From Operational Context to System Definition: Mission Engineering Basics for Systems Designers

Note: This blog post provides a comprehensive overview of the insights I shared in a webinar I gave with the same title, viewable here.

Understanding the Why Behind Mission Engineering

In the realm of engineering, particularly when it comes to complex systems like an aircraft, there exists a gap between the operational context understood by end-users, such as pilots, and the engineering implementation performed by systems designers. Bridging this gap is crucial for effective system design, deployment, and operation, and this is where mission engineering comes in.

Consider a scenario where a fighter pilot describes their mission in intricate detail—clearing to certain altitudes, engaging with weapons, and executing complex maneuvers. While this makes perfect sense to the pilot, it might seem bewildering to an engineer or system designer.

Conversely, when an engineer discusses aircraft design, they focus on architecture, requirements, and various engineering models—concepts that may seem alien to a pilot. This disconnect highlights the importance of aligning the perspectives of end-users and designers in the system design process.

In program management, end-users and other stakeholders often have distinct priorities and preferences compared to system builders and designers. These differences can lead to misunderstandings, conflicts, and suboptimal execution strategies.

Mission engineering serves as a bridge between these diverse perspectives, aiming to define the purpose, context, and effectiveness of a system. By understanding the concepts of mission, capability, operational activity, and various key performance parameters, engineers can develop systems that meet end-user requirements effectively.

Mission engineering, when done by systems designers, offers several key benefits:

  1. Defining System Purpose: By focusing on the mission, engineers gain a clear understanding of what the system is intended to achieve, why, and how well, all in real-world scenarios.
  2. Identifying Stakeholders and Users: Mission engineering helps identify all stakeholders, users, and other externals involved in the system’s lifecycle, ensuring all questions at these operational interfaces are answered before the actual design begins.
  3. Eliminating Complexity and Redundancy: By scrutinizing mission requirements, engineers can avoid unnecessary features and technologies, streamlining system design and reducing costs.
  4. Addressing Social and Non-Technical Issues: Mission engineering goes beyond technical specifications to consider broader social and ethical implications, ensuring that systems meet both operational and societal needs.
  5. Enabling Proactive Designs: By understanding both current and future capabilities, engineers can proactively design systems to anticipate and counter potential challenges, enhancing overall effectiveness and resilience.

The Practical Application of Mission Engineering

To illustrate how mission engineering translates into practical system design, let’s consider a scenario involving the replacement of an aging multi-role fighter aircraft for a country’s Air Force.

  1. Mission Decomposition: Engineers start by analyzing top-level missions, such as Offensive and Defensive Counterair, and decompose them into specific executable missions. These may be “Fighter Escort,” “Fighter Sweep,” “Area Defense,” “High-Value Airborne Asset Protection,” “Point Defense,” etc. The engineers know that Area Defense and Point Defense are the intended missions of the new aircraft. However, by laying out all available missions in context, the engineers might see that the operational solution could lie within existing platforms already performing other missions. In this case, a new aircraft platform may not be necessary. A solution to the proposed problem could be the modification or modernization of an existing fighter aircraft. A costly new-acquisition program has just been avoided!
  2. Capability Identification: Based on the identified missions in step one, engineers next identify the capabilities needed to execute such missions. Starting with Point/Area Defense capability, the engineers decompose it to known capabilities within the military-industrial complex. These may be “Combat Air Patrol,” “Ground Alert Intercept,” “Surface-to-Air Defense,” “Integrated Air Defense,” etc. The focus of the new aircraft may be Combat Air Patrol. However, by looking across the known capability hierarchy, engineers can decide if existing capabilities can also be the same basis for the sought-after operational solution.
  3. Mission Threads and Mission Engineering Threads: Engineers develop detailed Mission and Mission Engineering threads (MTs and METs), outlining end-to-end activities required to accomplish specific missions and based on prescribed capabilities. Such MET in this example may be “Fly combat air patrol sortie with airborne warning and control system.” Key operational activities in each MET will help the engineers identify constituent systems, capabilities, key performance parameters, and system implementing functions. These basic concepts will help the engineers further bridge from the operational context into system implementation.
  4. Trade Studies and Analysis: METs can be repeated with different mission parameters and scenarios. Each set of operational activities, capabilities, constituent systems, key performance parameters, and implementing functions can then be used in various trade studies. Engineers evaluate different system configurations and corresponding key system attributes and performance, identifying optimal solutions and addressing any gaps or limitations. Keep in mind that the METs and their related concepts are only a part of the system models. Other engineering models from various engineering disciplines must also be considered to perform any complete trade study.
  5. Integration with Stakeholders: Throughout the process, engineers collaborate closely with end-users and other stakeholders, soliciting knowledge, information, and feedback, and ensuring alignment with programmatic needs and priorities.

Before formally adopting mission engineering, you must know if it is the right path for your product and your company. Chances are, you have already started doing mission engineering without knowing it. Have you ever developed a user journey for your software tool? Have you ever conducted a focus group for a green-field project? If the answer is yes, you have done some form of mission engineering. Formalizing it with a model-based system engineering tool and a modeling language simply enhances the experience and makes it scalable, while guaranteeing your data integrity. The next step in your journey is to make sure mission engineering produces the most return on investment. But that is a topic for another day.

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