COTS not a 'silver bullet,' says Army's digital battlefield chief

Commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology may be making major contributions to the U.S. Army's efforts to digitize the battlefield, but "COTS is not the silver bullet," warns Stan Levine, acting director of the Army Digitization Office in the Pentagon.

By John Rhea

WASHINGTON — Commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology may be making major contributions to the U.S. Army's efforts to digitize the battlefield, but "COTS is not the silver bullet," warns Stan Levine, acting director of the Army Digitization Office in the Pentagon.

In adding up the pluses and minuses of COTS, Levine says potential problems lurk in the high risk of early buy-in. He cites the Beta vs. VHS controversy in the VCR business as an example, and points out such other concerns as the requirement for ruggedization.

Other concerns with COTS, Levine says, involve the fact that COTS hardware is often not optimized for the military's unique bandwidth needs, and the anxiety among military users that they will become slaves to commercial development cycles. "Maintenance costs are not a pretty picture," he says.

Levine made his comments in April at the COTScon East conference and exhibition in Washington.

On the positive side of the picture, in addition to potential cost reduction, Levine notes that COTS is generally more user friendly to equipment users and maintainers because it employs open standards, and enables the Army to stay closer to the state of the art.

The world has changed radically since the end of the Cold War, Levine notes, and the military faces such new constraints as simultaneous missions across the spectrum of a crisis and what he called the "CNN factor," or the fact that public opinion increasingly comes to bear on military operations when there is virtually live coverage of events around the world.

As a result, Levine says the old idea that the military can shape its forces solely on the basis of perceived threats is outmoded. "Technology drives requirements," he says. This results in what he calls a more iterative process embracing military doctrine, training, leader development, organizations, materiel, and soldiers.

Levine calls this new arrangement a "spiral development process" in which user feedback plays a key role in determining the system architecture, interoperability, and functionality. The days of "pillage and burn" are over, he maintains.

Furthermore, in today's world interoperability is more than coordinating the services' activities — and this has an influence on hardware design. In the case of the Persian Gulf War, for example, the systems had to be interoperable with those of the other partners in the coalition. "You need a partner when you go to the dance," he quips. "It's hard to dance with yourself."

Also, reflecting on the lessons learned in that war, Levine explains why the commercial hardware performed so well when ruggedized military equipment frequently failed.

A determining factor was the color of the equipment, he says. The commercial equipment was usually beige, while the military hardware was painted in traditional dark colors. The soldiers threw the military equipment in the back of truck, but they took extra pains to be careful of the beige commercial hardware.

What the military needs most from its COTS equipment, Levine concludes is not efficiency but reliability.

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