Commodity technology and its threat to capability and innovation

There's a lot of benefit to the military's continuing use of commodity electronic components and subsystems; this approach can lead to low costs, predictable interoperability, and for the most part acceptable performance. We all should be mindful, however, of how the misuse of commodity technology may threaten to stifle technological innovation.

Mar 1st, 2017
John Keller New

There's a lot of benefit to the military's continuing use of commodity electronic components and subsystems; this approach can lead to low costs, predictable interoperability, and for the most part acceptable performance. We all should be mindful, however, of how the misuse of commodity technology may threaten to stifle technological innovation.

Military leaders need to remember some of the potential drawbacks of commodity technology, particularly when program managers adhere to dogged commodity specifications imposed to ensure the use of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) guidelines. The point to remember is this: the military doesn't need commodity technology, per se; the military needs capability.

I support the use of COTS to the fullest extent possible; it's crucially important, is part of the fabric of our military procurement system, and should remain so. In many cases, technologies rightly defined as COTS have some of the best value-added benefits that industry has to offer, and can represent major capability enhancements. What I mean by commodity is garden-variety technology that's available to everybody. Program managers and purchasers should not pursue commodity technology blindly as the only way to meet COTS requirements. They should give at least equal weight to military capabilities when considering new designs and systems upgrades.

Commodity technology often can represent the best capability for the money. Much of the time commodity makes sense, yet we should keep our minds open to the possibility that in some instances commodity might not be the best solution, and in fact might discourage innovation that could lead to a big increase in military capability.

The next war likely will involve adversaries whose technological capabilities, tactics, and strategies are at least on a par with those of the U.S., perhaps even better. 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 tomorrow's battle theater will be contested against a foe with modern jet fighter aircraft, stealthy radar systems, potent electronic warfare (EW) capabilities, and formidable cyber warfare abilities.

Despite these threats, military leaders still place substantial value on using commodity technology in military systems - sometimes even at the expense of solutions that offer innovation and enhanced capabilities.

Yes, using 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 - for a while.

With the prospect of facing potential foes who are on technological parity with the U.S., is focusing solely on costs and commodity technology really the way to go? When it comes to boosting military capability, can using commodity technologies still move the needle? To be honest, maybe not; it's like marching in place.

The days of simply maintaining the status-quo by using the latest generations of commodity technologies may be 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. 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 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 so with each passing day?

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

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