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Digital Engineering, DevSecOps Key to Updating ICBMs

Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles are now over 50 years old, and the time to transition to the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, a full ICBM weapon system replacement, is getting close. The need for optimized sustainment and readiness on Minuteman III is critical as the government prepares for GBSD’s anticipated initial operational capability in 2029.

Helping the Air Force prepare for that transition is a critical mission for BAE Systems, the Air Force’s ICBM systems engineering, integration, and test partner as the Future Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Sustainment and Acquisition Construct (FISAC) Integration Support Contract (ISC) Prime since 2013. This complex transition requires digital engineering expertise, which BAE Systems applies to the ICBM mission every day with its digital modeling and simulation capabilities. BAE Systems’ digital engineering work is ensuring a high-confidence handoff between the two weapon systems and that the Air Force has access to the full range of “zero fail” strategic systems technical expertise to manage the transition.

“Our focus over the past eight years has been to help the government’s ICBM weapon system integrators manage the technical baseline of Minuteman III so they can make informed decisions on its sustainment, and support the acquisition of GBSD,” said Rick Allen, Vice President of BAE Systems Air & Space Force Solutions Strategic Systems business. “Our innovative technical solutions facilitate the ICBM team’s MMIII digital sustainment strategy and provide options for the GBSD system’s future advancements, Digital Engineering System, and Air Force ownership of key interfaces and data rights.”

Dr. Scott Nowlin, BAE Systems’ Strategic Systems chief engineer, said after nearly a decade of supporting the government in its lead system integrator role, BAE Systems continues to apply its hard-earned expertise and insights to one of the most complex and demanding weapons system transitions ever.

A Well Orchestrated and Cost-Effective Transition

“Within 20 years, the GBSD weapon systems will need to be updated with new weapon systems, command and control capabilities, and a refurbished launch facility,” Nowlin said. “That’s a heavy lift. We’re helping the government flag parts of the system that need to be modified in the near term in order to help transition to GBSD over the long term. Our work drives down risk, helping GBSD remain on time and within budget.”

The work to get there has already begun.

“The Air Force’s cost/capability trades were intensively modelled to be fully understood. Furthermore, we have been able to use customized digital tools delivered to the government, so this wind down of Minuteman III—just as GBSD comes online—can be time-certain and cost-controlled.” 

Digital Modelling for Today and the Future

Digital twin models fall under the broad category of digital engineering, which the Department of Defense defines as “an integrated digital approach that uses authoritative sources of system data and models as a continuum across disciplines to support life cycle activities from concept to disposal.”

The strategy has already contributed to development decisions on GBSD.

“We’ve been helping curate and communicate decisional data across all levels and stakeholders in the ICBM enterprise,” Nowlin said. “That’s allowed GBSD to stay on schedule right into the Engineering and Manufacturing Development [EMD] phase.”

This is despite the significant complications brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, which Dr. Nowlin describes as being mitigated because of ICBM enterprise digital engineering strategies and investments.

“The investment that GBSD made years ago in a digital engineering environment has paid off multiple times already,” he said. “For example, they were able to meet all the milestones throughout the pandemic by being able to visualize and share data with leaders at the highest level of the DOD to meet those schedules on time.”

Modern and More Secured Software Solutions

Working with Minuteman III might not seem like the perfect place to break new ground technologically, but BAE Systems has been proving otherwise. The company has helped update and modernize software in the legacy missile systems by embracing the modern agile software development practice known as Development, Security, and Operations, or DevSecOps. The approach has helped BAE Systems break down challenges into manageable pieces and to iterate software development to produce a continuous flow of enhancements.

“As software has taken on a larger and more significant role in overall system capabilities, it’s clear you have to go faster and implement software with an agile mindset,” Nowlin said. “With DevSecOps, we can take a small team and get through a large backlog of issues by tackling them one by one, integrating them piece by piece, with testing for cybersecurity and operational effectiveness along the way.”

With a DevSecOps “pipeline” process in place, BAE Systems can respond immediately as events unfold. This will only become more important as the Air Force updates the Nuclear Command and Control Communication (NC3) system that coordinates the nuclear enterprise.

DevSecOps pays for itself in saved time by running code development applications, security checks, and operational testing of computer code in tandem.  

A Model Framework to Modernize Defense Systems

This theme of improved collaboration and communication within the ICBM enterprise isn’t limited to just the software community.

“There is a need for increased and enhanced communication between the GBSD acquisition and Minuteman III sustainment communities, because those operating Minuteman III need to know where they’re going to make a handoff and how to decommission this legacy ICBM system,” Allen said. “It’s a very complicated and complex, coordinated dance. We’re helping the government apply great systems engineering capabilities—risk management, interface control, integrated project technical planning and scheduling, configuration management, to name a few.  All in the ICBM digital ecosystem.”

With the ongoing and successful implementation of digital engineering strategies as it relates to our nation’s ICBM infrastructure, this process could also provide a framework for the future objectives of other military branches as well.