Contractors share strategies for survival in a COTS world

Feb. 1, 2004
Suppliers of military electronics continued to design their products with commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components in 2003, reaping advantages in low cost and good technology.

By Ben Ames

SAN DIEGO — Suppliers of military electronics continued to design their products with commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components in 2003, reaping advantages in low cost and good technology.

But those improvements came at a cost, said speakers from a panel of defense prime contractors in December at the Military & Aerospace Electronics-West/COTSCON show in San Diego.

Military equipment contractors struggle with challenges such as keeping up with the rapid obsolescence of electronics equipment; replacing trusted proprietary solutions with untested open systems; and building integrated systems while they try to outsource more work.

The obsolescence problem may be the thorniest, since most military weapons platforms take longer to design overall than the projected lifetimes of the components inside them.

"Changing the hardware itself is a three- to seven-year timeframe, so it will always be a problem to use newer technologies. There's no other way around it," said Phil Angelotti, director of defense and aerospace sales at Corfin Industries LLC in Salem, N.H.

Designers can plan for that obsolescence by building each system with the assumption they will soon have to take it apart to replace old parts.

"Being a COTS supplier, I know the problem will not go away," said Frank Willis, vice president of SBS Technologies in Albuquerque, N.M. "Customers are looking for 30-year boxes with three-year electronics, so we need to design them ready for technology refit and insertion."

That still leaves the problem of performing maintenance and repair after a supplier has stopped making the older parts. SBS's solution is to buy a lifetime supply of each part, then split the cost of storage with customers (the company offers several variations on this plan).

Custom with interoperability

At the same time, military users often push defense contractors to build custom products with generic COTS components. That becomes a design challenge when they also want the product to interoperate with other open systems.

"Just because it's COTS doesn't mean it's not proprietary," pointed out Ted Spilman, vice president defense systems at BAE Systems Mission Solutions. "This becomes a problem when popular use creates a de facto standard. Just because everybody uses it, does that make it open? It could have been designed for a closed system."

The Windows operating system from Microsoft Corp. in Redmond, Wash., is just such a system; nearly everyone uses it, yet only Microsoft-authorized coders can program it. Military users will not adopt a COTS system simply because it's popular.

Pentagon planners are pushing concepts such as the network centric battlefield, and the common operating picture. On paper, they sound like a Microsoft innovation called .Net that draws computing power from a network of other PCs, not just a single CPU.

It sounds like a great match, but do not expect defense contractors to run Windows on the battlefield anytime soon.

"We had windows-based systems on our desks for six to eight years before they were used for command and control systems," Spilman said. That was partly because users had a fear of new technology, but also because the technology simply was not good enough.

"They couldn't cope with rebooting the command-and-control center as often as we reboot our PCs. So it's about integration of abilities, more than military following the commercial market."

That is not likely to change, because military users represent such small market power relative to commercial suppliers.

"When I was in the military, we went to Microsoft to try to get them to build a secure, trusted operating system," Spilman said. "Bill Gates came out and said 'Welcome, you're our largest customer. But you're still only four percent of our market.' And the military slice is even lower now. So yes, we're still following the commercial market."

As defense contractors sprint to keep pace with commercial technology, some users ask if that's what our troops need to track Iraqis through the streets of Baghdad. "Has our military become too technology-heavy to fight a guerilla war?" asked one conference attendee.

"No, we need more technology! Who wants to go to knife fights with guerillas in urban corridors?" answered Robert Haffa, director of the Northrop Grumman Analysis Center. "We need ISR improvement — sigint, space-based sensors, in manned and unmanned solutions. And special operations forces need secure and interoperable communications, for combined ground and air forces."

ISR is intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, and sigint is short for signals intelligence, or electronic monitoring of the radio waves.

"It's not technology for technology's sake, as we're so often accused," said Spilman. "You choose the problem you want to attack and focus on that. Today we have to combine intelligence across fields, including correlation and fusion of data across multiple intelligence sources. Not back at headquarters in Washington, D.C., but at the tip of the spear."

Clearly, leaders at the defense contracting companies know how to focus a mix of commercial and proprietary technologies on the Pentagon's stated needs. But they still struggle to match those new products to the government's sporadic buying patterns, panel members said.

"You spend as much time trying to sell an idea as working on the R&D. So it's a chicken-and-egg problem," Spilman said. "The government does a peanut-butter spread across many technologies because it can't tell the future. Ideas are limitless. So we ask ourselves 'How do you keyhole your technology to solve a particular problem?' "

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