Adoption of modular, open systems architecture requirements is elemental to the Army maintaining its technical edge as it revamps existing equipment and designs platforms for future fights, according to the service’s chief weapon buyer.
Acting Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology Steffanie Easter called open systems architecture “one of the best things that has been discovered over time.”
“When we are in a system where we are relying on the upgrade of exiting capability, we have to make sure that the capability we field is modular in nature,” she said last week at the Association of the U.S. Army’s Global Force Symposium in Huntsville, Ala. “We must be able to modify it with ease and speed.”
When the Army buys systems, especially commercially available technologies like computers or avionics components, it should insist on modularity and the ability to be refreshed at predetermined intervals, Easter said. When designing or drawing design requirements for its own systems, the Army should write in margins for growth and architectures that can accept upgraded software and hardware components as they emerge.
“You can take a mission computer that you put inside an airplane, for example,” she said. “You know that it is going to be refreshed on some cycle, probably every year and a half or two years or so, if we’re lucky, before the next-generation is available. … When we design the systems we must design for growth and modifications.”
“We need a funding line on tech insertion … on these programs as they evolve and technology evolves,” she added.
That will be a hard sell to lawmakers holding the purse strings because budgeters often want specific justifications for funding, Easter said. Budgeting for elusory future technologies can be tricky, she said. The Army has been able to procure some weapons on that basis, like long-range munitions onto which the Army knew it would want to install new and varying seeker heads.
“We need to make sure we fight for some type of tech insertion program from the very beginning,” she said.
Maj. Gen. Cedric Wins, chief of Army Research and Development Command, said the Army already has adopted a method of tech insertion or “spiral upgrades” that have improved its systems in many ways since their introduction to service.
“The systems that we have today are not the systems that we started out with and that is the result of technology insertion,” he said. “The tank we have today is not the tank we started out with. The gun is better, the ammunition is better, the optics are better, the armor is better. So we have a history of spiraling in things.”
He nonetheless agreed in principal with Easter that designing systems with technical evolution in mind would make that proven process more efficient and affordable.
“If as we are designing a capability we can ensure that we optimize the system so that future upgrades are more easily accomplished, I think it works better for the Army and perhaps can allow us to have some types of efficiencies from a cost perspective,” Wins said.
“If you look at the way we have to fight in an integrated manner, our ability to quickly upgrade capability and to integrate not only with our other systems but with our coalition partners and our services is critical,” Easter said.
“We have to get to the point where we can allow our soldiers … to just use apps and place additional capabilities on top of an existing framework so they do not have to be encumbered with additional hardware and new software development,” Easter said. “That not only makes their lives easier but it makes our life easier from an acquisition perspective because we can field with speed, a lot faster than we have in the past.”
Maj. Gen. Bo Dyess, acting director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC) at Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), said open architecture underpins the Army’s effort to develop requirements for future capabilities.
“Open architecture is something that is very important for us,” Dyess told reporters during a roundtable discussion at AUSA. “If you are thinking about being innovative and everything is proprietary and you have to go back to the builder, developer, to build more software code in order for that system to interoperable … open architecture is very important.”
Because TRADOC is not an acquisition command, it is primarily concerned with identifying potential and perceived threats and ensuring that platforms resulting from requirements it generates can meet those threats. Because the future is inherently unpredictable, having open systems the Army can quickly modify to counter evolving or unforeseen threats is essential, Dyess said.
It is the acquisition community’s responsibility to incentivize industry to play ball. TRADOC and ARCIC are hosting industry technology information exchange meetings with industry, but are having a hard time getting industry to share proprietary technologies in an open forum, Dyess said. That is understandable, he said, as it is a natural tension that exists between an industry trying to make profit and an Army trying to buy the best, most affordable equipment, he said.
“The secret to making profit is the key to industry and they don’t want to discuss that in an open forum and the Army is sensitive to that. I think all the military is sensitive to that,” Dyess said. “But, for us, we’re about getting the capabilities to meet what our future operating needs requirement might be.”
“There is a natural tension, I think, with industry on the open architecture thing but there are also ways the acquisition community has incentivized behaviors or capabilities that we wanted,” Dyess said.
It’s the responsibility of the government to determine the standards and then up to industry to meet the standards and not be totally proprietary. That’s the way you get small businesses in the loop.
If the Army wants to buy a small robot, for instance, the government should determine standards for things like the communication system and mobility, but its architecture is open to allow a small business that makes a robot arm to plug in, Dyess said.
“I’d say like a USB-kind of capability,” he said. “Just like you take different things that you can plug into your computer, your computer understands where that USB connection is and then able to make something else that you have purchased work in the way that you want it to work.”
“This is where I think small businesses, and innovation, can now be an important part of this, because you are able to iterate quickly,” he added.