As military weaponry and communication systems become ever more defined by software rather than hardware, the trend toward open architecture systems that allow for swift and regular technical refresh will become the norm, according to industry officials.

Computing systems like the Navy’s consolidated afloat network enterprise system (CANES) and the Army’s Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) are perfect examples of this trend. Software-defined systems like radios or unmanned aircraft, where capability improvements can be made without replacing hardware, will increasingly be required to be designed with open, modular architectures, said Todd Borkey, chief technology officer at Thales Defense and Security.

Harris Corp. AN/PRC-158 Multi-channel Manpack Radio

“Strategic systems where strategic weapons get deployed, that’s hard to require open architecture. But tactical coms, ISR platforms, things that are a commodity and have a lot of tech refresh associated with them, anything with a lot of technical content payload regeneration, are candidates for open systems,” he said during a recent visit to the company’s manufacturing facility outside Gaithersburg, Md. “If there is a technology that refreshes and new acquisition programs are being run for it, you will see more and more open architecture.”

Some companies have concerns that providing modular open systems is tantamount to surrendering intellectual property to the government and placing self-imposed limits of the profitability of a contract. Thales, for one, has recognized that as the Defense Department moves toward requiring open architecture from the earliest stages of an acquisition program, it behooves industry to play along.

On the EW front, Thales has won several recent contracts for classified systems “entirely because we proactively sought out and provided an open architecture approach. Borkey said.

“So much so that we can give the government software development kits that have complete control over our system so that they can develop their apps in their labs and run our systems with it.”

Another prime example is the Army’s JTRS radio program, for which Thales and Harris Corp. [HRS] are under contract to produce about 150,000 rifleman radios. The program, which also includes vehicle-mounted radios, is designed to tap commercial technologies for military use and will be re-competed every five years to in an effort to find the most capability and the best price for the government.

All of the JTRS radios since 2004 have had a basic requirement to be compliant with the Army’s software communications architecture (SCA).

“That has been very rigid over time,” said Dennis Moran, vice president of government business for RF Communications at Harris. “There are processes in place where you have to qualify and you have to demonstrate your SCA compliance. And what that allows for is…the porting of waveforms on multiple platforms and it also goes a long way in make sure interoperability is achieved.”

Competitors for Army radio contracts also must meet standards of compliance and security set by the National Security Agency. That standard is designed to set a baseline for communications security and to ensure interoperability between different radio platforms and government agencies. Once the software that operates on the Rifleman Radio, for instance, is deemed compliant, the manufacturer is free to improve the radio’s hardware at will, Moran said.

“As long as you are compliant with that architecture, you are given the freedom to do your own design so that you optimize the performance of the waveform, never giving up interoperability… which could make  a huge difference in battery life and the distance that that waveform travels in free space. So, it’s the best of both worlds.”

“The government gets its open-architecture compliant product, but at the same time it is taking advantage of the innovation that industry is doing,” he added.