Obsolete parts still bedevil COTS initiatives

Dec. 1, 1999
OXNARD, Calif. — For the past decade, the Department of Defense (DOD), with an ever-diminishing budget for researching and buying weapons systems, has relied heavily on commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) components. Abandoning the limitations of mil specs and adopting open-systems architectures was to yield inexpensive parts and reduce the costs of maintaining and updating military electronics.

By J.R. Wilson

OXNARD, Calif. — For the past decade, the Department of Defense (DOD), with an ever-diminishing budget for researching and buying weapons systems, has relied heavily on commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) components. Abandoning the limitations of mil specs and adopting open-systems architectures was to yield inexpensive parts and reduce the costs of maintaining and updating military electronics.

At the same time, however, the military`s shrinking budget also forced top officials to stretch out the development and acquisition of new systems. As a result, the military must continue the use of aging systems — even to the point of flying the U.S. Air Force B-52 bomber, already pushing its original planned active duty life, until the aircraft is more than 80 years old.

Amid these conditions lies a potential threatening paradox. The combination of extended procurement and prolonged use is at odds with the increasingly rapid pace of change — and obsolescence — in the very COTS components that DOD depends on.

"It seems the obsolescence problem has increased rather than decreased as we might have expected with the decline of mil spec." This is the word from Capt. Michael Erno, deputy commander of logistics for the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) at Port Hueneme, Calif. Erno made his comments at an October conference in Oxnard, Calif., on Diminishing Manufacturing Sources and Material Shortages (DMSMS), sponsored by the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA).

"It is clear our older legacy systems will continue to be needed. These systems will all require some upgrades, but buried within that are some obsolescences we will have to deal with," agrees retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Charles Pitman, senior vice president for international business at EFW Inc. in Fort Worth, Texas.

Another trend is also coming to bear, Pitman says. "As a result of government downsizing, there is a general passing of government maintenance and support to industry."

The almost total reliance on industry means primes are selecting their own subcontractors with little or no government oversight, Pitman says. In short, the Pentagon has sunk from being the primary technology driver to one of the smallest customers for high-technology components — from microprocessors to capacitors and beyond.

In that transition, DOD not only has lost control over the direction and speed of technological advancement, but also has become a victim of it. For example, commercial demand for some types of capacitors is strongest for telephones, PCs, and automotive applications, one industry source points out. This makes minimum buys of mil-spec products simply bad business.

"OEMs are focused on new products," Pittman says. "The rapid introduction of new technology and the greater reliance on commercialization has left legacy systems behind. Parts obsolescence causes serious delays and increases costs significantly; few are interested in investing in old technology" — especially out-of-production and "not-invented-here" items.

But the influence of all this on DOD programs extends beyond U.S. borders, he adds. "These systems may be the main combat systems of some of our allies. The ability to support them may have a major impact on their relationship with the U.S."

Military leaders are trying to combat DMS on two fronts. First, they must deal with the existing and anticipated problems of systems such as the Marine Corps V-22 tiltrotor transport aircraft, the F-22 and Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), the new Virginia-class attack submarine, and the Joint Surveillance & Target Attack Radar System (Joint STARS).

Second, they must learn from experience and build obsolescence avoidance into future programs from the beginning.

Designers have crafted many new systems with open architectures to enable the military to upgrade microprocessors quickly. But even though the cost of these new processors has dropped dramatically, thus relieving some of the procurement budget problems that resulted, another problem has arisen.

"The worst problem with computer processor upgrades is it perpetuates outdated legacy software," says Gary Fitzhugh, vice president of research and technology at CPU Tech in Pleasanton, Calif.

Joint STARS, which has only recently gone into production despite a nearly decade-long combat history (beginning with the use of a prototype in the Persian Gulf War), demonstrates how quickly DMS can swamp even a new program.

"What we`re doing in Joint STARS is called future support, where we try to pull everything together and put it under the prime," says Joint STARS program manager Air Force Col. Gary Connor. "DMS is as much a vendor-based issue as it is a technology issue. But while the center of gravity for resolving DMS problems rests with the contractors, that does not relieve government of its responsibility."

In one of history`s ironies, the DOD advanced technological capabilities sometimes can be a disadvantage. One industry observer noted — with only slight exaggeration — that if Pentagon leaders buy all their latest technology at Radio Shack, they may find Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden in line behind them.

While Joint STARS is a new program, it is based on an old platform — the Boeing 707, now long out of production. This also places it in another category of great concern to the Air Force and Navy — aging aircraft.

Still, "age" can be a factor for even the newest aircraft, not just legacy programs, points out Bob Ernst, aging aircraft program DMS manager at the U.S. Naval Air Systems Command in Arlington, Va. The military is struggling to balance 10-year military design and qualification efforts, followed by 30-year production cycles and half-century operational lives against commercial-based technologies with six-month design, one- to two-year production, and only one- to two-year life cycles.

In response, government officials are creating a broad and extensive procurement health database that tracks when components are likely to become obsolete, with lead times of as much as eight years. One of the prime applications of that information is to push for at least some technology refresh during spares replenishment. Two primary tools in this effort are the Government/Industry Data Exchange Program (GIDEP) and TACTRAC, a DMS "health model" from TACTech Inc. of Yorba Linda, Calif.

GIDEP is the DOD`s central database for DMS information, chartered by the Joint Logistics Commanders and administered by the Navy. It is available at no charge to U.S. and Canadian government agencies and contractors. For more information, visit GIDEP on the World Wide Web at http://www.gidep.corona.navy.mil or the official site at http://members.gidep. corona.navy.mil).

TACTRAC is the centralized database for DMS alert notification and monitoring for the NSWC, which requires DMS studies on all Theater Surface Combatant programs. Systems currently loaded on TACTRAC include:

- AEGIS weapon system (A, B, B(V) and D);

- Standard Missile;

- MK 13 launcher;

- MK 92 fire control system;

- MK 162; and

- AN/ASQ 118/120.

An additional two or three systems are being loaded into the database for obsolescence monitoring each month. NSWC also is interacting with other TACTRAC users — such as the Joint STARS, F-16, C-17, B-1, B-52, and B-2 aircraft — to share the workload and costs

Malcolm Bacca, TACTech`s chief operating officer, compares DMS to a giant kaleidoscope, highly situational in nature and constantly changing. Combating it will require a DOD-wide cultural change that incorporates DMS information integration within a collaborative environment, a willingness to team common DMS problems and decisions based on cost of ownership, he says. The essential obsolescence management tools to accomplish that include:

- daily updated libraries;

- automatic configuration identification;

- life cycle predictions;

- excess inventory visibility;

- collaborative operational environment;

- common problem-solving; and

- linkage of key vendors.

In the long run, however, DMS boils down to a few basic points. First, commercial technology is advancing ten times faster than military programs evolve. Second, the military market is too small to have any leverage whatsoever on how long a specific component remains in production or how, when, or if it is upgraded. And third, even a system built with state-of-the-art components in 1999 will face near total obsolescence of its COTS elements within its first decade of service.

This leaves the military looking at a handful of solutions, not all of which are considered viable:

- lifetime buys;

- die banking and repackaging;

- designated alternate sources;

- sunset distributors;

- parts substitution;

- emulation; and

- redesign, including uprating and upscreening.

Lifetime buys can be difficult to estimate. Programs continue far beyond their original life expectancy. Budget approval also can be a barrier. Die banking and repackaging can be expensive. Alternate sources also may find the level of business involved does not justify the effort and it may be difficult to validate the quality of items obtained from brokers. Substitute parts may be too expensive or may have compatibility problems. All of the above may influence efforts to emulate obsolete parts.

Uprating/upscreening of microelectronics — running tests, then saying a part can be used at temperatures and in applications for which it was not designed or intended — is more commonplace across commercial and military vendors than might be thought, says Joe Chapman, a consultant involved in a microcircuit upscreening study for the Defense Standardization Program Office at Fort Belvoir, Va. But the study also has found a consensus among manufacturers and military users that upscreening is an extremely risky practice (see story page 6).

The primary solution to date has been aftermarket suppliers, some of which obtain the original dies, tooling, and specifications from manufacturers no longer interested in producing outdated parts or components.

"The aftermarket industry is an integral part of DOD`s DMSMS solution set," says Ron Shimazu, chief of the microelectronics division of the Defense Microelectronics Activity (DMEA) in Sacramento, Calif. "It is a continued source for obsolescent components. We work with aftermarket sources and program managers to ensure valid parts substitutions."

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