Blog: COTS still an awkward description two decades later; is it time for a new term?

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 31 Dec. 2013. Tomorrow begins the new year, and with everything else it brings, the calendar turning to 2014 means the term COTS has been with us now for 20 years.

COTS, short for commercial off-the-shelf, describes perhaps the most significant paradigm shift in military procurement since the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) was founded more than six decades ago (it had been the Army and Navy departments before then).

COTS, framed in a landmark policy back in 1994 by then-Defense Secretary William Perry, means the U.S. military depends on the commercial market for leading-edge military technology, rather than inventing its own custom-designed technology.

The term represented an acknowledgement two decades ago that commercial industry had surpassed the military as the nation's predominant wellspring of leading-edge electronic, electro-optical, and other technologies. Witness the cell phone, DVD, modern microprocessor, solid-state disk, and countless other innovations for which we can thank commercial business, not the military.

Related: The revenge of COTS: an ageing commercial technology base complicates military supply chain

As those of us who have been through the COTS wars know, COTS always was a bad term. It doesn't represent a bad concept -- far from it -- but COTS as a description of a procurement philosophy probably never should have seen the light of day.

The reason for this is COTS is easily misinterpreted. COTS suppliers to the military like Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions, GE Intelligent Platforms, Aitech, Extreme Engineering Solutions, Phoenix International, and many others are refining and enhancing COTS technology, yet nevertheless COTS still contains that confounded word commercial.

Today, as in the early days, it's easy for people inside and outside of the defense industry to mistake COTS for commercial-QUALITY, rather than commercial innovation, and that flawed part of the term COTS stubbornly remains with us today.

Related: COTS or military: sometimes it's hard to tell

First, to be clear, the underlying intent of COTS is without a doubt the best thing that has happened to military procurement in decades, perhaps much longer. It means the military doesn't waste taxpayer money re-inventing the wheel by developing technology that commercial companies already have perfected. COTS unleashes commercial innovation, and helps keep the military on the leading edge.

Technology suppliers to the military by now have fine-tuned COTS technology development to blend commercial innovation with military needs and longevity of support to enable the military and commercially developed technology to flourish in harmony.

It wasn't always this way. In the early days of COTS after the Perry mandate, plenty of commercial-grade technology made its way into military systems. These COTS items didn't have the quality or longevity that COTS components have today, and in some cases we're still paying the price for that.

Although the COTS electronics industry today largely has adapted commercially developed technology for military uses, a perception still persists, even 20 years later, that COTS somehow describes commercial- or consumer-grade technology.

Related: Parts obsolescence: it's the problem with COTS that just won't go away

The problem with the word COTS is it really hasn't differentiated between grades of quality; the term still is too broad, and lacks specifics. At best, the word causes confusion in the market; at worst, it can taint the reputations of companies that specialize in COTS for military applications, and who are doing this kind of technology right.

Perhaps it's time for a new term.

I would invite those in industry to suggest a new term to differentiate between commercial-grade technology and COTS technology that meets military needs, often meets a fundamental set of military standards, and that has a long-term roadmap and plan to mitigate the ill effects of component obsolescence.

Perhaps the term is MIL-COTS, or industrial COTS, or even non-developmental item (NDI), which would separate this kind of technology from consumer-grade COTS. We're trying to separate rugged, reliable, and supportable COTS technology from Best-Buy technology.

I'm open to your ideas. Email them to me at jkeller@pennwell.com.

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