The revenge of COTS: an ageing commercial tech base complicates military supply chain

Nov. 19, 2013
THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 19 Nov. 2013. The U.S. military's move to replace custom-designed mil-spec electronic subsystems and components with commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) electronic was supposed to reduce costs and give the military access to the latest technology.
THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 19 Nov. 2013. The U.S. military's move to replace custom-designed mil-spec electronic subsystems and components with commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) electronic was supposed to reduce costs and give the military access to the latest technology.

That was the intent, but the stark realities of sequestration, program reductions, and other downward pressures on military spending may be creating conditions that not only are far worse than what was expected, but also perhaps even worse than the problems that COTS was supposed to alleviate.

What military program managers and the defense industry face today is a broadly installed base of COTS electronics with capabilities and supportability that is going obsolete rapidly, and with diminishing prospects for being brought back up to date because of crushing military budget cuts.

The year was 1994 when then-Defense Secretary William Perry ushered in the COTS era when he declared that the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) should stop inventing its own unique electronics and instead take advantage of advanced developments in a booming commercial electronics sector.

Custom-designed mil-spec electronic components were expensive to build, and often were less capable than their commercial counterparts. The 1990s saw the end of the Cold War, and there was immense pressure at the time to enhance military capability and reduce costs. We had to do more with less ... sound familiar?

With various fits and starts, Perry's COTS philosophy took hold, and today is woven tightly into the fabric of the military procurement culture. In many ways, COTS have lived up to its promise of improving access to technology at affordable cost.

In the rapid move to COTS, custom-designed mil-spec components became the pariahs of the military procurement world. Once systems designers got used to the capabilities and low costs that COTS provided, they vowed never again to go back to the buggy-whip mil-spec days.

Still, in the rapid move to COTS, which pervades nearly all kinds of military electronics design today, systems designers and program managers have lost sight of some of the benefits of custom-designed mil-spec components.

Tops among these benefits is the longevity of mil-spec electronics. This technology was reliable, maintainable, and lasted a long time. These attributes were perfect for a U.S. military that expected to keep military platforms in service for many decades.

Even when mil-spec components became obsolete, they still were rugged and reliable, and their manufacturers were committed to supporting them for as long as the military needed them. Manufacturers of COTS components, however, rarely made commitments for long-term support.

Before the embrace of COTS technology by the Pentagon and the defense industry, COTS was criticized for its short shelf life. Rapid obsolescence was one of the chief complaints, and was one of the most convincing reasons that systems designers gave who were seeking waivers from COTS requirements. Today many of these critics are being vindicated.

The long-term success of COTS-based military design is based on the fundamental assumption that COTS-based systems must be upgraded far more rapidly than they were in the mil-spec era of the early 1990s and before.

The military program managers of the 1990s and early 2000s bought into this approach. The potential benefits of COTS were clear, yet they knew that without frequent technology refresh, COTS technology would become obsolete quickly, which would compromise capability and complicate maintenance and logistics.

Today many of those program managers who understood the price of COTS are gone, having been promoted out of the procurement chain, or retired from the service. Many program managers today simply expect the benefits of COTS, but do not appreciate the fundamental assumptions on which COTS is based -- the need for frequent technology refresh.

Military budget cuts are delaying or eliminating scheduled rounds of component upgrades for military systems. Those COTS components that were supposed to be switched out ever five years or so are staying in the field longer than ever. Sometimes only portions of fleets are being upgraded, leaving others to make-do with what they have for indefinite periods.

The results are predictable -- obsolete parts and a complicated logistics chain are exactly what we're seeing today as the military adjusts to a rapid downturn in spending. We have electronic components that are going obsolete quickly, with only spotty long-term support. Obsolete COTS technology can be far more problematic than obsolete mil-spec technology.

To compensate, component suppliers must resort to drastic measures with increasing frequency. Sometimes, for example, they must install data bridges in their systems designed to fool new COTS technology into functioning like old COTS technology.

Yes, it is absurd, but the military/industrial complex is beginning to reap what it has sown. As defense budgets are cut back even more, the problem only threatens to get worse. The COTS approach works only as long as it gets the support it needs. Without proper technology refresh, COTS is taking its revenge.

About the Author

John Keller | Editor

John Keller is editor-in-chief of Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine, which provides extensive coverage and analysis of enabling electronic and optoelectronic technologies in military, space, and commercial aviation applications. A member of the Military & Aerospace Electronics staff since the magazine's founding in 1989, Mr. Keller took over as chief editor in 1995.

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