DoD leadership embracing open standards

The process of speeding up acquisition and lowering costs through the adoption of open standards apparently takes a lot of time, as there are significant cultural roadblocks to such change not only within the Department of Defense (DoD), but also at the prime contractor level, where open architecture and commonality goes against long-standing business models.

However, due to the enthusiasm behind the Sensor Open Systems Architecture (SOSA) Consortium, fueled by the work SOSA members are accomplishing and the successes of the open architecture initiatives it is built on – such as FACE [Future Airborne Capability Environment], CMOSS [C4ISR/EW Modular Open Suite of Standards], and others – these obstacles are slowly being overcome.

“The primes have a stranglehold on the services,” said Randall G. Walden (in photo), a member of the Senior Executive Service and Director and Program Executive Officer for the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, during his keynote address at the Tri-Service Open Architecture Interoperability Demonstration, held at the Georgia Tech Research Institute on January 29, 2020.

Randall G. Walden, a member of the Senior Executive Service and Director and Program Executive Officer for the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, delivers his keynote address at the recent Tri-Service Open Architecture Interoperability Demonstration in Atlanta.

I asked him to elaborate more on that comment during the Q&A portion of the program and he responded, “The primes are tied to a 20th-century business model,” and they don’t want to change as they fear it will put them out of business.

An example of that concern would be the F-35 and F-22 5th-generation fighter planes, both built by Lockheed Martin. Despite having a shared builder, the aircraft could not speak to each other, as they didn’t use the same data link, Walden said. That problem was in fact later resolved and they can now communicate, but that previous situation speaks to the lockdown problem.

The resistance to change is not just at the prime level, as the military services have teams that prefer the 20th-century paradigm, a culture that feels more natural to them, he continued.

“They are getting the message,” Walden said, noting that it is a slow process, particularly when using older systems: “New systems that are built on open standards make sense,” which is where the primes are seeing the benefits of the new business model, he adds.

The second keynote of the morning, U.S. Army Col. Nickolas Kioutas, Project Manager for Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PM PNT) at PEO IEW&S [Program Executive Office Intelligence, Electronic Warfare & Sensors] spoke to the practical benefits open standards – specifically CMOSS – will bring to the Army’s ground vehicles.

“Right now, we suffer from vendor lock, [which makes it expensive and time consuming] to enable rapid integration of the latest technology to outpace the threat,” Kioutas said.

CMOSS will enable the Army to move to a leaner box, swapping radio cards, situational-awareness cards, or whatever capabilities need to be integrated, he said, adding that the leaner box will also create more room for the warfighter in what is already a crowded space.

Currently about 400 tanks need GPS upgrades, Kioustas said. That upgrade process is expensive, requiring many non-recurrent engineering costs and a great deal of testing time, which all results in longer offline periods. In the long term, after CMOSS is deployed, the tech-refresh process will be much more efficient: “We want to be able to refresh one-fifth of the Army every year, over a five-year period baseline.

Slow adoption of standards within the defense space is nothing new; the process can be even slower in space applications. For example, look at SpaceVPX or VITA 78, which uses the VITA 65 OpenVPX backplane standard as the basis for adoption in space applications.

Patrick Collier, the author of the standard and founder of SOSA, said although the process always takes a long time, eventually it evolves and requirements for its use begin to pop up. That is finally happening for SpaceVPX, Collier said: “During a visit with a prime contractor where I had a presented the SpaceVPX concept years before, a gentleman raised his hand and said, ‘You said it would take two years for this to build up and you were absolutely right.’”

The end user is driving this change, as technology and capability must be deployed more quickly to the warfighter while also reducing the burden on the taxpayer. Industry cooperation, whereby companies help to create and manage standards, is necessary to break the stranglehold of the proprietary business model. This must be industry’s job, said Walden, as “the government is horrible at creating standards.”

Industry is actually doing this. I’ve been covering this market for more than 20 years and have never seen such enthusiasm from not only industry but also from the government and the prime contractors. A big reason for the change is that that the three services are heavily involved in the standardization process and are pushing the primes to play. These organizations include the Combat Capabilities Development Command (CCDC) C5ISR Center (formerly CERDEC), AFRL [Air Force Research Laboratory], and NAVAIR [Naval Air Systems Command].

While the tri-service leadership has really been the driving force, SOSA lead Dr. Ilya Lipkin – who is with Air Force Life Cycle Management Center – always tells me that standards groups succeed or fail based on the enthusiasm of their volunteers. Using his metric, I’d say this tri-service approach will in fact succeed, as the passion of the members is real.

There is still work to be done, and the different standards need to be monitored throughout development to ensure they are aligned. But in the end, it won’t matter whether your single-board computer is designed under SOSA or CMOSS or HOST – they will all work, said Lipkin, in response to a reporter’s question on the matter: “They just need a tweak” and they are all compatible.