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Digital Engineering: Transforming Defense and Space Security


In an era of rapid technological advancement and evolving security challenges, the Department of Defense (DoD) has recognized the transformative power of Digital Engineering (DE). DE, also known as Model-Based Engineering or Model-Based Systems Engineering, is an initiative championed by the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Systems Engineering (ODASD(SE)). This innovative approach aims to revolutionize the way defense programs collect, retain, and share data, with the overarching goal of enhancing efficiency, coherence, and security in defense programs.

The DoD Digital Engineering Strategy

The DoD Digital Engineering Strategy is a comprehensive blueprint that outlines five strategic goals for the DE initiative. This strategy encompasses a wide range of disciplines within the acquisition and procurement of national defense systems. It encourages innovation in the design, testing, fielding, and sustainment of defense systems, along with a focus on shaping a digitally fluent workforce to implement these practices effectively.

By using digital models, customers and engineers can more quickly specify, develop, and deploy solutions in response to a rapidly evolving mission space. Digital engineering is transforming acquisition, complex systems engineering and integration, and sustainment from the existing design-build-test paradigm to a model-analyze-build methodology. There are tremendous savings of cost, time, and resources by moving a solution through its full life cycle digitally.


The Core Components of DE

It comprises of incorporating the use of digital computing, analytical capabilities, and new technologies to conduct engineering in more integrated virtual environments to increase customer and vendor engagement, improve threat response timelines, foster infusion of technology, reduce cost of documentation, and impact sustainment affordability.

  1. Digital Computing: DE integrates digital computing capabilities into engineering processes. This enables the development of integrated virtual environments where stakeholders can engage more effectively. It results in streamlined communication, improved response times to emerging threats, and cost reductions in documentation.
  2. Virtual Prototyping: DE allows the DoD and its industry partners to evolve designs at the conceptual phase. This reduces the need for costly physical mock-ups and premature design lock, leading to significant savings in both time and resources. It also empowers DoD programs to experiment and test decisions and solutions in a virtual environment before deployment.
  3. Improved Decision-Making: DE’s digital models provide customers and engineers with the means to specify, develop, and deploy solutions rapidly. This agility is crucial in responding to an ever-changing mission space and improving the overall quality and performance of defense solutions.
  4. Cost Reduction: DE offers tremendous cost savings by enabling solutions to progress through their entire life cycle digitally. This minimizes the reliance on traditional design-build-test paradigms, resulting in more efficient use of resources.

These comprehensive engineering environments will allow DoD and its industry partners to evolve designs at the conceptual phase, reducing the need for expensive mock-ups, premature design lock, and physical testing.

This approach can enable DoD programs to prototype, experiment, and test decisions and solutions in a virtual environment before they are delivered to the warfighter. ODASD(SE) asserts that digital engineering has the potential to promote greater efficiency and coherence in defense programs by ensuring stakeholders have access to accurate, relevant, and consistent information throughout the life of a program.

Digital Engineering in Airforce

The Air Force Research Laboratory is acutely aware of the changing landscape of conflict, exemplified by the ongoing war in Ukraine, which underscores the importance of resilient electronic devices and systems in contested environments. Ensuring the production and trustworthiness of these technologies is a top priority. According to Yadunath Zambre, Chief Microelectronics Technology Officer for the Air Force Research Laboratory, electronics are fundamental to modern warfare, especially in the context of cyber warfare and information operations.

One of the key challenges faced by the Department of Defense (DoD) is ensuring access to specialized electrical components, often required in small quantities. The limited supplier base, combined with the need for high-value platforms with sense-making capabilities, further complicates the acquisition process. Environmental requirements and other constraints also limit the available options.

In the complex world of microelectronics production, visibility throughout all stages is essential. The DoD needs to have a clear understanding of the supply chain, from design to packaging, to ensure trustworthiness. Vulnerabilities exist at every stage, including the risk of data exfiltration and design compromise. Addressing these vulnerabilities requires holistic partnerships across the entire supply chain.

To tackle these challenges, the Air Force Research Laboratory embarked on a data collection mission and discovered that trust is closely tied to awareness and visibility in the supply chain. Many contractors lack a comprehensive bill of materials for their systems, which hampers trust in the components. The solution may involve simplifying contracts and emphasizing the importance of a bill of materials.

Furthermore, reforming the acquisition process for electronics can help mitigate the issue of high sustainment costs. A significant portion of the lifecycle production costs occurs during sustainment, and many platforms face operational readiness challenges due to sustainment or obsolescence issues. The Air Force Research Laboratory advocates designing with digital engineering to address these problems.

Digital engineering enables a more efficient approach to design, reducing the lifecycle cost impact and improving readiness for battle. By taking advantage of virtual emulation and simulation, it becomes possible to reduce design cycle times significantly. This approach aligns with the commercial sector’s practices, which regularly update hardware and optimize designs within shorter timeframes.

The DoD’s current practice of lifetime or block buys is expensive and often not aligned with the pace of technological change. Commercial products typically become obsolete within a decade, and upgrades occur every one to three years. To adapt to this reality, the DoD needs to design systems with upgrades in mind from the beginning.

The Air Force Research Laboratory is ready to embrace digital engineering fully and has conducted successful pilot tests in this area. As an example, a digital twin of a system revealed that a costly modernization estimate could be resolved by replacing a single chip, resulting in substantial savings.

With increasing funding allocated to microelectronics, there is an opportunity to build digital engineering infrastructure and change the culture within the DoD. Education and guidance are crucial components of this transformation, emphasizing that things can be done differently. Access to technical data packages associated with purchased hardware is essential to make digital engineering more accessible and efficient.

Overall, digital engineering offers a promising path forward to enhance the trustworthiness, efficiency, and agility of electronic systems in defense and space security. The Air Force Research Laboratory is committed to leading the way in this transformative journey.

Digital Engineering in Space Programs

Digital engineering holds particular significance in space programs due to the unique challenges they face. Unlike other domains where assets can be retrieved, maintained, and enhanced, space programs often have to live with the assets they deploy. Whether launching satellites or spacecraft, digital engineering instills confidence and lowers risk in terms of quality and performance.

Complex systems operating in space must cater to a diverse range of space missions and user requirements. Traditionally, engineering practices focused on optimizing specific sensing capabilities for individual satellite constellations, which often led to suboptimal solutions. With digital engineering, it becomes possible to evaluate the combined effects of various payload types across numerous satellites within diverse constellations. This revolutionary capability not only fosters the development of more resilient systems but also enhances mission assurance. Moreover, it equips space organizations with systems that boast exceptional flexibility, allowing them to adapt seamlessly to evolving mission requirements and needs.

Furthermore, digital technologies enhance transparency, collaboration, and communication among stakeholders in space programs. This leads to better decision-making and reduces the likelihood of costly design conflicts during the build stage, vital in rapidly evolving operational and threat environments.

In summary, digital engineering, driven by advancements in analytics and computing power, empowers space organizations to make more informed decisions, optimize system configurations, and ultimately deliver solutions that are robust, adaptable, and tailored to meet the ever-evolving demands of the space environment.

Incorporating Advanced Analytics

Digital engineering tools, powered by advances in analytics and computing power, empower teams to evaluate solutions against multiple missions and user requirements. This allows for the optimization of satellite constellations and systems, resulting in more resilient, mission-assured, and flexible solutions that can adapt to evolving mission needs.

The Space Force’s Vision for a Digital Service

The U.S. Space Force is at the forefront of embracing digital engineering. Recognizing the importance of data in a domain without humans present to conduct military operations, the Space Force’s “Vision for a Digital Service” outlines a bold plan for transformation. This vision focuses on creating an Interconnected, Innovative, and Digitally Dominant force through key tenets and four focus areas:

  • Interconnected Force: Efficiently shares information with stakeholders to support the mission.
  • Innovative Force: Embraces new approaches and challenges the status quo.
  • Digitally Dominant Force: Relies on an empowered, digitally fluent workforce that advocates for innovation.

These tenets drive the transformation in four areas: Digital Engineering, Digital Workforce, Digital Headquarters, and Digital Operations.

Informed by these tenets, the Vision for a Digital Service outlines four focus areas that serve as lines of effort for the necessary digital transformation Guardians must lead to achieve this vision:

  • Digital Engineering: The Space Force will foster an interoperable, resilient, and secure Digital Engineering Ecosystem (DEE) that will enable Guardians across the force to rapidly mature innovative concepts into integrated solutions and deliver critical warfighting capability faster.
  • Digital Workforce: The Space Force will attract, educate, develop, and retain the vital talent they need to cultivate digital fluency among all Guardians, and the USSF will equip and empower them to unleash their talent and energy toward bold, innovative solutions.
  • Digital Headquarters: This focus area refers to a function, rather than a location – it represents the ability for all Guardians to make decisions efficiently by removing layers of bureaucracy and enabling and incentivizing data-driven decision making.
  • Digital Operations: The Space Force will drive joint, all-domain solutions in, from, and to space, exploiting advantages provided by interconnected infrastructure and an innovative, digitally-fluent workforce.

Distributed architecture for missile warning

The Space Force is developing a distributed architecture for missile warning that involves a new constellation of satellites operating in low Earth orbit (LEO). This distributed approach offers flexibility and resilience, preventing adversaries from disabling space capabilities by targeting a single satellite. To achieve this architecture, the Space Force is leveraging digital engineering tools, enabling them to simulate and validate satellite designs and constellation structures in a digital environment that accurately replicates space conditions.

The upcoming missile warning constellation, known as the Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared (Next Gen OPIR), was initially designed as a large and sophisticated system. The first phase involves five satellites in high orbit, replacing the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) satellites with minor improvements. However, recent contracts awarded to Raytheon Technologies and Millennium Space Systems are focused on building digital models of the next generation of Next Gen OPIR satellites. These digital engineering practices aim to validate the satellites’ operation in medium Earth orbit (MEO), marking a significant shift in missile warning architecture.

MEO offers several advantages, such as broader Earth coverage with fewer satellites compared to LEO, where hundreds of satellites would be required for global coverage. Additionally, MEO provides resiliency through layers of satellite coverage and enhances performance while reducing costs compared to exquisite systems.

Digital engineering plays a critical role in this transformation. Unlike traditional analog design practices, digital engineering allows every team member to access and modify every part of the satellite’s design. Changes made to one part of the system are immediately reflected in the digital model, ensuring comprehensive visibility and real-time impact assessment. These high-fidelity digital environments provide a realistic representation of how the satellite will function in orbit, going beyond simple animations to test dimensions, capabilities, and physical properties accurately.

In essence, the Space Force’s adoption of digital engineering is reshaping its approach to satellite development, enabling more efficient design processes and improved performance assessment in the pursuit of a distributed and resilient missile warning architecture.



Digital Engineering is ushering in a new era in defense and space security. Its ability to create virtual environments, enhance decision-making, and reduce costs makes it a linchpin in ensuring the effectiveness and efficiency of defense programs. In the realm of space, where the stakes are high and retrieval is often impossible, digital engineering is invaluable. The U.S. Space Force’s embrace of digital engineering exemplifies its significance in shaping the future of defense and space security. As technology continues to evolve, so too will the critical role of digital engineering in safeguarding our national interests.





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