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.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

International suspicions of U.S. encryption technology putting defense companies in a bind

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 5 Nov. 2013. Major U.S. defense contractors may be in worse shape than we know, as defense budgets shrink, sequestration takes its toll, and as more and more experts conclude that the era of large-scale conventional military conflict is coming to a close.

At one time military technology represented the state of the art, but those days are long past. Today, driven by cell phones, tablet computers, tiny cameras, and other handheld computing and communications capability, commercial companies have catapulted past military contractors as purveyors of cutting-edge technology.

As often as not these days, in fact, the military relies on commercially developed technology adapted to military uses for many advanced defense systems. One of the few areas where military technology reigns supreme involves information security, encryption, and cryptography.

So today what's to differentiate defense contractors from commercial companies in the race to develop new technologies? Until now one of the big ones has involved information security and encryption. These often-proprietary technologies can safeguard military computers and communications equipment from hackers and unauthorized eavesdropping.

U.S. data security and encryption technology long has been favored around the world to keep critical information away from prying eyes.

All that may be changing, however, because of the recent and seemingly continuous scandals involving the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), which is accused of spying not only on U.S. citizens, but also on national leaders throughout the world.

As a result, it's rumored that governments around the world -- even those that historically have been closely allied to the U.S. -- are souring on U.S.-developed information security and encryption out of fear that the NSA may be building back doors into these systems to enhance NSA global intelligence gathering capabilities.

In the long run it doesn't matter whether the NSA is or is not engaging in these kinds of activities. What matters is perception, and globally this is turning against U.S. military encryption technology, which must be certified by the NSA.

This leaves U.S. prime military contractors in a tight spot. Already battered at home by shrinking Pentagon budgets, these contractors had been counting on continuing international sales of military technology to maintain their revenue streams.

Yet with a chilling international market for U.S.-developed information and communications systems that depend on reliable security and encryption, U.S. defense companies may have to dig even deeper to find reliable markets for their wares overseas.