by John Rhea
WASHINGTON - Around the upper strata of the Pentagon leadership, in the offices with the mini-conference tables and windows looking out on the courtyard, commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology has become so much a part of the scene that it has lost its novelty.
"We don`t use the term COTS anymore," says Walter (Brad) Bergmann II, director of acquisition practices in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition & Technology. "It`s just one point on the continuum."
Bergmann`s continuum embraces the big picture of acquisition: performance, reliability and maintainability, cost, and schedule.
Yet the program managers down in the services do not have that perspective - at least not all of them - and it`s little wonder that they feel more comfortable with traditional mil-spec parts.
That is why Bergmann has a cadre of missionaries to get the word out to the services. Their role is two-fold: share information on the latest technologies and get feedback on how designers are putting them to use.
There are emissaries for all three services plus the Defense Logistics Agency, and collectively people know them as advocates for "CANDI" - commercial and non-development item (NDI) acquisition (see table).
The message they are preaching is the electronics industry has changed, and the military has to change with it; the military does not drive electronic technology developments any longer, commercial industry does. "In electronics we`re not the market maker," Bergmann admits. "We`re so small that nobody is willing to demonstrate commercial components that meet our needs."
Yet military systems designers need the rapidly evolving commercially developed component technology that is driving down costs and creating new markets. The answer is performance specifications to meet specific military requirements. Pentagon leaders do not care what is in the boxes as long as they meet those requirements. It is the difference between what one expert calls "white boxes," in which all the parts are known, and "black boxes," in which the users care little, as long as all the functions are known.
Christine Metz, an analyst in Bergmann`s office, offers this advice for everybody involved in the business of implementing COTS with minimal hardship: do your own market research to find out who the qualified suppliers are, not just to find customers for your products.
Some technologies are going to succeed and others are going to wind up in blind alleys. Knowing the difference is essential, and the winners are not always the ones with the best performance. Speaking in November at the Technology Management Symposium & Expo at Hilton Head, S.C., Metz cited the video cassette recorder competition, which JVC designers eventually won with their VHS format, in which Sony executives dropped a bundle on their Beta design because it could never achieve a critical mass.
The new reality, according to Metz, is open systems, which she calls "de facto standards." The system architecture must be able to accommodate upgrades, and the suppliers must be able to provide after-market support. Otherwise, she says, the benefits of COTS will be fleeting and lead to "support nightmares."
This was what Paul Kaminski, former Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, was pushing in his memo to service acquisition executives last March. "It is imperative that we continue to pursue aggressively the integration of commercial products into our weapon systems," he stressed.
To accomplish that objective, Kaminski emphasized the role of the Qualified Manufacturers List (QML). "Many of our most valuable suppliers of microelectronic components have implemented the QML as their main worldwide business operating system," he wrote. "Appropriate use of this system will not only help us insert advanced technologies, but will allow for more cost-effective logistics support throughout systems` life cycles."
Bergmann says an example of increasing the burden on suppliers is the Army`s recent move to use performance specifications for the Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System - better-known as SINCGARS - and let the suppliers put anything inside the black boxes they want. "The insides are different, but the Army doesn`t care because the manufacturers have to fix it," he says.
The whole idea - and one that makes COTS increasingly attractive - is to get rid of three-level maintenance and, instead of repairing faulty equipment in the field, simply remove and replace the defective equipment.
This was how Kodak cameras originally worked, he notes. The customer bought the camera, took the pictures, and then sent the whole camera back to Kodak, where company technicians developed the pictures and returned them to the customer along with the camera loaded with a new roll of film.
A third party could also help in implementing COTS by serving as an impartial authority for standards and test procedures, according to Bergmann. The Society of Automotive Engineers already does this for the automotive industry, and among the groups that have initiated projects for the military and aerospace industry are the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the Electronic Industries Association, and the Semiconductor Industry Association.
Increased industry responsibility for maintenance, made possible in large measure by open-system architectures and the NDI and COTS components, could also contribute to the cost savings envisioned in the Defense Reform Initiative announced in November by Vice President Al Gore and Defense Secretary William Cohen. Of the projected $6 billion in annual savings (most of which will not begin to occur until 2005) outsourcing of logistics and maintenance is supposed to contribute $2.5 billion.
The idea behind this facet of the initiative is to force government logistics facilities to compete with industry, an idea that is not going to be popular with congressmen who have those facilities in their districts. But if the products are already designed for manufacturer after-market support by then, what is there to compete? This is a problem the CANDI advocates could head off before it arises.