How digital engineering is helping the US military manage enemy threats

  • The US military is constantly developing new systems to help combat rapidly evolving enemy threats.
  • Digital engineering greatly reduces the time and cost of these efforts.
  • Northrop Grumman uses advanced digital engineering practices to build the most sophisticated and secure next-generation weapon systems for armed forces.

The modern battlefield is replete with ever-evolving threats, with digitally connected adversaries constantly developing new capabilities. As American capabilities continue to outstrip those of our adversaries, creating weapons systems to counter existing and emerging threats can be costly and time-consuming – potentially taking a decade or more to design, develop and implement. in service.

Northrop Grumman helps reduce costs, minimize speed to field, and keep the United States firmly ahead by applying digital engineering principles to the weapons systems and equipment it builds for armed forces.

Digital engineering uses analysis, computer-aided design, agile software development and collaboration tools to create digital twins: virtual 3D models that replicate not only the appearance, but also the functionality of products or of fully constructed components. This means engineers can test, get feedback, and retest everything from a circuit board to an airplane or missile long before manufacturing begins.

“With digital engineering, we can move quickly through the design, test, and manufacturing phases, saving money and taking months or even years off typical development times for large systems” said Chris Daughters, vice president of engineering for Northrop Grumman’s aerospace business. .

Raise the stakes

One of the most comprehensive examples of digital engineering to date is the Air Force Ground-based Strategic Deterrence System, or GBSD, which will replace the long-standing ground arm of the US nuclear triad: the Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile system.

Assuming the lead role in the GBSD program, Northrop Grumman is responsible for leading a multitude of industry partners in the modernization of hundreds of silos across multiple states; integrate their systems into a single state-of-the-art command and control platform; building revolutionary new missile technology; ensure complete and total cybersecurity; and maintaining the viability of the program for the next 75 years — all at the same time.

By employing digital engineering practices throughout GBSD’s design, test, and manufacturing cycles, Northrop Grumman has been able to help revolutionize the industry application of efficient management and modernization. of a large-scale program.

Design in the virtual world

The foundation of digital engineering exploitation begins with the creation of digital twins, which engineers develop for all of its parts and subsystems.

“You have a digital footprint of everything that went into developing and building, testing and certifying everything,” said Frank DeMauro, vice president and general manager who leads the GBSD program. “This footprint becomes a base for future upgrades and modifications.”

Feedback from multiple teams is continually incorporated into the digital twins as designs are developed. Engineers also receive suggestions for artificial intelligence algorithms embedded in design tools.

“The AI ​​looks over the engineer’s shoulder and says, ‘You’re designing a tray that looks exactly like one that’s structurally and thermally proven, and we have a supplier for that. Can you use this one instead?” Daughters said. “These tweaks speed up the design process and save the military money.”

Another big advantage of digital twins is that they can be tested at any time during the development cycle – a radical departure from when testing was only done after the entire design was manufactured.

“A missile system is very complicated,” DeMauro said. “The last thing you want is for the physical test to fail and the program to halt while you perform root cause analysis. Now we can test in the digital world before we even assemble a piece of hardware. “

Building for the future

To support CEO Kathy Warden’s strategy, Northrop Grumman continues to invest in cutting-edge technologies and embrace digital transformation capabilities to help sustain America’s national security advantages and position its portfolio for the future. .

The GBSD system is designed not only to meet today’s needs, but also to evolve as threats change and technology advances.

Part of ensuring the program’s relevance and readiness for its full 75-year life cycle involves ensuring that GBSD is software-defined at its core, enabling continuous improvement without having to manufacture new equipment. By leveraging agile software development practices in which small “Scrum” teams develop and test pieces of the solution as they go, Northrop Grumman can better control the development and implementation of updates more centrally. .

Once completed, these increments are tested to ensure they meet key security requirements before being released. But what about post-launch? A weapon system that works this long will also require a lot of maintenance. According to DeMauro, missile systems are notoriously difficult to maintain due to their difficult-to-access underground silos.

However, through the software-defined digital engineering process, Northrop Grumman can take maintenance and collaboration to new levels by inviting maintenance technicians to participate in the design, wearing augmented reality glasses to perform tasks virtually. .

“They can practice replacing a computer or an actuator and provide feedback to engineers to improve accessibility,” DeMauro said.

They are also able to use these processes to simulate and track component failure, using predictive maintenance practices to better empower technicians to prevent emerging issues and ensure operational readiness at all times.

As the modernization proceeds, all software data and analytics will be stored in secure containers in the Air Force cloud – a first for the military. By hosting the data and solution sets in an accessible container, the Air Force will ultimately be able to apply the comprehensive digital engineering solutions that Northrop Grumman has brought to GBSD on other critical systems.

“If you need a light that turns blue when something happens, you can move that app to the new program without testing it again,” DeMauro said. “If done right, this capability will result in significant cost and time reductions.”

Better program management

While leveraging digital engineering to develop other critical next-generation military programs – like the B-21 bomber – is a priority, Northrop Grumman understands that digital engineering is not just about weapons systems. As the GBSD program progressed, the scope expanded to include scheduling optimization, cost management, and resource deployment.

“How do we ensure maximum collaboration between work teams? How do we set up our test labs and our software development factories?” De Mauro said. “We used to do it on 2D paper and hopefully it will work. Now we can build it in a virtual world, get feedback from a team of architects, and make sure we’re doing it right. “

The success of the GBSD program has proven the importance of continuing to apply digital engineering practices to keep our forces firmly ahead of the future. “GBSD demonstrates to other departments that digital processes work,” DeMauro said. “Through digital engineering, we can put solutions in the hands of warfighters earlier to better address evolving threats.”

Discover how Northrop Grumman’s technology improves the modern battlefield.

This post was created by Insider Studios with Northrop Grumman.

Bonny J. Streater