COTS makes its case for wider military adoption

In the recently released report, Research and Markets forecasts the global defense spending will grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 3.11 percent between 2016-2020. The market research firm adds, “The defense sector is investing in commercial-off-the-shelf () products such as , (IoT), , and mobile solutions to increase the defense capability through cutting-edge technology.”

organizations evaluating or utilizing COTS products must consider the benefits and limitations of COTS products relative to custom-built hardware and software products, as well as the types of COTS products that best fit their mission requirements.

Key benefits of COTS products

Growing adoption of COTS products by the military can be traced to a set of key market factors and attributes relative to custom-built hardware and software. The first factor to consider: economies of scale in research and development (R&D). Every day many tens of thousands of engineers go to work at commercial technology companies, working diligently to advance the state-of-the-art hardware, software, networking, communications, and IT . The vast majority of this R&D is paid for through commercial sales, at an investment rate that the military can’t come close to matching. By adopting COTS, the U.S. military receives the benefit of that R&D, essentially for “free”.

Second, COTS provides economies of scale in manufacturing. A large military ground combat systems program like the Abrams or Stryker vehicles is measured in the low thousands of vehicles. By comparison a large commercial vehicle program is measured in the hundreds of thousands or a large tactical radio program like the PRC-154a Rifleman Radio might be measured in hundreds of thousands of handheld radios. A large smartphone company like will produce hundreds of millions of smartphones. Thus, the cost reduction related to COTS manufacturing can be used to save costs for the military as well.

Additionally, the military can also take advantage of the large-scale support and logistics available from large global companies rather than having to build their own. The availability of trained administrators and operators when using COTS technologies saves cost and maximizes the ability to find technical experts to support systems. Additionally, the ability to adopt COTS technology to conform to international standards enables the military to communicate between different services, and also with coalition and alliance partners.

Key COTS considerations for the military

As is true with any technology or product, COTS may not be suitable for every military use case. For that reason, decision makers should evaluate the benefits and drawbacks relative to COTS usage. Key considerations include:

Devices may not be sufficiently rugged for in-field use. This is particularly true of communications equipment designed to be used in office and datacenter environments, where the devices are intended to be installed in a fixed location and run in air-conditioned environments protected from dust, heat, rain, etc.

Frequently, devices may not be sufficiently energy-efficient for in-field use. This is particularly true for the types of devices that run in offices and rely on utility-provided power. Military equipment often must run on generator or battery power, and must be designed carefully to minimize power consumption – maximizing runtime and reducing the number of dangerous and expensive fuel-resupply missions.

Frequently, devices may not be designed to minimize size and weight. When a device is shipped in the U.S. from a manufacturer to a customer, typically size and weight are not of paramount importance since the devices will be shipped once. When equipment is flown into theater and relocated or jumped frequently, especially in hostile environments with limited transport options, minimizing size and weight are critical for reducing the number of trips or transport vehicles required to deploy systems.

Deploying COTS equipment typically requires choosing equipment from many different vendors, as no single vendor makes all of the equipment necessary to meet mission requirements. Examples of different types of equipment include routers, satellite antennas/modems, base stations/access points, , and firewalls. As a result, military IT administrators and operators are faced with enormous technical learning curves and complex setup and maintenance procedures. This is particularly true when paying close attention to the security configurations of the devices.

COTS and security

COTS equipment must meet well documented and standardized security configuration requirements set by the Defense Information Systems Agency (), by the NSA, and by the various communications programs for each service. Frequently (but not always), the best of enterprise-class COTS equipment is designed from the outset to meet these standards, and through that conformance, consumers and non-military customers receive those benefits.

On occasion, leading COTS equipment manufactures make adjustments to the products to meet military requirements, but typically those adjustments are modest compared to the overall R&D investment of the original product. Example standards include:

  • 140 standards for encryption strength
  • NSA/NIAP Common Criteria standards developed to ensure interoperability and security functionality across federal agencies
  • DISA JITC UCR standards ensuring interoperability of devices connected to military networks

Early COTS adoption by military

The depth and breadth of COTS adoption across the military will expand over time from the early adopter phase through widespread deployment. Early COTS use cases include:

  • IP-enabled networking equipment typically found in office environments used for access to the internet, and to private and classified military networks. This includes network routers, switches, and firewalls.
  • Wireless equipment for long-range communications, such as satellite and point-to-point radio equipment. Typically used to establish communications links from operating basis in theater, to headquarters or remote/forward operating bases.
  • Short range wireless equipment for communications in bases. This includes WiFi and Cellular systems.
  • Computer servers used to perform computation and large-scale data storage, to provide email access, to store and process intelligence information, to provide command and control applications.
  • End user devices such as PCs, laptops and smartphones.
  • Cybersecurity devices such as VPN (encryption) gateways, firewalls, and user authentication servers, helping ensure our confidential information stay secret.

The future of COTS adoption

The COTS value proposition has proven out, and military adoption will only increase over time since the benefits overwhelm the drawbacks. In particular, a new wave of COTS technology is just beginning to roll out to the military in the form of WiFi, , and smartphones for use in classified (secret and top secret) networks. This new capability, based on a new NSA program called “Commercial Solutions for Classified,” will bring the benefits of wireless and smartphones (not previously available) to the warfighter, such as access to email, messaging, video, and applications – along with a large array of mission critical, military-specific applications to be developed in the future.