Digital Engineering Strategy Streamlines How Defense Systems Are Designed, Official Says

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  • By Terri Moon Cronk

While the 2018 National Defense Strategy directs reform as one of its key efforts, the Defense Department is undergoing considerable change in how it does business -- including how it improves the outcome of national defense systems.

The recently released Digital Engineering Strategy modernizes the practices of developing DoD’s defense systems and prioritizes speed of delivery to be able to fight and win the wars of the future, Michael D. Griffin, undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, wrote in the strategy’s forward.

The strategy directs the services and DoD agencies to begin implementing digital engineering and those plans are expected by the end of December, he said.

DoD requires robust engineering practices to develop the weapons systems the nation needs to maintain superiority against threats from adversaries worldwide, the strategy’s introduction reads.

“DoD faces the challenge of balancing design, delivery and sustainment of complex systems with rapidly changing operational and threat environments, tight budgets and aggressive schedules,” the introduction says.

To ensure the United States maintains its technological superiority, “DoD is transforming its engineering practices to digital engineering, incorporating technological innovations into an integrated, digital, model-based approach,” the introduction reads.

What is Digital Engineering?

Digital engineering does not reinvent the wheel, but rather optimizes engineering practices, according to Philomena Zimmerman, DoD’s deputy director of engineering tools and environments.

Digital engineering is about using models and computer resources together to do engineering tasks, such as design, analysis, prototyping and experimentation with concepts, she explained.

“The easy way to think about it is it’s a lot like a video game world. But in our video-game world, we can do very large concepts, such as moving vehicles around on a battlefield and we can also go into very detailed work, such as [documenting] friction caused by wind flow going over turbine blades,” Zimmerman said.

Like an email thread captures information as it is sent to and from recipients, digital engineering allows people to view up-to-date engineering information for a project, in a community-sharing environment.

Models, Computer Data

A model -- such as a picture, blueprint or spreadsheet -- is shared on a computer, which combines data about a project, Zimmerman said.

“That allows different acquisition domain experts, whether an engineer, design engineer, sustainment engineer, or a power engineer, to collaborate on the problem using the same relevant data,” she said.

Because digital engineering allows people working on the same project to move in the same direction toward the same objective, the approach eliminates duplication, which saves time and costs. “You also reduce errors, because you’re not doing things multiple times,” Zimmerman said.

DoD also is working with the private sector and academia worlds on its strategy, she said.

While not entirely new, digital engineering techniques have been used in many programs -- for example -- Air Force A-10 aircraft upgrade on its wings; design support for the Ford-class aircraft carriers, future vertical lift analysis. Such an approaches help maintain connectivity between the different engineering, acquisition, and operational activities, such as sustainment, Zimmerman said.

Confronting Global Threats

With today’s numerous global threats, digital engineering helps battle cyber concerns, terrorism and new technology developed by near-peer competitors Russia and China, she noted.

For example, if a particular underwater threat to ship hulls exists, protections to include cyber capabilities can be put in place with digital engineering, Zimmerman said.

“By understanding complex system interactions,” she added, “we can now start to model them and we can get to [Defense Secretary James N. Mattis’] speed of relevance.”

(Follow Terri Moon Cronk on Twitter: @MoonCronkDoD)

Air Force crew chiefs conduct preflight checks on an A-10C Thunderbolt II before taking off on a mission at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, Aug. 2, 2018. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kristin High