The politics and interpretation of DOD's Technology Readiness Assessment (TRA) guidelines

By John Keller

Posted by John Keller

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) is using a long and nebulous set of guidelines that have a lot of people talking within the defense industry. The guidelines are called
Technology Readiness Assessment (TRA)
, and describe in some detail the relative maturity of evolving technologies considered crucial for military systems like ships, airplanes, and tanks to meet their operational requirements.

The interesting thing about TRAs -- and one that generates substantial conversation and controversy in the defense industry -- is how to play them to best advantage in competitions for military procurement programs, and how companies can game the TRAs to ensure their most important technologies have the most beneficial TRA ratings.

The DOD lists nine different levels of TRAs, ranking so-called critical military technologies from least to most mature. Where the gamesmanship comes in is where on the scale to peg a company's most lucrative technology offerings for upcoming military procurements.



Company leaders don't want their core technology offerings to be among the least mature, because newer technologies pose great risk; there's no guarantee these technologies will work every time, and might not work and play well with other system components.

On the other hand, companies don't want their most important products to be among the most mature technologies because many of those are nearing obsolescence. No one wants to design in obsolete technology ... well, at least not on purpose.

The trick is to find that sweet spot in the middle that can describe a company's most important and lucrative technologies as not too new, not too old, but just right -- positioned most advantageously for system procurements with various durations.

DOD officials point out that TRA ratings come from independent review teams of subject matter experts, but we'd be silly if we didn't think each company had a substantial say in how their products will be rated.

A TRA, in essence, is a formal, systematic, metrics-based process and accompanying report that assesses the maturity of military technologies -- hardware or software -- which are necessary for military systems to meet their operational requirements. Here are the nine different TRA levels:

TRA 1, the lowest level of technology readiness, essentially is still laboratory technology just being considered for applications. TRA 2 is a technology just being translated into applications. TRA 3 refers to an experimental technology. TRA 4 refers to breadboard technologies. TRA 5 are technologies in advanced development. TRA 6 is prototype technology for specific applications. TRA 7 refers to demonstration and validation technology. TRA 8 refers to proven technologies. TRA 9 refers to technologies with a reasonably long track record in actual applications, and which might be on the downslope toward obsolescence.

DOD officials keep the TRA guidelines vague on purpose, so sometimes it's a guessing game for companies to determine the best TRA ratings. It's a fair bet that TRAs will remain a hot topic at the bar and around the water cooler.

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The Mil & Aero Bloggers

John Keller is editor-in-chief of Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine, which provides extensive coverage and analysis of enabling electronic and optoelectronic technologies in military, space, and commercial aviation applications. A member of the Military & Aerospace Electronics staff since the magazine's founding in 1989, Mr. Keller took over as chief editor in 1995.

Ernesto Burden is the publisher of PennWell’s Aerospace & Defense Media Group, including Military & Aerospace Electronics, Avionics Intelligence and Avionics Europe.  He’s a father of four, a runner, and an avid digital media enthusiast with a deep background in the intersection of media publishing, digital technology, and social media. He can be reached at ernestob@pennwell.com and on Twitter @aero_ernesto.

Courtney E. Howard, as executive editor, enjoys writing about all things electronics and avionics in PennWell’s burgeoning Aerospace and Defense Group, which encompasses Military & Aerospace Electronics, Avionics Intelligence, the Avionics Europe conference, and much more. She’s also a self-proclaimed social-media maven, mil-aero nerd, and avid avionics geek. Connect with Courtney at Courtney@Pennwell.com, @coho on Twitter, and on LinkedIn.

Mil & Aero Magazine

December 2013
Volume 24, Issue 12
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