Three reasons for the military to embrace COTS: cost, cost, and cost

LONG BRANCH, N.J. - "We cannot afford to be a market of one," proclaimed Dennis Turner, director of software engineering at the Army`s Communications-Electronics Command (CECOM) during the command`s annual briefing for industry in May at Long Branch, N.J.

Jul 1st, 1997

by John Rhea

LONG BRANCH, N.J. - "We cannot afford to be a market of one," proclaimed Dennis Turner, director of software engineering at the Army`s Communications-Electronics Command (CECOM) during the command`s annual briefing for industry in May at Long Branch, N.J.

With this one comment, Turner succinctly summed up the growing realization within the military that the good old days of virtually unlimited money and authority to control it are, lamentably, over. Unpleasant realities are always difficult to face, but the alternative is worse: not getting the job done at all.

Everybody in the military R&D and procurement establishment at least pays lip service to the rapidly escalating dependence on commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technologies, but it`s been my observation over the years that many secretly wish they could sabotage it if they thought they could get away with it.

They can`t anymore. As Turner put it so well, there`s a tradeoff here. In the pre-COTS world, as a market of one, DOD leaders could control technologies and implement them at their own, measured pace. It was business as usual, not unlike the way IBM carefully introduced new semiconductor and software technologies into the computer industry when the company controlled 80 percent of that industry`s worldwide revenues.

Now, borrowing a page from the Realtors` book, Turner says there are three big reasons to take up residence in the house of COTS: cost, cost, and cost.

CECOM officials at this year`s two-day Advance Planning Briefing for Industry conceded a cultural change is necessary to achieve the levels of efficiency that are being forced on them. As Harry Wiggins, chief of CECOM`s operations division in intelligence, electronic warfare, and sensors, put it, the Army (and the same is true for all the other services) is really caught in the center of a triangle of impinging forces.

At one corner is the changing threat in the aftermath of the Cold War in which one big, formidable foe has been replaced by a host of potential smaller foes whose capabilities and motivations are not clearly understood. At another corner are the declining resources that reflect the changes in the first corner. Finally, there`s the technological explosion, which was once nurtured by the military but which today is completely beyond its control.

Cultural change of this magnitude is difficult for any bureaucracy (in the non-pejorative sense of that word) to cope with. Bureaucracies are attuned to incremental change - if change has to be accepted at all - and major changes in rapid succession threaten the bureaucracies` existence. Bureaucrats are used to managing change internally; they justifiably feel threatened by changes imposed on them by outside forces they can`t control.

An example is the necessity of getting rid of the "stovepipes" of parochialism that are just as much a problem in the R&D and procurement establishments as they are on the battlefield. One of the themes alluded to throughout the briefing was the need to achieve horizontal technology integration.

The concept is simple in principle: use the same proven technologies across as many platforms as possible. The potential benefits are also simple: reduce costs, ease the transition to advanced technologies, improve operability and maintainability, increase confidence in reliability based on experience with the equipment, streamline logistics support ... the list goes on and on and there`s nothing on it that leaders haven`t known for years.

Twenty years ago what is now CECOM had what I thought was a brilliant idea of developing a single family of computers that could be tailored to almost every Army application, from Jeeps to helicopters to tactical missiles to deployed command and control systems.

This new family was called the Modular Computer Series (MCS), and industry loved it. Companies clamored to get on board the program. It probably wouldn`t have been a winner-take-all competition, so there would have been plenty of alternate sourcing and subcontracting opportunities. Best of all, MCS would have created a large, stable, predictable market. Moreover, in those days, when leading-edge technology flowed from the military to industry, this was also a good chance to get the government to underwrite the R&D for the next round of consumer products.

The Army program managers didn`t love the idea, and the computer industry people I talked to at the time always had a bad feeling that somebody would find a way to scuttle it. They were right. Nobody wanted to give up his stovepipe. In the culture of the time advancement and prestige within the bureaucracy depended on maintaining and expanding a turf, which meant fending off people with disruptive ideas.

But old ideas, like old soldiers, never die - even the good ideas. As Lt. Col. Mary Fuller, manager of CECOM`s small computer program, reported at the briefing, the command has bought $1.6 billion worth of small computers since 1992 and leaders there intend to buy a lot more for themselves and the other services, including PCs, notebooks, and hand-held portables.

Ground rule 1 is they must all be COTS. The other usual requirements apply, such as compliance with the Army Technical Architecture. The requests for proposals are due in the first quarter of 1999 with awards to a minimum of two suppliers by the third quarter of that fiscal year.

This isn`t quite the all-embracing family of computers that the Army once had in mind, but probably more than any of the military-unique programs outlined at the briefing, it reflects the cultural change that the Army is just another customer, albeit a very important one, in a market with many other customers and many other requirements.

More in Communications