Leveraging the power of COTS in defense IT

It is often said, “Leveraging COTS products allows the government to effectively share development costs with private industry and consumers.” In addition, COTS products by the nature of their distribution have undergone extensive, real-world testing. All this testing ultimately provides a proven and reliable platform.

This is, of course, a very straight forward and common sense concept, and it is very applicable when the government requirements are roughly the same as commercial applications.

The concept of leveraging COTS communications platforms becomes problematic when stringent defense, security and environmental requirements are taken into account. When the programs evaluate the daunting list of DoD requirements, the belief is the government will need a custom built, government-funded platform, and the idea of leveraging COTS is forgotten.

What typically follows is the program office will publish what is described as a set of requirements for a communications platform. These requirements are turned into an RFP, and bidders are chosen to build exactly what is in the document--line item by line item.

The vendors are paid to develop hardware and software, produce prototypes and complete verification testing. This process represents an enormous risk to the government and is extremely resource intensive. If all goes well, the program will begin acquisition and deployment of the platforms.

Quite often, however, outcomes are not as hoped. In reality, what’s published are not requirements but rather one particular method of achieving a set of end user requirements. Once codified into an RFP, the vendors have little latitude in using creative thinking that might lead to solutions that can leverage COTS.

As an example from my branch of communications, satellite RF, the defense market has a great need for an anti-jam platform. That is to say a satellite communications system which can overcome both blue-on-blue (friendly vs. friendly) and red-on-blue (malicious vs. friendly) radio frequency interference.

As such, various government program offices have issued RFPs for the development of Frequency Hop Spread Spectrum systems (FHSS). Now, FHSS has been around for a very long time, and it works well as an anti-jam solution. FHSS, however, does not lend itself to COTS platforms.

There are alternatives to FHSS, which include Direct Sequence Spread Spectrum (DSSS) and Communication Signal Interference Removal (CSIR) interference mitigation, which are very compatible with COTS equipment.

There are similar examples in security, key exchange, etc. If the mindset is changed and a true set of requirements are published, creative and innovative thinking, which are the hallmarks of a successful vendor, can be leveraged. Vendors would be incented to leverage COTS platforms enhanced with the appropriate DoD features and security.

In this model, instead of building a custom communications platform for the DoD, the vendors would add the required feature set to their roadmaps and offer the platform as part of a standard offering.

There are a number benefits of this approach to the government. First, there would be no upfront development costs borne by the government. In this model, the vendor funds development, produces prototypes (defense-specific hardware may be needed for environmental considerations still leveraging a COTS platform) and works with the end user and program offices during the test and acceptance phase.

At the end, the government can choose the solution which best fits the mission needs. It may prove out that the vendors choose not to meet all criteria laid out by the government due to economic drivers, but in the long run, that may prove beneficial.

The second set of benefits are all the inherent benefits of leveraging COTS described above. This development philosophy marks a fundamental shift in risk management for a program. No longer would the government fund the development of a new communications platform, for example, with the all too common unacceptable outcome. You may be surprised to hear a representative of industry proffer this approach.

After all, a great deal of risk is transferred away from the government and to the vendors. In fact, many vendors’ entire business models are based on government non-recurring engineering (NRE) projects. If actual orders follow, all the better, but if the product ultimately does not meet the need, no harm done from the vendor’s perspective.

Over the course of the years, I have seen a number of government defined and funded communications solutions come and go. Many programs are successful, but a surprising number fail, and the resultant platforms are either never deployed or fade to obscurity.

Often, these failed, sponsored programs are replaced with COTS products which have been modified to meet the program’s functionality, security and environmental requirements.

The successful vendor in these circumstances is the solutions provider which is actively engaged with the end user community and understands the true requirements, using innovation to adapt hardware and software to meet the government need.

These solutions are inevitably available to the defense community on a much faster timeline than custom developments.

I have been fortunate enough to be associated with a company which has been very successful adopting this product development model. The result is a win-win for all--a flexible, cost-effective, field-proven communications platform which meets or exceeds defense requirements. Adopting such a development schema will take a bit of an altered mindset on the part of both government and industry, but the approach is proven and the results are undeniable.

About the Author

Karl Fuchs is vice president of technology at iDirect Government Technologies.

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