How America's New Sixth-Generation Stealth Fighter Was Born
America is able to digitally design and build new weapons at a speed unseen before.
How did a new sixth-generation stealth fighter aircraft already take to the skies?
How did America’s new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) move toward operational service earlier than expected? Finally, how is the Pentagon planning to have a new high-speed, high-tech Next-Generation Interceptor (NGI) missile by the end of the decade? All of the amazing advances are thanks to digital engineering.
Fast-increasing digital engineering methods which draw upon computer simulations and advanced algorithms to closely replicate design specs and weapons performance parameters.
Outgoing Air Force Acquisition Executive William Roper has outlined a new “trinity” for digital engineering applications and explained the massive difference the process has made with major weapons programs such as a sixth-generation stealth fighter and new Ground Based Strategic Deterrent. Digital engineering techniques, increasingly praised for their accuracy and effectiveness, have allowed engineers, scientists and weapons developers to assess multiple design options without having to “bend metal” or spend many years building and testing prototypes.
The “digital trinity,” Roper writes in an essay called “There is No Spoon: The New Digital Acquisition Reality,” includes software development, computer modeling and common technical standards.
“This “digital trinity”—digital engineering and management, agile software, and open architecture—is the next big paradigm shift for military 3 tech dominance. Rather than just building better systems, it builds systems better—opening doors to faster design, seamless assembly, and easier upgrades—and not a moment too soon!,” Roper writes in his essay.
Computer modeling, perhaps even somewhat surprisingly, can perform detailed evaluations of promising technologies, platform designs and other variables fundamental to weapons development in a wide range of warfare conditions and circumstances.
“Through digital engineering, we are giving our customers unprecedented access to a single source of data. It is the ultimate form of transparency to their systems under development. For NGI, it can help accelerate the development process and quickly identify issues and risks.”Melissa Morrison-Ellis, Raytheon Missiles & Defense Director and Deputy Program Manager, told The National Interest in an interview.
GBSD developer Northrop Grumman, who is partnered with Raytheon to offer and NGI solution to the Missile Defense Agency, leveraged digital engineering heavily and with great success to build, test and evolve its new ICBM, a technique which seemed to pay off and propel the program into a new phase of development with the Air Force. A similar technical strategy is now informing NGI development, Northrop and Raytheon leaders explain.
“MDA told industry don’t bring us paper rockets, we want you to bring us technology-proven capability that you can integrate and bring to bear. We are using engineering software factory iterative approaches to rapidly go through and design cycles,” said Terry Feehan, Northrop Grumman’s vice president and program director for NGI.
Upon cursory examination, it might seem challenging to think that digital modeling can truly approximate weapons systems performance, yet senior developers explain it continues to prove extremely reliable.
“With digital acquisition, the digital lifecycle must become as real as the physical one, and then eventually, even more real. One day we should design particular eSystems and view “printing” them in reality as unnecessary, even wasteful, as printing electronic documents today,” Roper’s paper explains.
This strategy is particularly important when it comes to NGI, as the new interceptor, to move into the next phase in coming weeks once the MDA awards two industry partners development deals. This is important as the MDA will need to find a way to take out larger numbers of faster, more precise and lethal ICBM and ballistic missile threats beyond the earth’s atmosphere. Potential adversaries are not only fast increasing pure numbers of weapons when it comes to their nuclear arsenals but also likely massively upgrading missiles themselves with new guidance systems, improved reliability, better targeting and, perhaps of greatest relevance to the NGI program, an entirely new sphere of decoys, countermeasures or other methods which which to obstruct or derail interceptors.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.