Magazine article National Defense

Virtual Weapons Lab Sought by Air Force

Magazine article National Defense

Virtual Weapons Lab Sought by Air Force

Article excerpt

One of the explanations often heard for the ballooning cost of weapon systems is that the military services habitually make changes to the design late in a weapon's development cycle. This expensive habit often occurs even after contractors have begun cutting metal on the production line.

Military officials assert that, given how long it takes to develop a weapon system--several years or even decades--they need the flexibility to modify the specs or request new features as their missions and combat environments change.

At the same time, a number of experts within the Defense Department and the defense industry contend that the huge price tag associated with design changes could be lowered dramatically, if the Defense Department chose to forgo live prototypes in favor of virtual, or digital mockups.

The Boeing Company, after all, designed one of its most successful jetliners, the 777, entirely in digital format and tested it in cyberspace before it cut any metal.

That is exactly how the military should create and develop new weapon systems, says Keith E. Seaman, modeling and simulation senior advisor to the secretary of the Air Force.

To that end, Seaman is seeking funds to build a leading-edge virtual laboratory where the Air Force could design and test its weapon systems, at a much more reduced cost than live trials. More importantly, says Seaman, tests at this virtual lab would be just as credible as those conducted with real hardware.

The project, known as the Air Force integrated collaborative environment, is in the early stages of design at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

If all goes well, Seaman says, the Air Force could design and build its futuristic new bomber aircraft in the digital lab.

"We started last year," he says. The technology "is supposed to provide a reusable environment to test systems." He is confident that it could be up and running in five years.

David M. Votipka, a retired Air Force colonel and former commander of the Air Force agency for modeling and simulation, says this technology has been long overdue. The problem has been convincing acquisition program managers that it works. "It's hard to get investments until it's proven," says Votipka, who now works for Gestalt LLC, the contractor currently developing the collaborative environment for the Air Force.

A major concern in developing this virtual lab is securing data--owned by the government and by contractors--from intruders and industrial spies, he says. "We are working with the Air Force to come up with a broader approach to do multiple protection levels and protect intellectual property so industry can participate in experimentation and testing," he says. Both the Air Force "long range strike" and "airborne electronic attack" programs are candidates for this collaborative environment.

Each major weapon system currently has its own digital models, which typically are not shared with any other program. So asking program managers to give that up in favor of a consolidated test environment is a tough proposition, says William Loftus, president of Gestalt.

The savings that the Air Force would reap by designing systems only in digital labs would be huge, he suggests.

Hypothetically, if the F-22 next-generation fighter had been designed in a virtual lab, the Air Force could have saved billions of dollars by slashing several years from the development cycle, Votipka says. …

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