The Collins Aerospace [RTX] head-up display (HUD) for the U.S. Air Force C-130J by Lockheed Martin [LMT] is a derivative of the company’s commercial HUD for the Boeing [BA] 737 airliner, and the Collins Aerospace cockpit displays for the Air Force KC-46 tanker by Boeing come from the Collins Aerospace displays for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
Such military derivatives of commercial products are increasingly common and see their realization through Federal Acquisition (FAR), Part 12 guidelines instituted after the enactment of the Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act of 1994. Other pieces of legislation that encouraged the DoD buy of commercial systems include the Federal Acquisition Reform Act of 1996 and the Services Acquisition Reform Act of 2003.
In addition, Section 839 of the Fiscal 2019 National Defense Authorization Act is aimed at reducing the requirements on DoD’s buy of commercial products.
Adapting commercial technology for the military, if done correctly, may significantly lower DoD acquisition and sustainment costs and field systems to military forces more quickly.
“This is something that has been a real passion of mine after being in the business for about 30 years and seeing the benefits of being able to leverage commercial technology into the military environment—not just in terms of the technology, but the speed and cost savings we can provide to the warfighter when we go do that,” Phil Jasper, the president of Collins Aerospace’s mission systems business, said in a recent phone interview.
Collins Aerospace, which has a 70 percent/30 percent commercial to military business split, is one of a number of companies that depend on easier access to the military market to sustain their participation. DoD officials have encouraged smaller, commercial companies to enter the ranks of the defense industrial base to spark innovation.
While military unique systems, such as the Lockheed Martin F-35, rightly fall under FAR, Part 15 negotiated procurements, sub-systems for that platform may justifiably fall under FAR, Part 12, Jasper said.
“Communication radios have heritage and a lot of commonality, for example, with commercial technology or maybe some of the GPS systems as well,” he said. “It’s at that sub-tier level where we’re advocating, ‘Don’t let that top level FAR 15 say that anything that goes on that platform has to be FAR 15 because the platform is.’ It really needs to be on a case-by-case basis.”
Subsystems for military platforms that may rely heavily on commercial technologies include avionics, communications, GPS, displays, electrical power generation systems, fuel valves, and fire protection systems.
Under FAR, Part 12, DoD acquisition personnel may classify a system for military use as “of a type” with a commercial system, if the latter is customarily used by the general public or by nongovernmental entities for purposes other than government purposes. If the commercial system “requires modifications of a type customarily available in the commercial marketplace or minor modifications of a type not customarily available in the commercial marketplace, made to meet federal government requirements,” DoD may also classify the system as “of a type,” according to a July, 2019 DoD Guidebook for Acquiring Commercial Items.
Moving subsystems from FAR, Part 12 to FAR, Part 15 can be costly, as the latter regulation may entail government approvals and the establishment of a separate military production line. Jasper said that, in one instance, the DoD re-classification of a subsystem from Part 12 to Part 15 cost the Pentagon several million dollars, as DoD had to capitalize a separate production line. That subsystem has since been re-classified again, as Part 12, he said.
Re-classifying subsystems and parts, such as microprocessors, from Part 12 to Part 15 may also mean that DoD is unable to access rapid advances in commercial technology.
“Unfortunately, recently, we’ve seen some headwinds in terms of getting the acquisition system to look at some of the FAR, Part 12,” Jasper said. “It’s really around the ‘of a type’ designations. It’s not exactly identical to what you have in the commercial market, but it’s not bespoke to military either. It’s that gray area where you get into modification. That always tends to be the hard part. We believe Congress has recognized that over the years as something they want to encourage. They realize it’s not going to be identical. That’s why the FAR was created, and it includes language ‘of a type.’ We want to continue to educate the acquisition system. We think training is a big piece of this.”
“It’s becoming much more difficult to justify commercial and commercial ‘of a type,’” he said. “I would say we’ve kind of seen it over the past two years, as it’s starting to increase in terms of the amount of data we have to provide, the length it’s taking to get to a commercial determination.”