Embedded COTS computing suppliers must understand the concept of Evolutionary Acquisition

Feb. 1, 2006
The military is modifying its acquisition strategy to include an evolutionary approach that helps leaders quicken their pace of upgrading battlefield systems.

By Mike Macpherson

The military is modifying its acquisition strategy to include an evolutionary approach that helps leaders quicken their pace of upgrading battlefield systems.

Driving this shift are technology risk, budgetary pressures, and a commitment to military action in Iraq and Afghanistan. To best serve their customers, vendors of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) embedded computing must recognize and adapt to the military’s transition to an evolutionary acquisition strategy.

In today’s military, a warfighting capability must advance technologically to a stage called Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 6 before it can secure funding. Anything less than TRL6 will get a program delayed or canceled.

The U.S. Army Future Combat System (FCS) program was riding on “irreversible momentum” and it was elevated to Milestone B even though not all of the technologies involved had matured enough to reach TRL6, during the tenure of former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki.

After Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker took over as Army Chief of Staff in August 2003, he changed the focus from the visionary “Objective Force” to refocus acquisitions strategy on capabilities available to the warfighter today, the Current Force, with a commitment to improve these capabilities over time, continuously developing the Future Force as technology enables.

In effect, the Army now wants to obtain those FCS capabilities that are currently available rather than wait another decade for the final system as originally envisioned. The result is that the Army’s view of FCS is dramatically changing and budget adjustments are following.

Today, “plus-up” and supplemental funding go toward Current Force system enhancements. These changes are reflected in the Pentagon’s 2006 budget.

Recent congressional activity indicates the FCS program may become the bill payer for many of the current force enhancements. For example, there is a nearly $1 billion reduction in Armored System Modernization (ASM), a main FCS program, over the next two years.

Given this new landscape, the challenge to embedded military and aerospace system vendors is how to accomplish the vision of FCS given the change in the budgetary climate. The answer is Evolutionary Acquisition.

The impetus toward this new approach began in October 2002 when then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz issued a directive to modify the existing U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) Acquisition System to create “an acquisition policy environment that fosters efficiency, flexibility, creativity, and innovation.”

The result was the new three-document DOD Acquisition policy released in May 2003-DOD Directive 5000.1, DOD Instruction 5000.2, and the Interim Defense Acquisition Guidebook. This policy established Evolutionary Acquisition as the preferred strategy for rapid acquisition of mature technology and spiral development.

The Evolutionary Acquisition strategy can be implemented in two ways. The first is through incremental development, where the end-state requirement is known and the requirement will be met over time in several increments. The second is through spiral development, where the desired capability is identified, but end-state requirements are not known at program initiation. Requirements for future increments depend on technology maturation and user feedback from initial increments.

The earlier approach called for technology to live in a system from cradle to grave. Once a program started, the system would be designed, built, and supported until that program ended; then the process would start all over again with a new program.

With Evolutionary Acquisition, the supplier provides a new version of the existing system every couple of years, rather than building a new system from scratch.

The good news is the rugged-COTS industry is perfectly suited for supplying modular open-system solutions to facilitate technology insertion at the embedded computing level. Making this policy a success for the COTS market, however, requires vendors to adopt a new way of thinking about their product roadmaps.

System planners are looking to partner with vendors who understand their needs as driven by the Evolutionary Acquisition policy. It is no longer sufficient to design the next-generation system at the next incremental fork in the technology.

System planners need partners who will develop products that align with their product development schedules so that they can bring out new technologies at the appropriate increments. This makes a COTS vendor’s product roadmap key.

System integrators do not want to struggle with ad hoc technology and product developments in the commercial world; they need the COTS vendor to tackle that challenge. They need product road maps that align with their own roadmaps and timetables.

At Curtiss-Wright, we’ve responded to this new acquisition landscape by launching our COTS Continuum initiative-a product architecture designed to make customers more productive and able to leverage new technologies more quickly and with less risk.

The goal of this research initiative is to develop a common software, hardware, and mechanical architecture for future products. The architecture will standardize I/O routing and pinouts, electrical interfaces, APIs to all hardware functionality, and provide a common HAL (hardware abstraction layer) and user documentation across our products.

The net result is a modular, open-system approach enabling technology insertion with minimal impact to user application software. This common architecture will also be extended to our strategic partners.

The COTS Continuum eliminates the false historic notion that rugged COTS computing resources do not keep up with state-of-the-art technology. Deliberate technology roadmaps for each product will provide customers with continuous technology updates including development units as soon as the technology is available and production units upon qualification to user requirements.

As budgetary, technology, and policy elements have shifted the original FCS program to adopt incremental and spiral acquisition methods, COTS vendors must adapt to ensure that capabilities are planned for and available when ready. One essential element of this approach is a seamless path of interoperability, using open-standard hardware and software, to ensure that a technology is not heading down a dead-end path.

In this way technology refresh can make obsolescence obsolete. Without an internal initiative such as COTS Continuum in place, costs can increase because of the need to redesign a system every time a spinout or new spiral or increment is scheduled.

It is important for the defense acquisition community to know that the COTS market understands their new challenges and understands how to work with Spiral Development and Evolutionary Acquisition.

Mike Macpherson is director of business development at Curtiss-Wright Controls Embedded Computing in Leesburg, Va.

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