Military Embedded Systems

Open standards spell a departure from bloated defense budgets


January 18, 2023

John McHale

Editorial Director

Military Embedded Systems

Do you miss the U.S. defense budgets of yore, where costs for programs skyrocketed into the billions and overall defense spending reached into the trillions? Where cost was not a concern, only a capability? If you’re pining for those days, then you probably don’t want to read our Nov/Dec issue. 

Our final issue of 2022 includes a focus on open standards, which are leveraged to keep costs down over the life cycle of defense platforms. Many of our contributing authors in this edition and throughout the year extol the virtues of a modular open systems approach (MOSA) in part to reduce expenses to prevent those dreaded cost overruns of decades past – it’s become a trope: $400 hammers and $500 toilet seats.

Yes, MOSA came to us decades after the 1980s defense-spending highs, but it is in fact the descendant of those efforts to scale down costs while maintaining capability in military systems. Its predecessors included the mandate in 1994 from then-defense secretary William Perry to use commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components and equipment wherever and whenever possible. COTS still exists today as a procurement strategy for the Department of Defense (DoD).

Ever wonder what else was overpriced? I did, so I searched the term “overpriced defense products of the 1980s” and found a 1986 column from a Los Angeles Times scribe named Jack Smith. In the op-ed, “$37 screws, a $7,622 coffee maker, $640 toilet seats: suppliers to our military just won’t be oversold,” Smith details some of these items.

“… a $285 screwdriver, a $7,622 coffee maker, a $387 flat washer, a $469 wrench, a $214 flashlight, a $437 tape measure, a $2,228 monkey wrench, a $748 pair of duckbill pliers, a $74,165 aluminum ladder, a $659 ashtray and a $240 million airplane.”

What outraged many was that there never appeared to be anything special about these coffeemakers or wrenches, aside from being labeled as military products. You could get the same thing at a local hardware store for under $10. This of course infuriated the voting public, which led to the changes in acquisition we see today.

Today’s most outrageously expensive item is software code. One can never overestimate what it will cost; that number always comes in too low. The F-35 is just one example, with its billions of lines of code that continued to mount in cost. While software code may never become a commodity like some hardware components, software-development costs can be reduced through reuse: Reuse of code through common APIs is the goal of the FACE [Future Airborne Capability Environment] Consortium. For more see our article titled “FACE in military avionics systems: Now let’s integrate it.”

Another important piece of MOSA is that it can leverage commercial processors, FPGAs [field-programmable gate arrays], RF components, and other innovations from the automotive and other higher-volume markets. While the defense arena originated GPS, the internet, and drones, the DoD is more a consumer of commercial innovation than a driver of commercial solutions.

Well, not for every item: As far as I know, there are no Silicon Valley entrepreneurs building hypersonic missiles in their garage, but it’s a fact that commercial processors and FPGAs will be critical in helping detect projectiles that exceed the speed of sound.

Not everything is COTS and MOSA. There will always be a need for closed architectures in some systems and custom component designs. But those custom components must be able to interface with all these open architecture standards. For more on custom designs, see my Q & A with John Sturm of Vicor.

Four decades and many policy changes later, the DoD’s latest efforts to reduce costs seem to have momentum. Just read our articles if you don’t believe me.

Even with momentum like that behind SOSA, standards take time to develop. The SOSA Technical Standard is currently only in version 1.0; requirements, while in process, are not yet here in force. Industry and government know that MOSA strategies will save money and hope they will also speed up acquisition.

The DoD acquisition process continues be glacial, just as it was in the 1980s. Changing this type of bureaucracy is not easy, as there’s no replacement for government-acquisition processes. To expedite the process, the government created new processes to test, develop, and procure technology and get it more quickly into the hands of warfighters.

Rapid-acquisition offices, Other Transac­tional Authorities (OTAs), and the Defense Innovation Unit’s developmental offshoots like the Air Force’s AFWERX and SOFWERX for Special Operations are just a few examples of these efforts to prototype technology and leverage commercial innovation to deploy it to the field as fast as possible. They also provide a gateway for nontraditional defense suppliers to gain entry into the defense market as do consortia like SOSA and FACE.

MOSA and standardization efforts should assure more efficient adoption of commercial innovation for warfighter systems and hopefully prevent those $400 hammers from proliferating again. However, I may have spoken too soon on low-cost toilet seats. Just search “$14,000 toilet seat for military.” Apparently 3-D printing can be expensive.

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