The Intelligent Defense Force

Matthias Ledwon

Lately, the term “intelligent enterprise” has been used a lot. But did you know it was first introduced nearly 30 years ago by James Brian Quinn in his seminal book Intelligent Enterprise? This approach was initially meant to be an industry-agnostic paradigm that requires a certain computing infrastructure and new service paradigms with the goal to improve business performance.

The digital innovations of the past decade – such as cloud computing, in-memory computing, artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML), and the Internet of Things (IoT) – are giving organizations unique opportunities to improve their business performance and serve their customers better. They can also lead to innovative business models that are disrupting entire industries – even for defense forces.

In the defense industry, NATO uses the concept of Smart Defense, described as a “cooperative way of generating modern defense capabilities that the Alliance needs, in a more cost-efficient, effective, and coherent manner.” Although NATO is focusing on defense capabilities like weapons systems or intelligence, the model can be applied to defense business systems as well: modern capabilities, effective, and coherent.

Challenges of defense forces

Before we focus on what this means for defense forces, let’s look at the challenges that military business systems are facing today. Some of the biggest are decreasing budgets, increasing costs, lack of agility, and the threat that opponents are leveraging intelligent solutions faster. The recent disruption will have an additional impact.

Most defense forces are still running their business systems in-house and on-premises instead of leveraging cloud computing, which leads to significant maintenance costs and less agile systems. Some are still running custom-developed applications or defense business processes that were implemented 20 years ago based on 30-year-old technology and 40-year-old practices. These legacy defense systems are beginning to show their age and will not be able to keep up with digital innovations. The benefit of adding intelligence to old business systems is limited and will quickly be outweighed by high and growing integration and maintenance costs.

Today’s defense forces have smart leaders, and the weapons systems are getting smarter very fast. However, the defense forces lack intelligent business systems. Some are just starting to leverage intelligence in some business processes. Machine learning might be in pilot stages, but may not have visibility across the enterprise, and data is still replicated instead of shared.

As the recent disruption has shown, defense forces don’t always have real-time visibility into their supply chains and assets. Operational readiness takes days to report and analyze, and the reports lack the required trust. Some forces have created supplier heatmaps to assist with impact analyses when key vendors shut down. And using outdated information will probably not lead to the best decisions. Now is the time to implement changes to enable data-driven decision-making. As weapons systems are getting more intelligent, so must business systems.

Vision: intelligent defense forces

So, what does it mean to be an intelligent defense force? Using the previous definitions as a guide, it means to leverage the newest computing infrastructure, new service paradigms, and modern defense capabilities, all applied in a more cost-efficient and effective way with the goal of improving business performance. Or in short, it’s a defense organization with smart weapons systems running intelligent solutions in an intelligent way. This reminds me of when my infantry company received its first two laptops and a printer over 20 years ago, and how much it improved our processes compared to using pens and typewriters.

Fast-forward to today, and I would say that today’s intelligent solutions include a commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) ERP system based on in-memory technology that provides best practices across all industries and, especially for the defense industry, is built to scale. As such, it provides an opportunity to really re-engineer the business processes or even the operating model and to give the organization an opportunity to consolidate legacy systems and run processes in real time. It not only provides specific defense capabilities, like force management, but it also incorporates best practices from other industries that allow a single end-to-end solution for all classes of supply, with integrated financials.

The intelligent solution includes an entire suite of additional capabilities like analytics and an extension framework that allows standardizing the core ERP to the maximum possible extent while allowing extensions where a competitive advantage is needed. A solution with embedded or well-integrated intelligence, like machine learning (ML), chatbots, or predictive analytics and simulation capabilities, will result in more effective processes, increased automation, and reduced errors and allow users to focus on high-value tasks.

A couple of years ago, my former colleague and good friend Mike Lennon wrote about a machine learning use case in the defense industry. Here are a couple of his examples of how to apply ML as one form of “intelligence” to lower a soldier’s load:

  • An airman takes photos to identify broken parts and orders the repair of an aircraft on the ground. This is possible because a computer’s photo recognition skills are now better than a human’s.
  • A Marine gets recommendations on what to order while conducting unit replenishment of supplies: “I think you need batteries for your laser rangefinder. Please confirm and I’ll order them for you.”
  • A vehicle maintainer gets a suggested task list for work orders based on identified broken parts: “While you’ve got that alternator pulled out, look at the starter behind it. It’s approaching its end of life based on information its sensors are providing.”

Other use cases for ML include (but are not limited to) sourcing recommendation engines, root-cause analysis, auto-approval workflows, and predictive maintenance.

To run the solution intelligently means that the defense force is focusing on its core business and lets experts run the business systems for them. This can be achieved by leveraging solutions that can be deployed in a secure cloud with managed services. It will get the military organization out of the business of developing code, maintaining business systems, and building interfaces to applications and servers. This will lower operating costs and increase agility while providing scalability and an environment that is as secure as required. Just last year, the U.S. Navy demonstrated how quickly an entire ERP landscape can move to the cloud and the benefits that can be achieved.

The intelligent enterprise approach for defense forces will lead to data-driven decision-making, with dashboards that give an accurate status of operational readiness based on real-time or near real-time data as “one version of the truth,” allowing leadership to drill down to a unit, weapon-system level, or even lower, and ultimately enabling better decision-making. If done right, intelligent defense forces will see improved readiness and more secure and agile business systems that are more cost-effective and efficient and are ready to take advantage of future innovations to face the challenges of the next 20 years.

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Matthias Ledwon

About Matthias Ledwon

Matthias Ledwon is the Industry Executive Advisor for the DoD at SAP America, serving as an intermediary between SAP’s defense customers in the US, SAP’s partners, the Market Unit, and the Industry Business Unit. Over the past 20 years, he has supported business transformations with SAP solutions in various industries. Matthias is a former infantry officer, graduate of the University of the Federal Armed Forces in Hamburg (Germany) and lives with his family in Northern Virginia.