Commodity COTS military technology and its potential threat to military capability and innovation

THE MIL & AERO COMMENTARY – There's a lot of benefit to the military's continuing use of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) electronic components and subsystems; commodity technology can lead to low costs, predictable interoperability, and for the most part acceptable performance. Yet it also might stifle innovation.

Feb 21st, 2017
Commodity COTS military technology and its potential treat to military capability and innovation
Commodity COTS military technology and its potential treat to military capability and innovation
THE MIL & AERO COMMENTARY – There's a lot of benefit to the military's continuing use of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) electronic components and subsystems; commodity technology can lead to low costs, predictable interoperability, and for the most part acceptable performance. Yet it also might stifle innovation.

Military leaders need to remember some of the potential drawbacks of COTS -- particularly when program managers adhere to dogged COTS specifications imposed to ensure the use of commodity technologies.

The point to remember is this: the military doesn't need COTS, per se; the military needs capability -- and now more than it has in more than the seventy years since the close of World War II.

The next war the U.S. will fight most likely will be against an adversary whose technological capabilities, tactics, and strategies are at least on a par with the U.S. -- perhaps even better. The consensus among senior military leaders is the next enemy in a shooting war will not be an Iraq, a Vietnam, or a Korea, but instead one with technological parity, like a Russia, a China, an India, or a nuclear-capable Iran.

That means no more free rides in military operations against a technologically inferior foe. Every inch of ground, every bit of airspace, every wave of the ocean in the battle theater will be contested against a foe with modern jet fighter aircraft, stealthy radar systems, potent electronic warfare (EW) capabilities, and surprisingly formidable cyber warfare abilities.

Related: COTS components on the rise in communications and surveillance

The era of an undisputably powerful U.S. military rapidly is drawing to a close, as years of cost cutting take their toll by eroding the fighting ability of the U.S. military.

Yet despite these threats, military leaders still place primary weight on using COTS technology in military systems at the expense of developing superior capabilities.

Yes, using COTS commodity technologies can reduce costs. Using incremental system block upgrades can reduce the risk of expensive system redesigns. Deferring maintenance and upgrades can save money -- today at least.

Yet with the prospect of facing potential foes who are on technological parity with the U.S., is focusing on costs and on commodity technology really the way to go? Relying on COTS technology today simply means using technologies available to everyone else throughout the world. When it comes to boosting military capability, can using COTS commodity technologies still move the needle? To be honest, probably not; it's like marching in place.

The days of simply maintaining the status-quo by using the latest generations of commodity technologies is short-sighted and wrong-headed. In an industry competition that involves only commodity technologies widely available anywhere on Earth, the only differentiator is price; rarely does capability even enter the discussion.

Related: A COTS response to the IED threat

Worse, however, is that competing on only cost with clearly specified commodity technologies may be stifling innovation. With no incentive for genuine increases in capability, commodity-based competition simply is a race to the bottom on price.

How well does that bode in a world as dangerous as ours, and one that is becoming more threatening and scary with each passing day?

I think it's time for military capability to take priority over reducing costs. These are desperate days, and maintaining the status-quo with commodity technology just isn't going to cut it anymore. Wait too long, and it just might be too late.

Let's hope the new administration can see clearly the need for big improvements in military capability, rather than getting distracted by a fixation on reducing costs.

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