COTS: From CNN to the Army in the field

Sept. 1, 2005
COTS is alive and well in Georgia.

By John Rhea

John Rhea
Click here to enlarge image

DULUTH, Ga. - COTS is alive and well in Georgia.

A decade after former Defense Secretary William Perry’s revolutionary acquisition reform, which downgraded military specifications as the default requirement for military hardware, commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology remains as viable as ever.

A case in point is the experience of DataPath Inc., a privately held firm in Duluth, Ga., which is essentially militarizing its commercial satellite terminals to support the U.S. Army’s need for high-bandwidth communications in the combat zone.

The Army program, known as Communications on the Quick Halt, or COTQH, uses satellite terminals mounted in Humvees to link field units back to headquarters and even on to the Pentagon in real time.

If you’ve ever watched CNN, as I have been doing fervently since Sept. 11, 2001, you’ve already been one of DataPath’s downstream customers. Now the U.S. Army is going to get the same technology.

Andy Mullins, the chief executive officer at DataPath, estimates that the COTS approach cut the cost to the Army to about 30 to 40 percent of what a full mil-spec’d system would have cost.

In June the company announced that it had received a $17.5 million sole-source contract for 14 joint network node satellite communications trailers and 38 satellite communications battalion command post node trailers from the Army’s Communications-Electronics Command at Fort Monmouth, N.J.

What DataPath did, Mullins explains, is modify two of its DataPath ET Model 3000 portables to demonstrate that it could deliver tactical communications gateways for platoons and battalions. Moreover, the company did it in just 90 days.

The result is to get the right information to the right people and do it faster, according to Joan Seavey, vice president of marketing at DataPath. The net result is the same as CNN’s operations, Seavey adds, except that the information is moved on secure military channels rather than open-air broadcasting.

What makes this story worthy of more than routine interest is the way in which a common technology base is driving government military and civilian markets as well as the commercial market.

The military need for network-centric warfare-a global information grid to support its operations, and the ability to respond to asynchronous threats (read Afghanistan and Iraq)-is increasingly analogous to the U.S. Department of Homeland security’s mission to patrol the nation’s borders and respond to emergency communications requirements.

The television networks have already been there. Ever since cable invaded American homes the networks have had to deliver real-time global transmission and reception.

There’s a certain irony to this. Real-time images of the savagery in Vietnam fueled the antiwar movement of the 1960s and led to the Pentagon aversion to what became known as the “CNN war.” Aversion or not, real-time news coverage on a global basis has been a fact of life since NASA pioneered communications satellites in the 1960s. Ask any sports fan if he (or she) would give up watching distant athletic contests as they occur.

CNN isn’t DataPath’s only customer for the commercial version of its products. The list also includes Turner Broadcasting System, Intelsat, and even the Gold Channel.

How much bandwidth is enough? No user will ever admit to having enough bandwidth, but Mullins estimates that about 80 megabits per second at the division level will get the job done as a backbone and tie into the global grid.

The package goes on trailers that measure 16 by 18 by 40 feet. The company estimates that the DataPath ET Model 3000 portable for battlefield communications weighs about 3,800 pounds and enables reliable communications in remote locations that are inaccessible by larger mobile terminals (humvees each weigh about 4,200 pounds). The telecommunications platform is configurable for operation in C, Ku, Ka, and X bands.

This raises the question of what to do about providing live video from the battlefield, something the military has been talking about for years, and particularly using them with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Mullins has obviously been asked this question before because he has a ready answer. Yes, he says, the company is configuring its hardware to be video-compatible. Also, DataPath has begun working with the Boeing Co. to determine whether the system could be compatible with that company’s Scan Eagle UAV (In a presentation made last year by the Army the system was shown working with a Global Hawk UAV).

What makes this idea particularly attractive, Mullins notes, is the use of common software by all trailer-mounted terminals and systems-voice, data, and video-including the network diagnostics to permit field maintenance.

Putting COTS in the battlefield has done wonders for DataPath. After it won the Army contract, the 9-year-old privately held firm announced that it had generated revenues of $89.7 million last year, which the company said was its third consecutive year of more than 100 percent annual revenue growth.

The company simultaneously announced that it was opening a new 102,600-square-foot headquarters facility, three times the size of its previous quarters, and acquiring M&C Systems Inc., a provider of satellite communications monitoring system.

“We’re the infrastructure provider like AT&T and Sprint,” says Seavey. And that’s what the DataPath experience is all about: providing a common infrastructure to tie together all the elements of the growing American response to the terrorist threat.

While the Pentagon hardliners may feel uncomfortable about using technology that opened Americans’ eyes to what was going on in Vietnam, Secretary Perry should be pleased that at least it’s being done at minimum cost to American taxpayers.

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Military Aerospace, create an account today!