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Digital engineering in defense: its time has arrived
Digitalization for both the military and industrial Client

Michael Louis Morua
3 May 2024

Digital engineering’s impact on defense

“Embrace change, endure chaos, and emerge transformed.”

Author unknown

Digital engineering is quickly emerging as the principal means to deliver the technological advantage in defense. Though not sufficient on its own, this advantage is an important contributor to success.

In digital engineering, both traditional systems engineering and the engineering of the digital environment are integrated; ie. the traditional practice of engineering is enabled by digital technologies – eg. computer aided design (CAD) software that allows us to develop detailed ‘digital twins’ of existing or potential systems. These digital technologies are supported by the digital environment – for example, detailed synthetic spaces to test these digital twins in a variety of accurate simulated circumstances that would be expensive, slow or impossible to reproduce in real world test environments.

The result is in a transformational impact on productivity and delivery times, which is important – in the current security and threat environment, reduced development and fielding timelines are essential – to respond to the dynamic situations of 21st Century conflicts and today’s increasingly uncertain geopolitical situation.

When applied effectively, digital engineering can be used to deliver military capability quickly that is relevant to the threat, before an adversary’s countermeasures can be developed or alternative ‘game changing’ technologies emerge.

For example, new capabilities could be used for the first time in conflict against an enemy. Initially, the enemy may be unprepared to defend against these. However, given enough time, they will develop a countermeasure or a game changing technology to nullify your advantage. Digital engineering, and the speed it provides, ensures that it is the enemy who is always a step behind in the deployment of such advantageous new capabilities.

But digital is more than capability development. It also provides a military force with operational and logistical advantages. In support of military operations, digital engineering can be used to integrate a military force across large distances, yet still provide improved situational awareness and firepower to human decision makers. From the perspective of a naval officer from 1982 to 2002 and as a systems engineer from 2002 to now, this move towards digital engineering is happening faster than we think. It’s also changing the nature of global conflicts itself.

Network centric and the digital age

Since 1998, when Proceedings, a monthly periodical published by the United States Naval Institute, published Network Centric Warfare: Its Origin and Future [Ref 1], military organizations have been transitioning their capabilities from ‘platform-centric’ to ‘network-centric’.

Platform centric capability has sensors, command and control and weapons on the same platform. Network-centric capability, on the other hand, could have sensors, command and control and weapons on different platforms, but connected via an information network that links this ‘system of systems’. The network-centric capability allows for more agility and flexibility, more resiliency to attack with fewer geographic constraints. For example, its three nodes – sensor, decision maker and shooter do not have to all be in the same location.

Sensors could be airborne and uncrewed; command centers could be located within national boundaries and weapons could be launched by any capable platform that is within range of the target. The network-centric capability could be more survivable than the platform-centric one, as its nodes can be located separately and thus must be destroyed separately. However, the network itself is now a target and it must be protected against cyber-attack or electronic warfare (EW). It has been over 25 years since the publication of the Proceedings article and, today, network-centric capability is a reality.

Revolution of military affairs

A revolution of military affairs has occurred in much the same way that aircraft and motorized vehicles changed 20th century conflict. The digitalization of that information environment over time has improved connectivity across all bandwidths, allowed enormous amounts of data and computing power to be shared by many platforms and provided information, predictions, and situational awareness to users upon demand.

We know these capabilities today as wide area networks (WANs), cloud computing, the internet, virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR), and digital twins. 21st Century global conflicts have therefore been characterized by drones, long range weapons and intelligent, uncrewed systems linked to network-centric platforms, like the newer generation of network-enabled military vehicles that by themselves are not particularly lethal. These vehicles instead achieve their lethality from the systems that they are linked to, resulting in a force multiplier effect as more vehicles are added to the network.

However, recent technologies and network capabilities bring about new problems and vulnerabilities. The use of low technology systems, like improvised explosive devices (IEDs), combined with high technology threats, such as cyber-weapons, can provide an effective asymmetric response, allowing forces that are conventionally outgunned to defeat larger and better equipped adversaries.

Paradigm shift

The result is a major change in thinking around how military capability is developed, used, and maintained. In our experience, we have seen that, as network-centric concepts mature, effective military capability is increasingly dependent on the integration of human, process, organizational, information and technology elements – along with key enablers like infrastructure, maintenance, enterprise architectures, logistics and training. These factors are relevant when defining, building, operating, and maintaining a military capability that can actually survive in a conflict 30 years from now – and are highly dependent on the use of digital twins, digital manufacturing, and digital collaboration.

Traditional operational and engineering practices struggle to keep up with all of this because they are more resource intensive and use a workforce that is located in a smaller geographic area. They also use a more laborious, document-based approach, which is inferior to mature digital methods of collaboration and data exchange available today. As a result, change management is slow in such development projects – a major liability in a world that is changing so quickly.

Instead, model-based approaches enabled by a remote working environment are needed, along with digital technologies that allow effective requirement traceability, virtual reality visualization and improved human collaboration throughout a design process that is based on a single source of truth (SSOT). This SSOT can ensure that everyone within the organization accesses the same, up-to-date information, reducing the risk of errors or discrepancies that can occur with multiple sources of data. Digital engineering is needed to bring these capabilities together in a value-driven approach for the military, as well as allow industry to provide improved engineering and innovative designs in an agile, collaborative, and secure way.

In this network-centric and digital age, the need for partnership between the military and wider industry ecosystem of SMEs (in addition to the traditional major prime defense contractors) is greater than ever. However, new military capability does not always mean purchasing new systems. Often, older systems can be re-purposed to address the new battlespace environment and new threats.

In this environment, the use of the Internet of Things (IoT), digital twins and AI can add new life to these systems, such as the B-52 bomber which is now over 60 years old, and, unlike its original iteration can now launch drones, cruise missiles, drop laser guided munitions, manage air surveillance platforms (as well as its own sensor suite) and still defend itself. Other examples include fighter aircraft such as Typhoon and Rafale which, over decades, have gained new life as multirole fighter-bombers, along with naval frigates and destroyers that benefit from life extension (LIFEX) programs that allow them, for example, to be more fuel efficient and launch deep strike cruise missiles.

It should be noted that the systems that we will be designing for, 10-15 years in the future, will be operated and maintained by people who are currently under the age of ten. New military capability should remain adaptive, as must the civilian defense industry. Indeed, based on defense project timeframes, the workforce that begins a project may not be the workforce that delivers it – even as we endeavor to shorten these development timeframes.


One way to judge how things are changing is to consider how long it takes to get a new system from concept to the field. Traditionally, this could take 10 years, or more in the case of very complex or expensive systems. But today, that is much too slow. Militaries need suppliers to provide early deliverables within 3-5 years, with more advanced versions within 10 years and an upgrade program to keep the capability relevant for 30 years or more. This pace cannot be achieved without digital engineering.

This poses the obvious question; are you ready to meet this pace? If not – we can help. What is needed is a way to manage your digital and systems engineering processes and transform your organization at the same time. This is indeed a colossal challenge, however, if properly managed and supported by people who have ‘been there’, a solution tailored to the specific needs and circumstances of your organization can be achieved. People, processes, digital infrastructure, architecture, and transformation activities can be coordinated and managed – to produce the best result for the future you want.

Ref1 : Network Centric Warfare – Its Origins and Future, Vice Admiral Arthur K. Cebrowski, USN, and John H. Garstka, Proceedings, January 1988, Volume 124/1/1139

Times are changing and digital engineering is becoming a necessity; both on the battlefield and in the competitive business environment of defense.

It’s time to transform to meet the challenges of this environment. To start by working out what this transformation may entail, please meet our experts. 

Meet our expert

Michael Louis Morua

ER&D Senior Systems Engineer, CEng CSEP and PMP
Mike graduated from the University of California Berkeley (BSEE) and later the US Navy Postgraduate School (MSEE). He was a US Naval officer and later a systems engineer. Mike specializes in Systems of Systems, systems thinking, MBSE in defense rail, and infrastructure projects. He now resides in Britain, and is a member of IEEE, IET, INCOSE and PMI.

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