Who speaks for open systems?

Aug. 1, 1998
ALEXANDRIA, Va. - Tucked away in an office suite in the midst of the Institute for Defense Analyses complex are the Pentagon`s missionaries for open systems. The group is the Open Systems Joint Task Force (OS-JTF).

by John Rhea

ALEXANDRIA, Va. - Tucked away in an office suite in the midst of the Institute for Defense Analyses complex are the Pentagon`s missionaries for open systems. The group is the Open Systems Joint Task Force (OS-JTF).

This office was established in November 1994 by former Under Secretary of Defense Paul Kaminski, as part of his directive to acquisition executives that open systems be essentially the "default setting" of future procurements.

After years of limited visibility within the military structure and the tribulations of all missionaries in trying to convert the skeptical, the group is beginning to accumulate some success stories.

Dominating the list, predictably, are the big-ticket items of defense procurement over the next decade or so: the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), the U.S. Marine Corps` Advanced Amphibious Assault vehicle (AAAV), and the U.S. Navy`s New Attack Submarine (NSSN).

OS-JTF`s director, U.S. Army Col. Mick Hanratty, says his office is all about promoting the idea of open systems within the defense establishment and among its contractors for "parts that change a lot and parts that cost a lot." Which parts are those? "The first thing that comes to my mind is electronics," he replies.

Nobody familiar with this industry disagrees in principle with the logic of open systems: establishing widely agreed upon architectures and interfaces to introduce competition into the acquisition process at the subsystem level, where it counts the most. Open systems also are to enable the military program managers to upgrade their systems over their lifecycles with the latest available commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology.

Yet practice is another matter. In fact, it is a cultural matter more than anything else.

Program managers on both sides of the government/industry fence are not naturally inclined to concern themselves about achieving consensus. They are oriented toward optimal performance, and hang the costs.

That is what systems engineering, which Hanratty calls "a juggling act," is all about: squeeze the last ounce of performance out of the available technology on your watch and let the next guy worry about the upgrades.

In fact, the proprietary approach, which the military clung to until former Defense Secretary William Perry changed the ground rules in 1994, used to work very well for industry - at least for the dominant companies with sufficient market share to dictate de facto industry standards.

Until it caved in to federal government pressure in 1969 and "unbundled" its hardware and software, IBM, with 80 percent of the worldwide computer market, was the industry standard. (Today it is Bill Gates - for now.)

Also in 1969, the Supreme Court`s landmark "Carterphone decision" took away AT&T`s right to prohibit anyone from attaching "foreign devices" to its telephones.

It boggles the mind to think how primitive this country`s telecommunications network would be today if all the tech- nology emanated from one company, even one with the extraordinary resource of a Bell Labs. Even at the component level, AT&T and IBM both towered above all the "merchant market" semiconductor suppliers.

But at the same time, there was another industry culture that fostered open systems. It is that legacy that Hanratty`s office can draw on in the ongoing restructuring of the military acquisition process.

A prime example is ARINC in Annapolis, Md., whose experts pioneered the concept of "form, fit, and function."

Open systems were as economically viable in the airline industry as proprietary systems were in the computer and telephone businesses. The airlines needed interchangeable parts to facilitate maintenance of their aircraft at airports scattered around the globe. Difficulties in securing spares would have put a big crimp on air travel.

Let`s leave aside for the moment the high-visibility programs of the near future that are being designed from scratch with open systems. A recent, less visible accomplishment illustrates the potential benefits.

In May U.S. Marine Corps leaders flew the Open Systems Core Avionics Requirement (OSCAR) package for the first time on an AV-8B Harrier II Plus aircraft at the China Lake Naval Air Warfare Center in Ridgecrest, Calif.

The event is significant because it used a COTS PowerPC 604 processor with Ada 95 and C++ software running on a POSIX-compliant commercial operating system to replace the existing custom-designed mission computer and weapons management computers.

OSCAR represents a growth path for future avionics; it is the ARINC principle brought to the Pentagon.

With the JSF the Defense Department has a "clean sheet design," which is the perfect opportunity to implement an open-system architecture. The program certainly meets Hanratty`s "cost a lot" standard; avionics represents 30 percent of JSF research and development costs (five times the cost of propulsion R&D) and 40 percent of production costs (more than three times propulsion costs).

Holding the line on costs is even more compelling than those numbers indicate since R&D accounts for only 6 percent of total lifecycle costs and production accounts for 54 percent. The other 40 percent is for operations and support.

The same kind of numbers show up in the electronics content of the Navy`s submarines. The AN/BSY-2 combat system, for example, has more than twice the signal processing power of the BSY-1, 2.9 gigaflops vs. 1.4, but it also costs twice as much, $80 million vs. about $180 million.

The OS-JTF numbers project that the NSSN`s combat control/sonar/architecture (CC/S/A) would deliver 76.8 gigaflops for about $20 million through the use of COTS and open systems.

Open systems are not limited to electronics either. In the case of the AAAV, the engine compartment is being designed to accommodate different engines, and the track system is also expected to be common to other tracks in the inventory.

OS-JTF officials emphasize that they are not calling for open systems to the exclusion of other architectures needed for specific purposes.

Industry-generated standards, they point out, have been used in the past and will continue to be used, notably those of the International Standards Organization and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

The missionary work continues at the office here, meanwhile, with the support of such outside contractors as BRTRC in Fairfax, Va. Also, a top-level DOD panel, the Defense Science Board Task Force on Open Systems, is completing a study that should give the whole business additional needed visibility. That report is to be issued next month. Further information is available at the task force`s Web site, http://www.acq.osd.mil.osjtf.

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