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The US lowers cost of military system development through COTS

Line of Defence Magazine, Spring 2017

Use of COTS electronics has also improved interoperability and the easing of system upgrades. Use of COTS electronics has also improved interoperability and the easing of system upgrades.


Tim Marshall, Engineer/Sales Manager for rugged computing systems provider Unitronix writes that military commercial-off-the-shelf electronics are delivering cost-effective solutions and supporting innovation in new capabilities. 


Around the globe, regional military organisations are increasingly seeking more cost-effective and affordable electronic systems that can be supplied in ever shortening delivery schedules. Long adopted in the US, a proven model for lowering costs and speeding the deployment of advanced solutions is commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) electronics.

The use of COTS electronics has also improved interoperability and the easing of system upgrades through the use of open standards and well-defined technology roadmaps.

Military system developers in Australia and New Zealand can look to the US aerospace and defence industry’s successful use of COTS electronics as building blocks for critical rugged systems.


COTS for Rugged Systems

For over twenty years the US Department of Defense (DoD) has proven that using COTS electronics in rugged systems deployed in harsh battlefield environments, such as Mission Computers, Radar, EW/ISR and Network Switches, will lower the cost of ownership while speeding their development and deployment.

The old approach of developing rugged defence systems – using custom designs and proprietary technologies – no longer makes economic sense. US system integrators have found that custom designs cost significantly more and take longer to field, and have turned to COTS solutions as an alternative to custom solutions that lock them into a single supplier.

In doing so, they unlocked a new world of widely used, fully tested and field qualified open standards and open architecture products that deliver access to the highest performance electronics available while also providing a clear and faster roadmap to tomorrow’s technologies.

In the US, over the last two decades in program after program, it’s been conclusively proven that the use of COTS building blocks lowers the costs and speeds the delivery of innovative solutions to the warfighter. The weight of evidence more than suggests that those tasked with managing military platform budgets should take a look at what COTS can do for their critical programs.


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Meeting Defence requirements

In the past, some International Defence Integrators, while interested in leveraging the benefits of the COTS model, were hesitant because of concerns over International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) restrictions. Today, however, there are leading COTS suppliers with a well-established European presence that manufacture ITAR-free products or that are not subject to potential ITAR restrictions.

While the use of COTS hardware reduces costs and program risks it also protects the in-country system integrator’s added value content. Any required integration, application and system level development needed to modify a COTS-based platform (to meet specific end-user needs), can still be performed in-country.

Another important and growing trend in military system development is the reduced timeframes in which working solutions need to be demonstrated to the customer.

In the US, the DoD has made a major shift toward a “show me” mentality. As budgets for research and development projects shrink, the DoD demands that systems integrators demonstrate a working application based on today’s technology as a candidate solution, after which the final deployable system is implemented using next generation technology. This approach, called ‘spiral development’, is well supported via the COTS model. 

A related trend is the DoD’s desire to acquire electronic solutions that have a provable high Technology Readiness Level (TRL), meaning that the proposed solution can be demonstrated and – hopefully – has been pre-qualified and validated through prior deployment. The COTS electronics approach is ideal for supporting requirements for tried and trusted technology.


A new standard

The historic move away from costly bespoke system designs and towards the widespread use of COTS electronics and open architectures was first driven by a 1994 memo by former US Secretary of Defence William Perry.

Secretary Perry’s memo directed the DoD to use COTS products whenever and wherever possible, and over the last two decades the DoD has made the COTS approach a contractual mandate.

Helping to make the COTS approach a success was the development of a strong ecosystem of competing electronics hardware vendors. These vendors, working together in trade organisations, such as VITA, alongside participants from prime defence contractors and government agencies, have continually defined, improved, and fostered the use of today’s leading COTS hardware and electrical standards.

These standards, such as the VMEbus, and its more rugged and higher performance successor, VPX, define and update the most widely used hardware module form factors, connectors and electrical interfaces for building today’s military systems. Today, the VMEbus and VPX module and system architectures have become the de facto standards for building US military systems.


Military COTS not commercial

The term “COTS” as it is used here does not refer to system components developed for use by the commercial market. In contrast, military COTS products are specifically developed by COTS vendors who focus on the defence market. These vendors uniquely address and solve the challenges that confront system designers who must build systems and solutions able to perform optimally in harsh environments.

Design expertise is applied to packaging, cooling and device selection to ensure that COTS modules and systems will perform optimally when exposed to the extreme heat, vibration and shock conditions typically experienced by military air, ground and naval platforms.

Military COTS products differ from commercial products in their use of specialised packaging and advanced thermal management technologies to support the extremely long life of military platforms, while making it possible for them to use the latest cutting-edge electronics technology, such as Intel Xeon processors, FPGA, and GPGPU devices.

Additionally, military COTS subsystems uniquely address the size, weight and power constraints that make it difficult to add new capabilities onboard increasingly space-limited vehicles, such as tanks, helicopters and unmanned aircraft.


Freeing the OEM

Importantly, the use of COTS building blocks speeds innovation in new military capabilities by freeing the system developer from having to design, build and qualify their solution’s basic hardware infrastructure. Instead, processing hardware can be acquired, far more rapidly and cost-effectively, from vendors who have developed unique and extensive expertise in ruggedising and packaging state-of-the-art commercial technologies.

Leading COTS vendors have put in place sophisticated and mature services to mitigate the risks of obsolescence, enabling COTS electronics to effectively support the extremely long life of most military platforms.

This allows developers to focus on their own core competitive strengths in integration and software capabilities. At a time when funding – especially for R&D – is under pressure, the use of COTS building blocks enables system designers to spend more of their limited resources on developing new capabilities.


Software-driven innovation

Since Secretary Perry first launched the COTS initiative, an important shift has taken place in relation to where leaps in capability originate.  Many years ago, functionality came from hardware, but that’s no longer the case. Today, functionality is driven mainly by software innovations, such as the complex FFT software algorithms used in advanced signal, radar, and image processing applications. 

To support these software applications, COTS vendors develop hardware modules and compact subsystems using today’s most powerful microprocessors, FPGA and GPGPU devices. This enables the defence industry to focus on the areas where investment in innovation will have the greatest impact, the high value-add innovations that enable them to differentiate themselves from their competition and provide the warfighter with the advanced capabilities they need as soon as possible.

Today, COTS VME and VPX-based processors, network switches, and graphics modules form the backbone of US military hardware infrastructure.

The advantages are indisputable. It makes far more sense, for example, for EW and radar system designers to invest their energies on the ‘hard’ part of the system solution, rather than spending their time developing an Intel processor module that they can easily and cost-effectively acquire from any number of reliable COTS suppliers. System designers also reduce their program risk with COTS hardware that is already developed, proven and pre-qualified.

The end result is the faster delivery of new advanced capabilities to the warfighter in the battlefield. Helping to drive innovation, the COTS approach also makes it easier for OEMs to leverage the next wave of emerging technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence, Deep Learning, Cognitive EW, machine learning, 3D displays and augmented reality, and thus be ready for the battlefield of tomorrow.



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