Responding to economic restraints and new strategic goals, the DoD’s 2012 budget promises an altered landscape for the embedded COTS industry. There will be fewer new programs and a greater emphasis on technology refresh, keeping existing platforms operational longer. New programs will continue to emerge, driven by factors such as unexpected changes in global realities or technology breakthroughs. But increasingly, the goal will be platform life extension while adding advanced capabilities to enable technology and network connectivity to keep pace with the demands of the digital battle space. The good news is that the defense COTS industry is ideally positioned to meet the DoD’s changing demands, providing affordable, mature, commercial technology-based alternatives that ensure levels of reliability and product road maps beyond those available directly from commercial sources. The new budget trends are, in fact, helping to encourage a new “COTS renaissance” in which the true benefits of COTS are being embraced and newly appreciated.
Shifting missions, shifting budgets
One of the 2012 budget trends is less tolerance for high development costs (NRE) and less funding available for ground-up R&D projects. With shifting missions and budget reorganization, the DoD is now more attracted to demonstrable, mature technologies and less interested in risky, unproven technology. In 2012, the challenge for system integrators and vendors will be to deliver these proven, demonstrable technologies. The DoD is turning to industry to share the R&D burden, with vendors investing more of their own resources to develop finished, capable technologies. An example of this trend can be seen in the Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV) program, where the government is seeking affordability by setting the budget for development and unit cost per vehicle in advance. This “should cost” approach to budgeting will help promote lower, predictable costs.
The technology readiness assessment approach
To ensure access to more affordable, more mature technology sooner, the military has instituted the Technology Readiness Assessment (TRA), a metrics-based methodology for ascertaining the maturity and risk of critical technologies. The TRA determines a Technical Readiness Level (TRL) to any technology under development, with TRL 1 being the least mature and TRL 9 the most mature. A TRL 1 technology has the greatest risk, which can significantly raise its development time and cost, but TRL 9 is the soonest to become obsolete. COTS vendors have a unique advantage that directly addresses these requirements. Mapping COTS products to the proper TRL level results in the intersection of classic technology readiness assessment and the realities of COTS product development.
Once deployed, a COTS product earns a fairly high TRL because that technology has been demonstrated in the same or in a similar operational environment to the new program. This enables COTS vendors to provide a product road map that offers the mature technology today with a path to the next-generation technology when it becomes the next mature technology.
Military procurement evolves
To support the TRA process, Curtiss-Wright Controls Embedded Computing (CWCEC) has developed a Technology Readiness Road map (TRR) that clearly indicates the TRL level of existing and upcoming products (www.cwcembedded.com/TRL). A TRR also addresses another emerging trend in military procurement, “Buy Less, More Often.” Rather than predict the purchasing requirements for a program’s expected life and contract for those components at the beginning of the program, the “Buy Less, More Often” mantra recognizes that technology changes every three years or so, and improves technology refresh strategies by calling for smaller purchases on a regular schedule. This reduces the deliverable quantity of any one product but results in more frequent refreshes, spreading out purchases to access improved capabilities.
COTS and TRL connect constrained resources
As the military looks at reducing the size of the force to address budget constraints, it increasingly depends on force multipliers that enable increased efficiencies and effectiveness for existing resources across the battlefield. COTS and the TRL model will help to deliver the additional electronics needed to share and connect these constrained resources in an increasingly net-centric battleground.
The danger is that the drive to reduce costs can push system developers toward commercial products. The double risk this presents is that commercial-grade electronics cannot meet the environmental requirements nor the longevity of supply required in military embedded systems because of commercial products’ rapid obsolescence. Companies such as CWCEC have a proven track record of supplying reliable, mature, open-system technologies based on COTS products, thereby reducing program and technical risks for customers.