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.