As the war in Afghanistan comes to an end, the Pentagon is turning its attention to the Asia-Pacific region in what senior leaders describe as a great strategic pivot designed to deal with the shifting balance of power in the world and the rise of China.
But far from the headlines of grand military strategy, another strategic shift is underway — this one in technology acquisition — that is just as critical to the Defense Department’s future ability to protect the nation and its interests. The Pentagon’s decades-long effort to adopt open systems standards as the basis for new technology development and modernization may finally be picking up steam as wartime spending dries up and sequestration puts a stranglehold on funding for one-off systems.
As the Defense Strategic Guidance, issued in early 2012, begins shaping the department’s investments, “the military needs to be more agile, flexible and ready,” said Stephen Welby, deputy assistant secretary of defense for systems engineering at the Pentagon. “And that’s where open architectures come into play as critical capabilities,” he said, speaking Nov. 12 at the sixth annual Open Architectures Summit in Washington, D.C.
DOD launched its open systems initiative in 1994, directing all military components and agencies to use open systems specifications and standards for acquisition of new weapon systems whenever possible. Now known as the Open Systems Architecture, or OSA, the effort focuses on developing new systems — everything from the components of major weapons platforms to IT applications — in a modular fashion using widely supported and consensus-based standards for key interfaces.
Leveraging modular design and open standards is considered key to reducing costs across the department by eliminating duplicative systems and enabling hardware and software component reuse whenever possible.
“There are no systems that we procure today that are not hardware and software capabilities,” said Welby, describing the essence of OSA as a “technical architecture that leverages standards to support modular, loosely coupled, but highly cohesive system elements.”
For example, if the department and industry can develop pre-defined, accepted methods of ensuring communications links between aircraft platforms and new missile systems, there would be “no need for software redesign,” Welby said.
“OSA provides a constant battle rhythm of competition, addresses obsolescence risk and promises wider access to innovation,” he said. “It opens the field to how we replace a system … as long as those interfaces are maintained.”
But that can be a challenge. Even in the realm of open standards adoption, the Pentagon experience has been anything but uniform. In fact, the Government Accountability Office in July found each of the military services varied greatly in their adherence to open standards during the development and modernization of 10 of the Pentagon’s largest unmanned aircraft system programs. While the Navy leveraged open systems for three of its four planned unmanned systems, the Army and Air Force instead relied on prime contractors to upgrade and modernize their unmanned systems.
“Although DOD and the services have policies that direct programs to use an open systems approach, the Navy is the only service that largely followed the policy when developing its UAS,” the GAO report stated. “In addition, while new open systems guidance, tools and training are being developed, DOD is not tracking the extent to which programs are implementing this approach or if programs have the requisite expertise to implement the approach.”
GAO’s findings have not been lost on Welby. “I’ve been disappointed in the last two years … about where the services see gaps in their standards processes,” he said. “What we haven’t had come back from the services are the fundamental enablers of open systems — data exchange standards.”
Historically, DOD’s surveillance and reconnaissance platforms, such as unmanned systems, have almost always been developed as a quick reaction capability or in response to an urgent operational need, and as a result they are expensive to procure and expensive to maintain, said Paul Fleitz, the ISR application area lead at the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Materials and Manufacturing Directorate.
“This process is unsustainable,” Fleitz said
Mike LaRoi, director of open architecture solutions at defense contractor Northrop Grumman, said while technical experts believe the OSA approach is viable, business and acquisition executives in both government and the private sector are the ones who need convincing.
But Welby and other Pentagon officials face some serious obstacles as they try to adjust the department’s massive, entrenched acquisition system to the new OSA reality.
DOD is the single largest engineering organization in the world, with 99,000 uniformed and civilian engineers, 39,000 of which work in the acquisition workforce. But a large percentage of those experts will be eligible for retirement during the next 10 years, and replacing them will not be easy.
“Very soon, the department is going to lose a lot of that talent,” Welby said. “The department faces a future where our inherent engineering capacity is inadequate. We’re going to need to redouble our efforts to ensure we get the best and the brightest.”
But the current budget crisis, including the likelihood of deeper cuts resulting from sequestration, has made it nearly impossible for the department to increase its hiring rate. “If the department goes on another hiring break, we will be in a difficult position,” Welby told FedScoop. “I’m now beginning to look at some of our key disciplines, such as our nuclear engineering and cybersecurity force, to prioritize responses.”
William Johnson, an independent consultant at WMJ Associates, said the push to OSA has suffered from a lack of strong leadership in the government. “Government people have been wanting to do this,” he said.
“The challenge for the customer is how to acquire the new capabilities [using open architectures],” said Jay Mork, senior director of advanced programs and innovation at General Dynamics. “It’s not just about the open architecture, it’s really about having an agile, open business model.”