Warfighter needs hasten the demand for new tech — now!
Troops in the field don't want to wait three to four years for a procurement cycle to deliver new tech
The history of computing and IT in the military has been one of large systems, located well away from the battlefield, that gathered intelligence, analyzed the data and then funneled information as needed to the fighter on the battlefield. The focus on the future will be to put as much of that capability as possible at the tip of the spear.
“An important focus [is to provide] more intelligence to the dismounted warfighter, [and] this will change the face of the current ruggedized systems,” said Terry Edwards, director of system-of-systems engineering at the Office
of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and
Technology. “Rugged commercial hardware today is beginning to withstand more and more of the environmental and tactical mission requirements. The trends are expected to continue.”
The Army's tactical systems are a mix of mostly commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) rugged solutions. Both semirugged and COTS equipment are mounted in specialized operational transit cases that provide stabilization and cooling for use in a mobile environment, as well as some fully rugged systems.
Future rugged IT will be driven by the need to deliver services and applications through a cloud environment to smart phones and handheld devices so that soldiers can perform critical tactical command and control functions, Edwards said. To do that, “devices will need to be smaller, faster and lightweight [and] will need to be wearable or fit within the warfighter’s cargo pockets,” all of which puts added emphasis on reduced size, weight and power requirements.
It’s a major switch in the way that systems will be designed and deployed, said Todd Prouty, business development manager at Crystal Group Inc. What used to be compute power contained in an IT shelter that was static and environmentally controlled is now going almost completely out to dismounted soldiers and their handheld devices.
That kind of compute capability used to require a hangar's worth of servers and other equipment. But all those servers are being virtualized and consolidated so that just a few physical servers contained in portable integration racks can be transported and set up quickly to establish a command post in the field.
“And you need docking stations to charge those handhelds, you need systems to support them and to get the data on and off those forward deployed systems and to uplink them,” he said. “We are now seeing distributed processing with reach back capabilities as a key driver for how our rugged systems are being deployed today, compared to the way they were being used five or 10 years ago.”
Also, it’s not just the classic computer or server that’s in demand, he said, but increasingly its integrated systems such as a server with 80T of Redundant Array of Independent Disks storage that users want to be portable and rugged.
A major contract under which the military gets its rugged systems is the Army-led Common Hardware/Software-3 (CHS-3), the latest in a line of similar contracts that stretches back to 1988. The 10-year CHS-3 had a $2 billion ceiling when it was awarded in May 2003, but that was last raised in 2010 to close to $2.7 billion, with a $187 million contract modification to prime contractor General Dynamics C4 Systems Inc.
Between 60 percent and 70 percent of the delivered CHS-3 products have been rugged systems, and the popularity of those systems means the ceiling on the current contract might be raised even higher before the new CHS-4 contract is in place. That contract was expected to be awarded by the middle of 2011.
It’s not all smooth sailing, and there are ongoing issues with the development of rugged systems. There’s continual pressure to reduce size, weight and power requirements, which raises technical questions. For example, existing computing systems use multiple high-speed cores that are hard enough to cool in a regular office environment.
That will change in the future as lower-power processors evolve, but for now, in a forward-deployed environment, rugged systems need some fairly innovative and unique solutions, such as built-in water cooled radiators.
The main problem for Edwards is the short technical life cycle of rugged IT systems that, based as they are on commercial technologies, have to follow the life cycles of the various commercial components, processors, chips and memory that go on a motherboard. By the time a system is developed, tested and fielded, at least one year of its life is gone.
It’s a problem that the Army has tackled on the back end by a critical support strategy in CHS-3 with significant warranties, in-theater quick turnaround support and repair, Edwards said.
Availability and customization are also significant problems, he said.
“COTS rugged IT equipment takes a significant amount of time to develop, evaluate and test to meet mission requirements,” he said. “And they are not readily available at your local consumer computer store. These rugged IT products take a substantial time to procure, further impacting the usable life cycle of COTS-based technologies.”
Vendors are having to learn that these are the new facts for doing business in rugged systems with the government, Prouty said. Given the kind of budgets people have to keep up with the pace of technology change, he said, Crystal will be putting at least a near-term focus on taking advantage of some these more rapid deployment needs.
In the past, the military services have settled for going to a large contractor for these systems and having them develop a custom piece of gear to do that, he said. Then they’d wait for as long as three or four years for the product to be ready.
“What we’re seeing now is that organizations wanting to use COTS equipment in that rugged environment don’t want to wait, they want something in as little as two weeks sometimes,” he said. “Well, if it’s off-the-shelf, we will supply it that quickly.”
Customization takes a little longer, he said, but only a few months. Multiyear development horizons are no longer tolerated.