To Save Military Lives, Look to Big Data

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Military pilots never expect their jobs to be easy, but with smarter defense acquisitions we can make their jobs safer. In November 2018, President Trump and Congress appointed the National Commission on Military Aviation Safety to determine causes and potential solutions to a recent tragic series of military aviation mishaps. In its search for a way forward, the Commission should pay close attention to technological advances in the field of human performance enhancement. Advanced sensor technologies, big data, and artificial intelligence open the door to new possibilities for improving how defense weapons systems accommodate the capacities and capabilities of their human operators, promising better system performance and warfighter safety. To realize these benefits, the Commission should champion defense acquisition strategies that prioritize human-systems integration within the acquisition process.

The military aviation safety crisis shows that human error poses a continuing threat to safe and effective aircraft operations. Safe and effective military aviation requires air and ground crew to perform complex tasks with minimal error while facing dangerous risks for poor performance. To maintain high levels of crew performance, the Services work to ensure that crew members possess adequate experience and training, and their equipment meets high readiness standards. Adverse conditions including budget cuts, increased operations tempo, and aging aircraft have led to cuts in pilot training and shortages of experienced maintainers, increasing human error and mishap risk. Manned aviation mishaps among the Air Force, Navy, and Marines surged between FY 2013 and FY 2017 resulting in 133 service member deaths. Although the number of total aviation mishaps decreased by 12% in FY 2018, aviation deaths increased, reaching a six-year high.  During June 2018 congressional testimony, senior military officials diagnosed the jet crashes as consequences of negative systemic pressures eroding the performance of the critical human component of military aviation. Although the Services intend to stretch existing budgets and calendars to improve pilot training and maintainer recruitment, the current policy environment’s budget and mission uncertainty could enable these adverse structural conditions to persist indefinitely. The policy response to the military aviation crisis should focus on reducing human error and its impact on operations.

By adopting a better approach to human-systems integration (HSI), Services can reduce their risk of aviation mishaps and while reaping fiscal and functional benefits. As a subset of systems engineering, HSI optimizes total system performance by customizing solutions for eight human aspects of defense systems, including manpower, personnel, training, human factors engineering, survivability, environment, safety, occupational health, and habitability. HSI’s customization focus produces defense systems that support and enhance the real capacities and capabilities of human operators, reducing the human sources of risk to total system performance. In addition to expected resourcing challenges, the Services’ emphasis on training and recruitment solutions to the military aviation safety crisis wrongly overlooks design-based HSI solutions, which often focus on direct behavior modification rather than instructional learning.  The tactile stimulation awareness system, a special vest enhanced with physical stimulators that counteracts the effects of flight-induced spatial disorientation by conveying situational awareness information to pilots, offers one example of a design-based HSI innovation made possible only by looking beyond training and recruitment. For another example, the F-22 Raptor’s F-119 engine applied HSI principles to surpass previous engine models in reliability and maintainability shaving billions in lifecycle costs and countless maintainer hours. HSI offers a direct approach to reducing risk of mishaps before defense systems reach the battlespace.

Good HSI depends on good data. HSI performs only as well as its data quality, so defense systems engineers implementing HSI require extensive data on the types of conditions human operators will experience. Big data analytics can fill HSI’s need for better information to guide implementation. Advanced sensor technologies enable the passive collection of extensive data about a system’s usage conditions. Using artificial intelligence methods like machine learning, systems engineers can extract deep insights into the behavioral, physiological, organizational, and environmental factors that may affect system performance in a variety of usage contexts. Basic science research initiatives like the Army Research Lab’s Human Variability Project and the Air Force’s Total Exposure Health program innovate and deploy advanced wearable sensors to develop detailed biological data profiles of service members to track and analyze variation in cognitive, physical, and genetic attributes.  The resultant data may supply future HSI efforts with a valuable systems design resource.

Big data’s most far-reaching impact may come from enabling direct augmentation of human performance. Demanding military operations tax mental and physical capacities, reducing human operational capabilities, and defense systems’ performance. Next-generation sensors enable real-time collection of extensive cognitive and physiological data, creating a “quantified warrior” whose deterioration can be predicted and prevented. For example, innovative sensors developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory enable remote monitoring of pilot biosignals facilitating more active pilot health support.  Quantifying the warfighter will lead to a healthier and more capable warfighter.  

The big data revolution in HSI and human performance will require a change to defense acquisition strategy. The Commission should recommend changes to defense acquisition regulations requiring systems developers to apply HSI methods and activities, in a traceable fashion, throughout the acquisition lifecycle. The Commission should also insist systems developers conduct rigorous measurement of the learnability, practical usability, and mission effectiveness of proposed system designs.  Last, the Commission should offer refined ethical and intellectual property guidelines on the collection and use of human performance data to guide policymakers on improving the balance between the rights of the federal government, warfighters, and industry collaborators.

The Services cannot reduce the risk of aviation mishaps solely through exhortations for better accountability, leadership, training, and funding. Rather, this crisis demands innovative solutions, and the big data revolution creates significant opportunities to provide such solutions. The Commission should use its platform to promote an acquisition strategy that pushes the technological frontier to save lives.


Christopher Smith serves as the Regulatory Policy Associate for the National Defense Industrial Association, specializing in research and analysis of federal regulations that affect the defense industrial base. He tracks defense policy issues including defense acquisition reform, contracting and procurement rules, small business programs, defense technology and innovation, and workforce development. Prior to his arrival at NDIA, Smith held policy research roles with organizations including the American Association for Justice, the National Governors Association, and the Mississippi Energy Institute. He is a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Ph.D., S.B.) and Cornell University (M.R.P.). He is originally from Alexandria, Virginia.



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