The COTS revolution: as defense budgets shrink, military planners turn to smart, flexible, affordable simulators

Sept. 1, 1997
The COTS revolution: as defense budgets shrink, military planners turn to smart, flexible, affordable simulators

The COTS revolution: as defense budgets shrink, military planners turn to smart, flexible, affordable simulators

By Philippe Collard

On the battlefields of the approaching century where intelligent new weapons systems will project lethal force with ever-increasing precision and efficiency, the technologies of virtual simulation will be the decisive factor that tips the balance between victory and defeat.

Even in an era of dramatically reduced defense spending worldwide, simulation now enables military planners to prepare and train their forces for the complex engagements of the future. Advanced simulators are used to forecast, analyze and plan potential conflicts with degrees of precision that were impossible with previous-generation technologies. Emerging simulation technologies will enable manufactures of the 21st century to build military and commercial systems faster, better and at lower cost than they can today.

The age of simulation has arrived. And as budgetary and competitive pressures mount, planners are seeking virtual technologies that are more powerful, more flexible and far less expensive than the hand-coded heavy software of the past.

In direct response to the need for improved simulation technologies, a new generation of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) tools has emerged. These new tools enable military organizations, their suppliers, and other commercial manufacturers to simulate products or tactical environments quickly, efficiently, and at low cost.

Expanding military mission

As defense budgets shrink, world leaders recognize the military value and economic advantages of advanced simulation technologies. The more successful militaries will enter the future battlefield with sophisticated weapons, transportation, communications, and command and control technologies. Military leaders must adjust quickly to ever-changing combat technology, yet reduce the time, cost, and risk of bringing these sophisticated new systems online.

Computer simulation is one of the most potent and cost-effective means to plan and train military forces, and deploys to meet an expanding range of mission assignments.

The first and most obvious use for this still-developing technology, training, remains a primary mission for military simulators worldwide. Due to complex and rapidly changing battlefield technology, as well as to the need to gain readiness from tight training budgets, computer simulators routinely help train personnel to use new and existing weapons, to work together in joint forces, and to function in special forces.

Since today`s simulators offer detailed models that users can test in realistic combat conditions, they can also help evaluate proposals for new or upgraded military systems through design, prototyping and testing.

A logical extension of simulators is analysis to help plan future battlefield scenarios, evaluate tactics and weapons, and test military decision making.

A New Strategy

COTS items have proven their ability to reduce the time and expense necessary to bring a simulation project to completion. In one recent application, an electronic equipment supplier required a simulation environment for a broad range of radar, electronic warfare, information, and civilian aviation applications. After evaluating traditional simulation alternatives, company officials found they could save 66 percent of the project`s costs - including man-hours and direct technology costs - by building their system on the foundation of an existing COTS technology. These same savings, with variations according to each situation, can be realized in a broad spectrum of military and commercial COTS applications.

COTS tools are also being incorporated into a vast array of system and product development programs. Major manufacturers are moving swiftly towards a comprehensive system of "virtual manufacturing," in which they will use COTS and other tools to virtually prototype, virtually draw, virtually build, and virtually test every aspect of a new product.

Planners of the future will use COTS-based technologies to evaluate development processes, train production personnel, and test product performance under any number of real-world scenarios - all well before the first physical steps of the actual manufacturing process begin. When fully realized in the coming years, virtual manufacturing will reduce the cost and risks of new product development, while measurably improving the functional performance.

COTS can also be adapted quickly and cost-effectively to work with virtually any interface, legacy system, or application requirement. Today`s advanced COTS systems accept distributed interactive simulation information, and several technology companies have launched or are finalizing products that will allow COTS tools to meet impending HLA-compliance requirements. In many real-world cases, COTS can add functionality to existing training systems.

Naval forces, for example, might currently deploy large training systems on board aircraft carriers that enable pilots to fly over wire-frame, photo-textured simulations of the terrain they see in actual missions. By adding a COTS tactical simulation framework, like STAGE from Virtual Prototypes, as an interactive component, the simulation can now create a virtually unlimited range of possible scenarios - anything from worsening weather to aircraft malfunctions to a surface-to-air missile launch - which enable pilots to train and rehearse under more realistic mission conditions than they do today.

The COTS revolution

Today, available COTS simulation technology provides a ready-to-run packaged solution ideally suited to a broad spectrum of training, analysis, and systems development applications. A COTS system delivers all the advantages of a packaged solution, including well-proven performance, maintenance, and expandability - plus the built-in ability to be customized to meet a variety of military simulation requirements.

COTS systems help lower overall simulation and training costs by applying economical commercially-developed technologies to a broad spectrum of military challenges. While system hardware must still meet military standards for the ruggedization of boards and components, the software and basic system architecture can be derived and customized from existing and very cost-effective commercial products.

Commercial tools also reduce the risk associated with the custom development of traditional single-use simulation systems. As a high-ranking military planner pointed out at a recent industry conference, if a software error is discovered downstream in a traditional all-customized simulation system, it can cost several hundreds of thousands of dollars for an in-field solution. COTS eliminates the need to generate massive volumes of new code, thus reducing the time, cost, and risk of bringing any new system online.

COTS also offers the significant cost savings of leveraged repeatability. First, because the components of a commercial package can and will be applied to a large number of simulation applications, the basic system is made considerably more affordable.

Once purchased by a developer or military department, a COTS system can also be customized and extended to meet the contingencies of a changing environment, and can be deployed to multiple field locations to gain additional cost efficiencies.

So commercial off-the-shelf simulation development tools can create customized, cost-effective training, analysis, and modeling solutions for demanding military applications. By leveraging the flexible and extendible architecture of these tools, military planners can reduce the time, cost, and risk associated with creating application-specific simulation systems.

Philippe Collard is president and chief executive officer of Virtual Prototypes Inc. in Montreal. Virtual Prototypes may be reached at (514) 341-3874 or at its website: http://www.VirtualPrototypes.CA.

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