Instructors and trainees with the 322nd Training Squadron at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, conduct graduation with COVID-19 restrictions in place.
All photos courtesy of U.S. Air Force

The COVID-19 pandemic is exposing organizations across all industries to external forces that they couldn’t have predicted – and we have seen time and time again how technology has been instrumental in weathering this unforeseen storm. The global defense industry is no exception, and for many the pandemic has fast-forwarded digital transformation, with some organizations claiming to have completed years’ worth of transformations in weeks.

Despite a reputation for being rigid and adhering to long-standing traditions, military organizations must be flexible to continue operations in a socially distant manner. With thousands working from home, troops deployed overseas, others building emergency hospitals, many delivering personal protective equipment (PPE), and others providing much needed emergency backup, technology has been the key enabler.

In the U.K., military forces cut back heavily on bureaucratic processes, and in the words of senior officials, “hit the accelerate button” on programs to take advantage of emerging trends and technology. The Royal Air Force (RAF) has expedited 3D printing, making operations leaner. The Royal Navy sees the current environment as the springboard for digital transformation programs across the board: people, the estate, and ship support systems.

Global military organizations responded to the pandemic by increasing investments in digital infrastructure. The U.S. Department of Defense is testing 5G technology to optimize military operations with transformational technologies such as augmented reality (AR) in training and maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO).

Accelerated change

Military organizations are not alone in technology adoption. Recent IFS research highlights the central role digital transformation is taking despite – but more likely because of – the economic challenges that have accompanied the pandemic. More than 50% of respondents across multiple industries hope to increase spending on digital transformation in response to the pandemic.

For the defense industry, the pandemic has offered a chance to question outdated processes, creating the opportunity to step back and re-evaluate operations, and there will be numerous advances in the defense industry to come.

For military organizations, the pandemic is a catalyst for technological change in four key areas:

Quarantine forcing businesses/governments to rethink traditional processes – Flexible, remote working options weren’t widely used before this year. A deeply ingrained tradition of in-person, direct management and leadership created a distinct reluctance from higher-ranking leaders to embrace remote working.

But coronavirus made a new working paradigm necessary. Now that remote and flexible working has proved efficient, it raises the questions of whether traditional processes and policies within defense organizations had been hindering productivity. In a post-COVID world, where new efficiencies are being realized, processes once deemed necessary are revealing themselves to be merely habit.

For example, the longstanding requirement for physical signatures on formal documentation is being rapidly replaced with electronic signatures generated by automated workflows – drastically reducing the wait between approval steps and total throughput time. Many organizations are finding that lengthy approval workflow processes don’t empower their employees to act. Reducing the number of steps and raising authority thresholds for lower-level managers empowers employees, freeing up executive time to focus on strategic matters.

The defense sector can learn valuable lessons from the pandemic. If the defense industry continues to embrace change and realize the benefits of non-traditional work, it can streamline processes and increase efficiencies across organizations.

Remote working must go hybrid – Connectivity and bandwidth issues come in two flavors: planned and unplanned. Most organizations experience planned or unplanned outages on occasion for system maintenance, natural disasters, physical damage, or hardware failure, and in the case of defense organizations, physical attack. On these occasions, organizations have contingency response plans and can be quite efficient in restoring their networks.

However, the common need to perform prolonged operations, often in unfriendly territory, without connectivity due to the lack of forward infrastructure and a critical requirement to maintain secrecy is arguably unique to defense organizations. In this case, a robust disconnected operations (DO) solution – capable of distributing and reconsolidating data and technical records when connected and operating autonomously when not connected – is critical to disaster-proof the operation.

With remote work increasing across the globe, connectivity has become more complex. Military organizations will be joined by civilian companies seeking remote data access and the ability to continue working while offline and later reconnect and resync. For risk mitigation, organizations must harden their networks with a true DO mode. Robust DO capabilities can capture, store, and resync asset and workforce data, regardless of connectivity. It could be the difference between a company’s ability to recover from planned or unplanned outages and its ability to continue operating seamlessly throughout, even with workforce and assets globally distributed.

Digital transformation increases workforce efficiency without cutting personnel – As with remote working, many military leaders hesitate to welcome digital transformation and automation, as they thought it would mean having to cut personnel. This has been holding back progress of administration and headquarters reform for years.

Digital transformation is more about optimizing workforce efficiency than reducing headcount. Companies want to retain personnel to ramp back up as the crisis resolves while protecting the livelihoods of their workers and families. Removing waste through densifying value-added work saves time and costs that can be reinvested elsewhere.

Aircraft maintenance at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico. Newer and less-experienced crew members have taken on increased roles and responsibilities since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Defense manufacturers face this challenge daily. Despite rapid advances in Industry 4.0 technologies, companies must still maintain large human labor forces that cannot work from home and are often hired to support specific programs. When those programs get delayed – whether due to a crisis such as COVID-19, budgetary shortfalls, or other disruptions – those skilled laborers must often be reassigned to other programs or let go to preserve cash. The companies best able to match their laborers to value-added work have the best chance of retaining them to preserve critical skill sets, while the right technology can highlight opportunities for workforce realignment.

Before the pandemic, global militaries were under increasing pressure to reduce administration costs and headquarters sizes. They were unsure how to manage this without losing personnel, but the coronavirus crisis has demonstrated it’s possible. Digital transformation and automation streamline administrative tasks and make back-office processes more efficient. Consequently, more resources can be reassigned to operations that matter – moving resources from non-value-added processes to core operations can increase efficiency with no net change in force size.

Compliance is still paramount – so cloud or no cloud? – Once seen as a nuisance, compliance is becoming a barrier to obtaining some government contracts. The aerospace and defense (A&D) sector’s familiarity with demanding regulations makes it better able to weather and recover from the current crisis. Compared to the rapid decline and slow recovery underway in commercial aviation, defense spending has remained relatively stable with large multi-year contracts still being awarded. However, only competitors with the right combination of demonstrated excellence across compliance areas such as International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), FedRamp, and Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC) may compete on some contracts.

With such importance attached to regulation, defense organizations must keep compliance top-of-mind if they are to transfer to remote operations more permanently. Remote operations require flexible software architecture and filing to adhere to regulations. Because of compliance, many A&D organizations are hesitant to deploy cloud-only enterprise resource planning (ERP) software. A recent IFS poll of key aerospace manufacturing decision makers revealed only 3% of respondents deploy their ERP software only on the cloud while 64% said they use their software either on-premises only or mix on-premises and cloud-based deployments.

Defense organizations need a tailored solution to continue to embrace working remotely and unlock further efficiencies while remaining compliant. With a managed cloud or secure hybrid enterprise software environment for critical compliance such as ITAR, organizations can explore remote capabilities while remaining compliant.

Aviators assigned to the 34th Bomb Squadron at Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, attend a briefing.

Long-term benefits

For defense organizations, COVID-19 has increased the pace in which organizations enacted change plans that had just been blueprints. It expedited transformation from considerations to realities in only months.

For an industry with many traditions and processes in need of updating, this fast-forward will prove advantageous in the future. Embracing digital transformation and choosing a capable enterprise software solution will allow military organizations to realize the benefits of increased flexibility, increased efficiencies, and streamlined processes – not just during the pandemic but long into the future.


About the author: Matt Medley is senior product manager, IFS. He can be reached at 613.576.2480.