Army procurement and COTS

Every month the McHale Report will host an online roundtable with experts from the defense electronics industry – from major prime contractors to defense component suppliers. Each roundtable will explore topics important to the military embedded electronics market. This month we discuss technology and market trends in the U.S. Army sector with exhibitors from the Association of the U.S. Army’s (AUSA) Annual Meeting held earlier this month in Washington. They cover Army unmanned system trends, the service’s approach to commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) procurement, market performance, and other trends.

This month’s panelists are: Gregory Powers, Global Market Leader, Aerospace & Defense Performance Solutions Division, W.L. Gore & Associates, Inc.; Larry Schaffer, Director, Business Development, Ground Systems at Abaco Systems; and Bob Stanton, Director of Technology at Omnetics.

MCHALE REPORT: What trends did you see emerging at the Association of the U.S. Army’s Annual Meeting last week in Washington? What was the buzz?

POWERS: The buzz at AUSA 2016 was really new and evolved platforms, as well as elevating the effectiveness and safety of the warfighter. From Gore’s perspective, this means the realization of concepts such as rapid innovation, speed of deployment, open architecture, reduced SWaP [size, weight, and power], increased bandwidth, and force protection. Outstanding trends were increased functionality, configuration flexibility/automation (manned/unmanned) and the integration of data into fundamental roles, as exemplified in soldier systems and things like robotic supply convoys.

SCHAFFER: The message was loud and clear; the Army needs innovation. It must come from the commercial sector. It must be fast to market, mission ready and highly capable. The lengthy procurement cycles of the past have left the Army with declining capability and high continuing expense. The risk associated with new development, long thought to be overly burdensome, is now seen as less burdensome than the risk of lost capability, increased cost and extended deployment times for sorely needed new, capable equipment.

STANTON: Miniaturization is everywhere. Also trending at AUSA was a demand for innovation in cybersecurity, smart guided bullets, clothing, and electronic portability. Demand is increasing for lower onboard power and lower current for high tech electronics.

MCHALE REPORT: What were the hottest application areas for COTS suppliers? Army aviation, unmanned systems? Communications? Cyber? Vetronics?

SCHAFFER: From my perspective, the hottest areas are autonomous functionalities. This covers a broad range of end applications for example:

  • Army Aviation – Improved DVE [degraded visual environment] operation – multi-spectral metadata generation and visualization processing;
  • [Unmanned systems – air, ground, and undersea]– Improved metadata generation and analytical processing from multi-spectral sources for faster, more accurate autonomous operation;
  • Vetronics – improved situational awareness – beyond high-definition sensors, processing of metadata for data visualization beyond simple “pictures.”

The attention on the above obviously creates increased attention on cyber, so here we see the need for a parallel effort to integrate improved security measures right along with more capable computers and network devices.

STANTON: For Army aviation there is demand for more protected onboard electronics to guard against cyber and EMI threats. There are more requests for smaller, high-density instrumentation for the cockpit such as portable Ethernet on board systems. For unmanned systems the Army wants smarter controls with memory and pre-destination capability that tie into onboard GPS modules.

On the ground, with vectronics, the Army is looking for relocation reporting and position control using very new magnetic Earth methods. There is also some return to old radio signal positioning as backup methods. Speaking of communications for external, the Army is looking at new multiplex signal mixing for protection and isolation from outside, including multi-frequency mixing as well as power multiplex systems. For inside system communications the Army is looking at high-speed, protected digital matching for new military Internet of Things (IoT) systemization and combining multiple on-board equipment banks.

When it comes to cyber technology there is a demand for bias coding, three level-trapdoors, new software, and shielding from outside threats.

POWERS: The COTS concept permeates virtually all segments of the military now. Much of it starts with system design, incorporating standard protocols, and open architectures to enable rapid and economic reconfiguration and deployment. Open a hatch on armored vehicle or avionics door on an UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle], and you will find a high degree of similarity - COTS based LRUs [line replaceable units], COTS based box-to-box connectivity protocols & harnessing, industry standard hardware configured and deployed for application specific missions. In some instances, the same subsystems are flexible enough to immediately be used in airborne or land-based systems. Sensors, imaging, processing, and communications have become basic expectations for today’s military systems. The hottest applications? All of the above!!

MCHALE REPORT: How does the U.S. Army market differ from that of the Navy or Air Force? Does it embrace COTS more, less, or equally?

SCHAFFER: My opinion is that the Army historically has seen COTS as a risk, but increasingly sees the trends in mobile computing technology providing inherently more rugged in-feed hardware to COTS board and system suppliers. The Navy, in this regard is still far ahead, as much below-deck equipment has been COTS for many years. As for the Air Force, here the driving consideration is flight safety, so the availability of suitable COTS hardware is inherently more limited – but that situation is improving.

The expectation from the military as a whole is that commercial technology can provide the necessary level of performance but that it is up to the supplier to ensure it will a) work in the environment and b) be supportable over the life of its deployment. This requires that suppliers have a set of robust ruggedization, thermal control, SWaP reduction, and security techniques that are readily applicable to new in-feed chip designs. It also means that design roadmaps embrace backward compatibility as in-feed hardware goes [end of life].

POWERS: The various branches of the U.S. military are unified in engaging COTS solutions and are working many common requirements jointly via programs like HOST and SOSA. Each branch is benefiting significantly from these efforts. The U.S. Army and Navy along with the Marines share many similar requirements with relatively high volume fielded platforms such as helicopters and armored vehicles. That said, Gore has found that these two branches, with the influx of technology into a wide variety and number of mobile surface systems, have somewhat more incentive and urgency in embracing COTS equipment. Gore is actively working within industry standards groups to evolve COTS solutions and support the U.S. DoD community with ruggedized enabling technology.

STANTON: The Army is much more aggressive on unmanned systems for air and ground as well as with Night vision systems because they want to deploy these applications faster and sooner with smaller lower expensive systems. The Navy and Air Force seem to want much more detailed and complicated systems and therefore need longer design cycles for these more complex systems.

MCHALE REPORT: How is the military army market performing, i.e. is it flat, growing, or shrinking?

POWERS: There has been a significant amount of analysis and angst surrounding budgets and sequestration over the past several years. However, there are macro-trends such as electrification and data/network centric existence that are benefitting technology companies such as Gore. As systems become more sensor intensive, data driven and hybridized, demand for high performance connectivity solutions continues to increase. The U.S. Department of Defense is at the forefront of exploiting these trends and represents a growing marketplace for Gore.

SCHAFFER: Shrinking, certainly but, also becoming more cost-efficient, so the overall volume of hardware is reducing less than might be expected. What is very clear is that margins are shrinking, as suppliers are now required to assume more development risk that cannot be transferred.

STANTON: The military Army market can be slow or growing very rapidly, depending on the applications being considered. COTS for high-tech portable electronics, digital electronic transmission, and tight positioning GPS are in high demand. With older systems for large ground vehicles the market moves much slower. Smart weapons remain a bit flat regarding demand for COTS solutions as the applications and designs take longer.