Applying Systems Engineering to Manage U.S. Nuclear Capabilities

Applying Systems Engineering to Manage U.S. Nuclear Capabilities

The Aerospace Corporation’s expertise in program systems engineering and integration is being applied to nuclear programs for the National Nuclear Security Administration.

by Matthew J. Hart, James D. Johansen, and Mark J. Rokey

First published Fall 2014, Crosslink® magazine.


Nuke cover storyThe National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) ensures the United States sustains a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent. Through the Office of Defense Programs, the mission of the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Program is to maintain the active stockpile, extending the life of weapons systems through the application of science, technology, engineering, manufacturing, and weapons dismantlement. Through the Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation, the NNSA works closely with laboratories and the private sector to detect, secure, and dispose of dangerous nuclear and radiological material, and related weapons of mass destruction (WMD) technology and expertise.

The U.S. Congress created the NNSA in 2000 as a separately organized agency within the Department of Energy, responsible for the management and security of the nation’s nuclear weapons, nuclear nonproliferation, and naval reactor programs. In 2002 the NNSA reorganized, removing a layer of management by eliminating its regional operations offices in New Mexico, California, and Nevada. NNSA headquarters retained responsibility for strategic and program planning, budgeting, and oversight of research, development, and nonproliferation activities. More recently, the NNSA requested that The Aerospace Corporation conduct an external and independent review of its management practices, systems engineering, and mission assurance in a number of important areas.

When Aerospace was founded in 1960, its initial contract was with the Air Force Ballistic Missiles Division, supporting the development of advanced nuclear missile technologies and missile defense programs. During the 1970s and 1980s, Aerospace had important roles in planning major infrastructure and technology projects for the Department of Energy. Many of the technologies found in spacecraft and launch vehicles are also commonly used by the nuclear security enterprise. Aerospace has remained active in these areas and continues to support them today.

Office of Defense Programs

In 2011 Aerospace conducted a series of independent studies, at the request of Defense Programs, focusing on the systems engineering and mission assurance management processes applied to its major nuclear weapons refurbishment programs, known as life-extension programs. The NNSA employs an end-to-end acquisition process, referred to as the Phase 6.X Process, which differs in some ways from DOD acquisition practices. Moreover, the relationship between the NNSA, as a partner with the nuclear weapons laboratories and production sites, differs from that of the government customer-prime contractor relationship that exists for DOD acquisitions. In light of these differences, Aerospace approached this task by taking a fresh look at the NNSA’s way of doing business and provided value-added observations and recommendations within the context of the existing NNSA acquisition culture and structures.

The National Nuclear Security Administration’s mission areas.

  • Defense programs: maintain a safe, secure, and reliable nuclear weapons stockpile to help ensure the security of the U.S. and its allies, deter aggression, and support international nuclear safety.
  • Defense nuclear nonproliferation: detect, prevent, and reverse the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and promote international nuclear safety.
  • Naval reactors:  provide the U.S. Navy with safe and effective nuclear propulsion systems and ensure their continued safe and reliable operation.
  • Emergency operations:  manage nuclear and radiological emergency response capabilities within the U.S. and abroad.

Aerospace assembled a team of senior personnel with knowledge of complex systems acquisition and development, systems engineering, integrated lifecycle management, mission assurance, and program execution. The team focused on five areas: staffing and workforce, cost and schedule estimating, budget management, technology and manufacturing, and program systems engineering and risk management. The team interviewed key NNSA federal managers and staff, and personnel at the national laboratories and production sites across the nation. The team also interviewed DOD stakeholders within the Navy and Air Force. The team reviewed programmatic and technical information from the site visits, NNSA-provided information, and other government reports and audits.

The Aerospace report focused on the need for an organizationally independent systems engineering and integration (SE&I) function at the enterprise level to help manage requirements, provide technical insight, and support the consistent use of best practices across the enterprise. Other recommendations were made, including formalizing the decision process for mitigating risk and establishing a strong technical and programmatic baseline management process for NNSA acquisition programs.

The Space-based Nuclear Detonation Detection mission is supported with hosted payloads on Air Force satellites, such as GPS.

The Space-based Nuclear Detonation Detection mission is supported with hosted payloads on Air Force satellites, such as GPS.

The report helped the Office of Defense Programs to make decisions on reorganizing and creating two new groups. One group would focus on major acquisitions, such as weapons life extension programs, and the other would provide the independent SE&I function. Aerospace assisted in identifying candidate SE&I organizational structures, roles and responsibilities, and staffing requirements.

Today, Aerospace is providing experienced engineering advisory support to the Defense Programs SE&I in Washington, D.C., and Albuquerque, New Mexico, which includes program systems engineering for the B61 gravity bomb life-extension program, independent technical studies and risk assessments, and the development of systems engineering policy and practices to benefit the enterprise.

Source Evaluation Board

The nation’s nuclear weapons laboratories are managed, on behalf of the NNSA, through management and operating (M&O) contracts to large private sector companies, universities, and nonprofit organizations. As part of the work in reviewing NNSA management processes, Aerospace was asked to review and comment on the current M&O contracting strategy. The Aerospace team met with NNSA source evaluation board representatives and gathered background information on the agency’s current contracting and source selection approach, and supporting documents and example artifacts from previous competitions.

The study team provided the NNSA source evaluation board with information on acquisition strategy best practices, such as structuring statements of work, contractual deliverables, and invoices to manage contractor performance and ensure access to technical and programmatic information needed to monitor contract performance.

The phase 6.X process that the National Nuclear Security Administration uses to manage life-extension programs for the United States nuclear weapons stockpile.

The phase 6.X process that the National Nuclear Security Administration uses to manage life-extension programs for the United States nuclear weapons stockpile.

Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation Research and Development

One of the gravest threats the United States and the international community face is the possibility that terrorists or rogue nations will acquire nuclear weapons or other WMDs. NNSA’s Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation Research and Development supports the multiagency United States Nuclear Detonation Detection System (USNDS) in detecting nuclear detonations around the world. The office supports this effort through research and the development of space-based sensors to monitor for nuclear events and provide global awareness of possible nuclear detonations.

The USNDS sensors are hosted on military satellite systems managed by the Air Force, such as the Global Positioning System (GPS). As these satellites undergo planned block upgrades or transition to other programs, the effects of such changes on the USNDS mission must be considered. The Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation Research and Development conducted an analysis of alternatives to assess future USNDS sensor architecture alternatives, which considered different numbers and types of sensors and next-generation sensor technologies and their impact on cost, schedule, and performance.

The office asked Aerospace to participate as an independent third party to provide independent cost and schedule assessments, risk assessments, and technical advice concerning systems architecture, host spacecraft, and sensor technology. Aerospace’s extensive knowledge of the host spacecraft allowed a deeper understanding of the technical and program implications of the different sensor alternatives and their risks to USNDS and the host missions.

Aerospace brought in experts knowledgeable in the host space systems and spacecraft requirements to confirm key assumptions in the study. Aerospace helped the NNSA understand the system drivers on the current host platforms and constellations and the effect that changing spacecraft requirements would have on the sensor designs. The host spacecraft’s planned availability date was also important in defining the development times and need dates for a new sensor. Aerospace applied the cost and schedule estimating methodology developed for assessing NASA science instruments to estimate the development and production costs and readiness dates for the alternative sensor architecture options.

Aerospace’s analysis provided the Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation Research and Development with information on the cost and availability of the different architecture options. This was combined with system and architecture performance assessments to help the office select affordable future architectures that meet operational requirements and stakeholder needs.

A timeline of nuclear weapons development and historical information.

A timeline of nuclear weapons development and historical information.

The Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation Research and Development identified the need for an independent architecture-level simulation capability to predict system performance so that it could assess current and next-generation USNDS systems’ ability to meet requirements. The Distributed Infrastructure Offering Real-time Access to Modeling and Analysis (DIORAMA) software tool will provide a robust physics-based modeling and simulation capability and will be validated, well documented, and accessible for use by the entire USNDS community.

NNSA has asked Aerospace to colead the independent verification, validation, and accreditation effort of DIORAMA, along with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the Air Force Institute of Technology.

The verification component will determine if DIORAMA’s modeling and simulation implementation and its associated data accurately represent the software developer’s conceptual descriptions and specifications. The validation component will determine if the performance model and its associated data provide an accurate representation of the real world from the perspective of its intended uses—in this case, detecting nuclear detonations and processing detection data. As part of this effort, the team will monitor the development of test plans, develop independent system scenario testing, and monitor regression testing as functional capabilities are added and the software matures.

Accreditation will be official certification that the performance model and its associated data are acceptable for use by NNSA and its affiliates. Accreditation also certifies that the software has met all requirements and performance specifications, along with security concerns and maintainability. This accreditation will be based on the integration of verification and validation findings that will be delivered and reviewed throughout the software development lifecycle.

As part of the NNSA’s ongoing efforts to improve overall performance, the Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation Research and Development has established its own independent SE&I functions to provide systems engineering and mission assurance support to the office’s sensor development activities. Aerospace is providing independent technical and programmatic advice, risk assessments, and subject matter expertise to aid in resolving technical problems during the development process.


Support to the NNSA demonstrates the application of Aerospace technical and acquisition know-how to the broader national security enterprise. Aerospace’s ability to offer sound, unbiased technical advice, and apply its programmatic expertise to complex acquisition problems, provides benefits to the government that go beyond national security space.Crosslink end Saturn

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