Tuesday, December 31, 2013

COTS still an awkward description two decades later; is it time for a new term?

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 31 Dec. 2013. Tomorrow begins the new year, and with everything else it brings, the calendar turning to 2014 means the term COTS has been with us now for 20 years.

COTS, short for commercial off-the-shelf, describes perhaps the most significant paradigm shift in military procurement since the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) was founded more than six decades ago (it had been the Army and Navy departments before then).

COTS, framed in a landmark policy back in 1994 by then-Defense Secretary William Perry, means the U.S. military depends on the commercial market for leading-edge military technology, rather than inventing its own custom-designed technology.

The term represented an acknowledgement two decades ago that commercial industry had surpassed the military as the nation's predominant wellspring of leading-edge electronic, electro-optical, and other technologies. Witness the cell phone, DVD, modern microprocessor, solid-state disk, and countless other innovations for which we can thank commercial business, not the military.

Related: The revenge of COTS: an ageing commercial technology base complicates military supply chain

As those of us who have been through the COTS wars know, COTS always was a bad term. It doesn't represent a bad concept -- far from it -- but COTS as a description of a procurement philosophy probably never should have seen the light of day.

The reason for this is COTS is easily misinterpreted. COTS suppliers to the military like Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions, GE Intelligent Platforms, Aitech, Extreme Engineering Solutions, Phoenix International, and many others are refining and enhancing COTS technology, yet nevertheless COTS still contains that confounded word commercial.

Today, as in the early days, it's easy for people inside and outside of the defense industry to mistake COTS for commercial-QUALITY, rather than commercial innovation, and that flawed part of the term COTS stubbornly remains with us today.

Related: COTS or military: sometimes it's hard to tell

First, to be clear, the underlying intent of COTS is without a doubt the best thing that has happened to military procurement in decades, perhaps much longer. It means the military doesn't waste taxpayer money re-inventing the wheel by developing technology that commercial companies already have perfected. COTS unleashes commercial innovation, and helps keep the military on the leading edge.

Technology suppliers to the military by now have fine-tuned COTS technology development to blend commercial innovation with military needs and longevity of support to enable the military and commercially developed technology to flourish in harmony.

It wasn't always this way. In the early days of COTS after the Perry mandate, plenty of commercial-grade technology made its way into military systems. These COTS items didn't have the quality or longevity that COTS components have today, and in some cases we're still paying the price for that.

Although the COTS electronics industry today largely has adapted commercially developed technology for military uses, a perception still persists, even 20 years later, that COTS somehow describes commercial- or consumer-grade technology.

Related: Parts obsolescence: it's the problem with COTS that just won't go away

The problem with the word COTS is it really hasn't differentiated between grades of quality; the term still is too broad, and lacks specifics. At best, the word causes confusion in the market; at worst, it can taint the reputations of companies that specialize in COTS for military applications, and who are doing this kind of technology right.

Perhaps it's time for a new term.

I would invite those in industry to suggest a new term to differentiate between commercial-grade technology and COTS technology that meets military needs, often meets a fundamental set of military standards, and that has a long-term roadmap and plan to mitigate the ill effects of component obsolescence.

Perhaps the term is MIL-COTS, or industrial COTS, or even non-developmental item (NDI), which would separate this kind of technology from consumer-grade COTS. We're trying to separate rugged, reliable, and supportable COTS technology from Best-Buy technology.

I'm open to your ideas. Email them to me at jkeller@pennwell.com.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Capital Hill budget deal could restore tens of billions of dollars to the Pentagon

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 17 Dec. 2013. Finally, some good news out of Washington. Leaders from the U.S. House and Senate have reached a budget deal that would restore billions of dollars to the U.S. Department of Defense over the next two years that without this congressional agreement would have been slashed from the Pentagon's budget as part of sequestration.

As of this writing, threats of filibuster in the Senate have been put down, and chances are good that the Senate will approve the budget deal later this week and send the legislation on to President Obama for his signature. The deal would restore $31.5 billion to the Pentagon over the next two years.

Okay, so $31.5 billion doesn't sound like all that much when we're talking about the Defense Department, which has an annual budget of hundreds of billions of dollars. Still, it's something once you start to think about it.

So how much is $31.5 billion for the Pentagon? It equates to about 158 F-35 joint strike fighters, about five Zumwalt-class destroyers, or back in the day would have equated to about seven Nimitz-class aircraft carriers.

It's easy to dismiss a few tens of billions of dollars where the Pentagon is concerned, but put in these terms it's easy to understand that it's actually a substantial amount.

Here's what I'm thinking if this new budget deal becomes law: fewer layoffs in the U.S. defense industry, some precious budget numbers that can enable defense companies to start planning and emerge from a long period of uncertainty, and perhaps one or two new program starts to go along with revitalized programs to upgrade existing military systems.

These doesn't mean that good times are here again for the Pentagon; there still are many years of financial austerity ahead. Still, for an industry that has been knocked around for the past few years, there finally is some encouraging news.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Hacker drone story a cautionary tale about the need for unmanned vehicle data security

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 10 Dec. 2013. Saw a fascinating, yet questionably accurate story the other day about designs for an inexpensive unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for hobbyists that may have the ability to hunt, hack, and take over other UAVs.

"Serial hacker Samy Kamkar has released all the hardware and software specifications that hobbyists need to build an aerial drone that seeks out other drones in the air, hacks them, and turns them into a conscripted army of unmanned vehicles under the attacker's control," reads the story by Dan Goodin on Ars Technica entitled Flying hacker contraption hunts other drones, turns them into zombies.

No, I'm not kidding, because I couldn't make this stuff up. I doubt, quite frankly, that a hobbyist's helicopter model drone could hunt down and hijack a wide variety of UAVs out there, but that's beside the point.

he actual capabilities of such a predator drone aside, I see this as a cautionary tale not only about the dire and growing need for information security, but also about the potential havoc that a proliferation of small drones could have on the commercial aviation industry.

I mean, what if it's true there's a hunter drone out there that can take over whatever UAVs it encounters? If a recreational hacker can dream it up, so can scientists in some of the world's more sophisticated militaries.

 If there's a UAV out there that could hijack a future fleet of Amazon delivery drones -- remote as the possibility actually is -- then isn't it likely that military forces not-so-friendly to the U.S. have such technology today that could hunt down and take control of the nation's growing fleet of surveillance and attack UAVs?

Maybe it's already happened when a sophisticated American Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel UAV was captured two years ago by Iranian forces in northeastern Iran. The Iranian government announced that the UAV was brought down by its cyberwarfare unit which commandeered the aircraft and safely landed it.

It's clear that unmanned vehicles need better information security. Now that hobbyists might be posing some kind of threat, perhaps military leaders will start taking this seriously.

And while we're on the subject of taking things seriously, how is the FAA going to handle the proliferation of small UAVs operated by everyone from local police departments to retailers? I'm hoping it doesn't take a collision involving a UAV and a passenger jetliner to bring this looming problem into focus.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Lack of money for systems upgrades threatens to maintain wind-farm radar dead spots

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 3 Dec. 2013. Whoever imagined that air safety, national defense, and renewable energy would come into conflict, but this is the situation today in which we find ourselves.

The problem involves radar systems for air defense, air traffic control, and weather monitoring, which do not get along well with electricity-generating wind turbines clustered together in what we know of as wind farms.

Most radar systems are set up to detect and track moving objects, and filter out stationary objects that are not of interest. That's how radar tells the difference between helicopters and tall trees. Wind turbines, however, are stationary AND moving objects, and to radar systems they look like moving aircraft. Wind farms also can confuse weather radar that can mistake massed turbines for storms.

The spinning turbine blades create massive fields of radar clutter that not only confuse radar systems, but also have the potential to conceal drug smugglers, fugitives, or even a sneak aircraft or cruise missile attack.

 If you want to cloak a plane from radar surveillance, in other words, find a wind farm to hide in.

The real issue isn't radar technology itself; modern phased-array radar and advanced digital signal processing are more than capable of contending effectively with wind farm clutter. The central issue is money. Most air-defense and air-traffic-control radar systems deployed today never were designed to operate in close proximity with wind farms.

To cut through wind-farm clutter, many of today's radars would need substantial systems upgrades and technology insertion. One the one hand this represents a promising business opportunity for radar designers, embedded computing experts, and software developers. On the other hand, however, there is little money to pay for these upgrades.

Until the necessary radar upgrades can be made, the growing number of wind farms dotting the landscape will continue to cause dead spots in important radar coverage.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Engineering support contracts indicate the Pentagon is sinking into the Mothball Strategy

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 26 Nov. 2013. Engineering services and support. That's what I'm seeing for the vast majority of today's Pentagon contract announcements. Not new procurement or research programs, but engineering services and support.

Not that there's anything wrong with this, but it's a big indication that the technology base of the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) is at best standing still, and more likely is slowly slipping backwards.

When the DOD is operating in a healthy way it's common to see new programs in the contract announcements, or additions to existing programs such as systems upgrades and technology insertion. But engineering services and support? This is basically just keeping the lights on.

What I see at work for the U.S. military is what I call the Mothball Strategy. We've seen it before, back in the late '70s during the Carter Administration, and in the mid-'90s under the Clinton Administration.

The Mothball Strategy means the DOD simply is hunkering down, and trying to keep its existing weapons and systems functioning adequately, and its manufacturing base from disappearing. Real capability and real technology development is put away in the closet because for now the DOD can't afford it. All efforts go into maintaining what the military forces have today, not in moving forward.

The Mothball Strategy for the Pentagon is like a drowning man who's just been thrown a life preserver. He's just gasping for air and grateful still to be alive; for the moment, he's not concerned with getting anywhere, just with keeping his head above water.

The Mothball Strategy for the Pentagon means nothing much happens, except keeping the military forces alive as best that leaders can. In the long term it means a stationary military force that decays into obsolescence more each day.

... and it means more engineering services and support contracts to plug the inevitable leaks.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The revenge of COTS: an ageing commercial technology base complicates military supply chain

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 19 Nov. 2013. The U.S. military's move to replace custom-designed mil-spec electronic subsystems and components with commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) electronic was supposed to reduce costs and give the military access to the latest technology.

That was the intent, but the stark realities of sequestration, program reductions, and other downward pressures on military spending may be creating conditions that not only are far worse than what was expected, but also perhaps even worse than the problems that COTS was supposed to alleviate.

What military program managers and the defense industry face today is a broadly installed base of COTS electronics with capabilities and supportability that is going obsolete rapidly, and with diminishing prospects for being brought back up to date because of crushing military budget cuts.

The year was 1994 when then-Defense Secretary William Perry ushered in the COTS era when he declared that the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) should stop inventing its own unique electronics and instead take advantage of advanced developments in a booming commercial electronics sector.

Custom-designed mil-spec electronic components were expensive to build, and often were less capable than their commercial counterparts. The 1990s saw the end of the Cold War, and there was immense pressure at the time to enhance military capability and reduce costs. We had to do more with less ... sound familiar? With various fits and starts, Perry's COTS philosophy took hold, and today is woven tightly into the fabric of the military procurement culture. In many ways, COTS have lived up to its promise of improving access to technology at affordable cost.

 In the rapid move to COTS, custom-designed mil-spec components became the pariahs of the military procurement world. Once systems designers got used to the capabilities and low costs that COTS provided, they vowed never again to go back to the buggy-whip mil-spec days.

Still, in the rapid move to COTS, which pervades nearly all kinds of military electronics design today, systems designers and program managers have lost sight of some of the benefits of custom-designed mil-spec components.

Tops among these benefits is the longevity of mil-spec electronics. This technology was reliable, maintainable, and lasted a long time. These attributes were perfect for a U.S. military that expected to keep military platforms in service for many decades.

Even when mil-spec components became obsolete, they still were rugged and reliable, and their manufacturers were committed to supporting them for as long as the military needed them. Manufacturers of COTS components, however, rarely made commitments for long-term support.

Before the embrace of COTS technology by the Pentagon and the defense industry, COTS was criticized for its short shelf life. Rapid obsolescence was one of the chief complaints, and was one of the most convincing reasons that systems designers gave who were seeking waivers from COTS requirements. Today many of these critics are being vindicated.

The long-term success of COTS-based military design is based on the fundamental assumption that COTS-based systems must be upgraded far more rapidly than they were in the mil-spec era of the early 1990s and before.

The military program managers of the 1990s and early 2000s bought into this approach. The potential benefits of COTS were clear, yet they knew that without frequent technology refresh, COTS technology would become obsolete quickly, which would compromise capability and complicate maintenance and logistics.

Today many of those program managers who understood the price of COTS are gone, having been promoted out of the procurement chain, or retired from the service. Many program managers today simply expect the benefits of COTS, but do not appreciate the fundamental assumptions on which COTS is based -- the need for frequent technology refresh.

Military budget cuts are delaying or eliminating scheduled rounds of component upgrades for military systems. Those COTS components that were supposed to be switched out ever five years or so are staying in the field longer than ever. Sometimes only portions of fleets are being upgraded, leaving others to make-do with what they have for indefinite periods.

The results are predictable -- obsolete parts and a complicated logistics chain are exactly what we're seeing today as the military adjusts to a rapid downturn in spending. We have electronic components that are going obsolete quickly, with only spotty long-term support. Obsolete COTS technology can be far more problematic than obsolete mil-spec technology.

To compensate, component suppliers must resort to drastic measures with increasing frequency. Sometimes, for example, they must install data bridges in their systems designed to fool new COTS technology into functioning like old COTS technology.

Yes, it is absurd, but the military/industrial complex is beginning to reap what it has sown. As defense budgets are cut back even more, the problem only threatens to get worse. The COTS approach works only as long as it gets the support it needs. Without proper technology refresh, COTS is taking its revenge.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Navy's newest destroyers evolve to fill traditional battleship roles

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 12 Nov. 2013. U.S. Navy leaders have launched the first in a new class of surface warships designed for shore bombardment -- a job that traditionally belongs to battleships and heavy cruisers.

This new warship, which emphasizes naval surface fire support, is neither a battleship nor a cruiser, but is large enough to be either one. It's the USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000), and the Navy insists on calling it a destroyer, even though its core mission is far from what one would expect from a destroyer.

The Zumwalt is 600 feet long, nearly 81 feet wide, and displaces 14,800 tons, which makes this vessel larger than the Navy's fleet of Ticonderoga-class cruisers (CG 47), WAY larger than the Navy Arleigh Burke-class destroyers (DDG 51), and is only slightly smaller than the 1950s-vintage Navy nuclear-powered Long Beach-class cruiser.

The Zumwalt, in fact, is roughly the mass of a Virginia-class battleship (BB 13), which was at sea from 1906 to 1920. The Zumwalt, however, is longer than the Virginia, which was only 441 feet long compared to the Zumwalt's 600 feet. The new "destroyer" is the largest vessel seen in a long time -- perhaps ever -- in and around the Bath, Me. shipyards where it is still under construction.

 Curiously, despite everything to the contrary, the Navy insists on calling this behemoth a destroyer.

Think of a modern destroyer and several things come to mind. This kind of vessel is supposed to be a relatively small, fast, and maneuverable ship with plenty of anti-aircraft missiles, powerful radar, and advanced anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capability. The Zumwalt isn't that kind of ship.

This ship is built around the Advanced Gun System (AGS), a 155-millimeter cannon that is designed to hurl special shells as far as 83 nautical miles at a rate of 10 rounds per minute. That's a lot of firepower, and might even rival the destructive power of the Iowa-class battleships that the Zumwalt is designed to replace.

The four World War II-era Iowa-class ships -- the Iowa, the Wisconsin, the New Jersey, and the Missouri -- each had nine 16-inch guns as their main armament. They fired big shells, but with a range of just 20 miles -- far shorter than the Zumwalt's armament.

The Zumwalt's Advanced Gun System has a water-cooled barrel that helps give it such an impressive rate of fire. Just one gun can fire 10 rounds per minute. The nine 16-inch guns on an Iowa-class battleship combined could fire 18 rounds per minute.

One of the biggest selling points for the Zumwalt-class destroyer is its heavy use of automation. The big ship needs just 140 officers and enlisted personnel to operate. The cruiser Long Beach needed a crew of 1,100 to operate, while the old Virginia-class battleships needed about that many. The Iowa-class ships needed 1,800 to 2,700 sailors to operate.

The Zumwalt should be ready for deployment at sea in two or three more years. It's scheduled to have two sister ships in the class, the USS Michael Monsoor and the USS Lyndon B. Johnson. It's doubtful that any more of these kinds of ships will be built.