in-service defence support.

In an industry setting where the smallest of margins can determine mission success and failure, stagnating has never been an option for military organisations and defence in-service support providers. Why? Because from an asset and equipment point of view, military organisations find themselves between a rock and a hard place in terms of balancing budgets between keeping older but still critical, assets in service and the lure of investing in the latest, cutting-edge equipment.

This is also set against a backdrop of a real shortage of personnel, especially from a maintenance engineering perspective.

As such, the focus will fall directly on to military logistics and supply chain technology to mitigate these issues during 2020. Here are three tech initiatives I believe will lead the way this year and beyond.

1. Integrated Artificial Intelligence for predictive maintenance gives military aircraft systems a lift
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is quickly evolving to support the readiness of military equipment. During the last 12 months all of the US military services have launched predictive maintenance projects to reduce their readiness gap, while some of the latest military assets in design are creating an entirely new approach to through-life equipment support.

‒ the F-35 is just the start for high-tech stealth fighters. It’s sustained by the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) ‒ the most sophisticated sustainment solution of its kind, which turns data from multiple sources into actionable information.

At the 2019 IFS World Conference, it was intriguing to hear the Lockheed Martin perspective on the role of technology in the sustainment of advanced military platforms ‒ especially regarding the length of time associated with the design of a ‘next generation’ military asset. In fact, IFS has been involved in the ALIS concept as far back as 1999.

“If we were to do it all again, we would probably do something different, just like anything we're talking about and building today. If you were to roll the clock forward 15 years from now, it will be like, ‘why were they building those things like that?’ It doesn't make any sense,” said Mark Adams, Logistics and Technology Development, Lockheed Martin, in his IFS World conference breakout session.

For the aircraft being developed into the decade, AI will be the core component in sustainment software, from aircraft design, all the way through to manufacturing and maintenance. Take the British-led Tempest and the Franco-German-Spanish Future Combat Air System for example ‒ AI is set to have a crucial role in how those aircraft operate from both a maintenance and repair perspective, but also operationally.

2. The battlefield of tomorrow will be electric
Another area to keep a close eye on is battlefield electrification ‒ a development on the lips of many when I attended DSEI towards the end of last year.

The battlefield has virtually been unaffected by the wave of electrification currently impacting civilian life, from cars to homes and public transport. Yet this is about to change and battlefield electrification will entail so much more than simply ‘green energy initiatives’. We are talking about delivering strategic benefits by introducing innovative techniques to power military operations. In the future we may even see full electrification of military vehicles – witness the US Army’s project to produce two prototype electric tanks by 2022 – but in the short term it will be electrification of secondary support which will leave its mark on the battlefield first.

Fossil fuels come at a major expense to military forces in terms of logistics support ‒ you only have to look at the high number of supply casualties experienced in the fuel convoys of the Afghanistan War. Also, consider that forward operating bases consume vast volumes of electricity, often 1,000s of kWh every 24 hours. This demand is currently met almost entirely by generators fuelled with diesel, which brings supply chain concerns around efficiency and safety to the surface.

Cutting down on the number of fossil-powered generators in favour of renewable alternatives including solar and wind power significantly reduces the logistics footprint of a forward operating base ‒ keeping forces lean, limiting attack vulnerability and, ultimately, reducing supply chain casualties.

3. UAV swarm tech and autonomous flight systems take to the sky
It would be accurate to say AI is already coming to the fore to actually operate military equipment. A lot of defence industry predictions last year were focused around unmanned equipment, but the progress a year on relates to the potential of grouping AI-controlled UAVs together to provide a ‘drone swarm’ ‒ a development that is particularly difficult to defend against from a military standpoint.

We have previously witnessed the US military test simple Perdix drones dropped from F/A18 jets, but the hope is that in the near future pilots will be able to leverage AI in the cockpit to control a small group of sophisticated drones flying close to the aircraft to perform sensing, reconnaissance and targeting functions. This removes control from the ground, where drone operations are currently co-ordinated and puts it in the hands of the warfighter themselves. Such prototype projects were revealed last year, including the US Air Force XQ-58A Valkyrie ‘Sidekick’ drone and Boeing Australia’s unveiling of its own ‘Loyal Wingman’.

The main benefits of modern warfare are unsurprisingly tactical, the majority of air defences are poorly prepared to deal with an aerial swarm, but less complex unmanned equipment can also be manufactured and maintained far more cost effectively ‒ reducing the logistics footprint of an aerial squadron and easing the risk on military personnel.

Take the best logistics and supply chain technology into battle
In 2020 there will be challenges to overcome on a couple of fronts. The first being the task of maintaining and prolonging the life of assets in service today, and the second being the need to put necessary plans in place to implement the assets of the future. Flexibility will be key to achieving this – not something typically associated with defence organisations – and this will apply right through to the software they use to maintain operations and equipment.

Not so long-ago terms such as AI and UAVs in the context of defence operations were a far-reaching goal, perhaps only being discussed when it suited organisations to give the impression they are up to speed with the latest technology developments. However these technologies now come with weight and proven use cases ‒ and it will be those who are ready to capitalise on these advancements that will be best placed for defence success into the new decade.


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