Military warns contractors about pitfalls of joint weapons design

Aug. 1, 2004
SAN DIEGO — Pentagon planners are pushing the different service branches to share equipment and split the cost of customized-weapons development.

By Ben Ames

SAN DIEGO — Pentagon planners are pushing the different service branches to share equipment and split the cost of customized-weapons development. This joint operation will help transform the American military into a lighter, faster force, they say.

Now military users are warning contractors that joint weapons design also carries drawbacks.

For example, all military forces share the joint service shotgun, yet this weapon fails to serve any branch well, says Col. Leonard Blasiol, director of the materiel-requirements division in the U.S. Marine Corps Combat Development Command at Quantico Marine Base in Quantico, Va.

"The shotgun is a seldom-used weapon, used occasionally to guard gates or ammo dumps. Yet we were ordered to draw up joint requirements," he says. "To meet all those requirements, they had to dumb it down so much that no one got exactly what they wanted."

Other users worry that merging joint requirement into every design could discourage innovation. Competing systems, on the other hand, have shown that they can evolve into successful designs, as they are proven and improved on the battlefield.

Examples of this are the Air Force JTIDS (Joint Tactical Information Distribution System), which has become Navy FORCEnet; the Navy NAVSTAR, which has become the global-positioning system (GPS); and the Marine Corps Light Armored Vehicle (LAV), which has become the Army Stryker.

No one denies that joint requirements can iron out redundancies, such as the five types of FLIR (forward-looking infrared) Pods available today, says Rear Adm. Mark Fitzgerald, director of the air-warfare division for the U.S. Navy.

But troops will always need customized tools for certain jobs, experts say. Marines can fly Navy planes and drive Army armored vehicles, but for storming beaches, they will always need unique armored amphibious vehicles, Blasiol says.

The bottom line is always drawn on the battlefield. While joint weapons design may save cost and complexity, the bottom line is whether they will help win wars, says Rear Adm. Thomas Zelibor, who until recently served as deputy for command, control, communications, and computer integration and policy, and as the Navy's deputy communications and information officer on the staff of the chief of naval operations in Arlington, Va. Zelibor is now director of global operations for the U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb.

Three trends will drive the real-world application of new joint weapons, Zelibor says: network-centric warfare, the common operational picture, and strategies for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR).

As troops learn to fight according to those philosophies, they will form the demand for certain joint technologies. For example, there is no need for a service-unique C4I system (command and control, communications, computers, and intelligence), Zelibor says. Troops across the service branches use the same data; they just apply it differently. Their primary technical need is for access to a single, authoritative database.

So to supply the most utility in joint weapon systems, industry vendors must use open-architecture design instead of proliferating incompatible hardware and software platforms. Zelibor calls this approach "composability."

"The typical metaphors are point and click, or drag and drop," he says. "But I don't want plug and play, I want plug and fight. If you can compose a system with different parts, you can compose a battle group on the fly, without worrying about expensive middleware."

Another way contractors can deliver maximum value in joint technologies is to focus on the least complex components, Fitzgerald says.

Compared with a complicated machine like the F-35 joint strike fighter, military equipment grows less complex on a spectrum from platform to architecture to system to sensor.

"The platform today is used primarily to simply get you there," Fitzgerald says. The bulk of the work relies on more basic parts, such as the common aerial sensor, joint direct-attack munition, joint standoff weapon, or joint common missile.

Voice your opinion!

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