Electronics industry can take a lesson from COTS hat

WILMINGTON, Mass. - In trying to unravel the conflicting claims and counterclaims concerning commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) military products, there`s a tendency to get bogged down in the complexities of electronics. This is the critical technology for advanced military systems and therefore the one most susceptible to subjective judgments regarding acquisition costs and performance.

May 1st, 1998

by John Rhea

WILMINGTON, Mass. - In trying to unravel the conflicting claims and counterclaims concerning commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) military products, there`s a tendency to get bogged down in the complexities of electronics. This is the critical technology for advanced military systems and therefore the one most susceptible to subjective judgments regarding acquisition costs and performance.

But COTS is a factor in trailing-edge technologies, too. Take, as an example about as far removed from the leading edge as is conceivably possible - military combat caps. Yes, the caps you wear on your head. A heavy dose of COTS here would be a big help, and an inquiry into the shortcomings of mil-spec caps might shed some light on the advantages of COTS generally.

When my oldest daughter, Christine, was protecting us all from the communist menace as an Army lieutenant commanding a Military Police platoon in Miesau, Germany, she sent me a combat cap with my last name printed in three-quarter-inch-high capital letters on the back. Specifically, in military parlance, it was: CAP, COMBAT, WOODLAND CAMOUFLAGE PATTERN DLA100-81-C-2514 8415-01-084-1688.

Further, I was advised, it was 85 percent COTTON, 35 percent NYLON, produced by PROPPER INTERNATIONAL INC., and size 7-3/4. It also came with operating instructions sewn inside the bottom of the crown:

1. DO NOT WEAR CAP IN COLD WEATHER ENVIRONMENTS. USE CAP, COLD WEATHER, INSULATING, HELMET LINER.

2. IF CAP IS WORN UNDER HELMET, HELMET HEAD BAND MAY REQUIRE READJUSTMENT FOR PROPER FIT AND COMFORT.

3. LAUNDER BY THE WOOL METHOD. FORMULA II, FM10-16 EXCEPT DRY TUMBLE HEAT SHALL NOT EXCEED 130 degrees, OR HAND WASH IN LUKEWARM WATER. DO NOT REMOVE THIS LABEL.

I got the idea of what the COTS approach can do for caps while on a recent visit to Analog Devices in Wilmington, Mass. John Hartman, the company`s corporate defense business development manager who has some unconventional ideas of his own about COTS, gave me a black baseball cap with a spread eagle, 13 stars, and the words Analog Devices Military & Aerospace emblazoned in gold lettering on the front. Inside the brim was the simple message: MADE IN BANGLADESH. ONE SIZE FITS ALL.

If we`re talking cost and performance here, Analog Devices wins hands down. For openers, the baseball cap is comfortable. Through an innovative design common among baseball caps, it has four little holes in the crown to let air circulate and thus keep your head cooler on hot days. It also has a visor extending 2-7/8 inches (vs. 2-1/8 inches for DLA100-81-C-2514 8415-01-084-1688) to keep the sun out of your eyes. That extra three quarters of an inch helps a lot more than you might think. And it has a higher crown: 5 inches vs. 3-1/2 inches for DLA100-81-C-2514 8415-01-084-1688. That also helps keep the head cooler and prevents unsightly "hat hair."

DLA100-81-C-2514 8415-01-084-168, on the other hand (or head), not only doesn`t let air circulate over the head, but it is lined inside to ensure that no body heat radiates out. Moreover, it has earflaps. That might be helpful in cold weather (although I discovered it wasn`t), but didn`t the instructions say DO NOT WEAR CAP IN COLD WEATHER ENVIRONMENTS? So in what weather environment are you supposed to wear it?

Now let`s look at life cycle costs. DLA100-81-C-2514 8415-01-084-168 is demonstrably sturdier than Analog Devices Military & Aerospace cap and therefore ought to last longer. But long enough to justify the greater cost? A cursory examination of the two caps suggests to me the Army`s mil-spec version has to cost at least 10 times as much as the Analog Devices COTS cap. I think I`d wear out CAP, COMBAT, WOODLAND CAMOUFLAGE PATTERN before I wore out 10 of the golden spread eagles. And, like military personnel, I wear hats all the time. I would never think of leaving my house without wearing a hat, a common practice, particularly among reporters, before John Kennedy`s presidency, and one we`re trying to revive at Military & Aerospace Electronics.

And let`s not forget the logistics factor. By the simple expedient of having its cap made ONE SIZE FITS ALL, Analog Devices officials could reduce inventories and make the caps interoperable among troops in the field. Also, I suppose it`s nice to have your last name printed on the back, and maybe it`s even a military requirement, but is it worth the extra cost? Furthermore, the FORMULA II, FM10-16 used for cleaning purposes may not always be available when and where it`s needed.

The more practical approach of Analog Devices is COTS at its best - outsourcing production of an item outside the company`s core business to the lowest-cost qualified bidder, delivering cost-effective performance, simplifying the logistics, achieving interoperability - and it`s not confined to that company. At a recent news conference to describe their Hawkeye 2000 avionics upgrades, the folks at Northrop Grumman Corp. in Bethpage, N.Y., gave me a nice dark blue baseball cap with the aircraft tastefully depicted on the front. It was made to the same specifications as the Analog Devices cap, including the one-size-fits-all feature, and it also was produced in Bangladesh by the same company, KC Caps.

If the Analog Devices SHARC digital signal processor or Northrop Grumman airborne early warning aircraft businesses were to experience a downturn, this might be an attractive opportunity for these companies. Their supplier shouldn`t have any trouble making a woodland camouflage pattern version, perhaps of a slightly sturdier material. The black Analog Devices cap might even be acceptable as it is for Special Operations if the gold lettering were removed. Naval aviators should like the Northrop Grumman cap as it is, too.

Whatever the final design, I think the troops in the field would prefer a COTS cap to a mil-spec one that`s uncomfortable and lets the sun shine in your eyes, but, as we say in Washington, that`s "good enough for gummint work."

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