Insight by Arcfield

Pentagon turns to digital engineering in shift toward ‘great power competition’

After two decades of counterterrorism missions, the Defense Department is shifting its attention to “great power competition.” DoD’s approach to engineeri...

The Pentagon is in the midst of a major reorientation away from a focus on counterterrorism to deterring potential near-peer adversarial powers, including China and Russia.

And after two decades of building systems geared toward counterterrorism operations, the shift in the geopolitical landscape is leading the Defense Department to engineer systems and platforms that are more integrated, resilient, and can operate at longer ranges.

Space systems are a prime example. The 2022 National Defense Strategy calls for fielding “diverse, resilient, and redundant satellite constellations.” Two decades ago, space was largely an uncontested domain. Now, the Pentagon is concerned about an early attack on key satellites.

“One of the big engineering challenges is making sure that we make good use of the overhead satellite systems that are there today, in concert with newer systems that can go up with space situational awareness,” Kevin Kelly, chief executive officer of Arcfield, said in an interview.

In addition to kinetic attacks, officials are also concerned about cyber attacks on space systems that are increasingly critical to a range of civilian and defense applications.

“Fifteen years ago, nobody thought about a cyber attack on a satellite,” Kelly said. “That’s a reality now. So some of the engineering and modeling and simulation work that we do is providing layers of defense using next generation satellite systems in concert with some of the older ones that may not have all the defensive mechanisms that they need.”

The commercial space sector is also growing at a rapid pace. Defense and intelligence agencies are looking to take advantage of new commercial space capabilities, in addition to bespoke satellite systems, presenting further integration challenges.

“Now you have to take into account the fact that there are commercial systems that are being designed and deployed, and you might want to make use of them,” Kelly said. “Because of their refresh rate, they’re going to advance their technology much faster than some of the national systems that are up there. So contemplating what the art of the possible is from a technology standpoint is one of the challenges that our industry faces as a whole.”

Kelly says the solution to these integration challenges lies in model-based systems engineering. Rather than designing things sequentially, engineers can use “digital twins” to integrate and test different components in a system, like a satellite constellation.

“We have to do things much faster now,” Kelly said. “We do concurrent engineering where everybody builds their modules simultaneously. And we have digital models that we input all of that data into to make sure that systems are going to interoperate with one another and we can still control those interfaces.”

There’s been resistance to that kind of approach in the past, Kelly said. But in 2018, the Defense Department announced a “Digital Engineering Strategy” that “promotes the use of digital representations of systems and components and the use of digital artifacts to design and sustain national defense systems.”

Then-Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin, in his foreword to the strategy, said the approach would help DoD modernize its systems while prioritizing speed of delivery.

“The demand for faster innovation, faster deployment, and, frankly, more precise systems has really driven the adoption of model based systems engineering and digital engineering,” Kelly said.

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