The Defense Department’s acquisition czar is concerned lawmakers will pass a law requiring all future weapons programs to feature open systems.

Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (AT&L) Frank Kendall on Tuesday called the push for open systems in most programs as unrealistic, adding that anyone who has built a “highly-integrated, dense” design knows that. Congress, apparently, does not, he said.

“We’re looking for flexibility,” Kendall told a National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA) event in downtown Washington. “Hopefully, we’ll get that at the end of the day.”

The F-35 could be an example of a "highly-integrated, dense" weapon system. Photo: Air Force
The F-35 could be an example of a “highly-integrated, dense” weapon system. Photo: Air Force

Open systems, also commonly known as modular systems or open architecture (OA), is both a business and technical strategy for developing a new system or modernizing an existing one. They enable acquisition and engineering communities to design for affordable change, employ evolutionary acquisition and spiral development and develop an integrated roadmap for system design and development. Basing design strategies on widely supported open standards increases the chance that future changes to the system will be integrated in a cost-effective manner.

Andrew Hunter, director of the defense-industrial initiatives group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank, said Tuesday the open systems movement is House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Chairman Mac Thornberry’s (R-Texas) acquisition reform effort. Hunter said he believes the idea is not requiring all programs have open systems, but that the presumption be toward open systems.

The idea behind open systems, Hunter said, is to allow the Defense Department to capitalize on the rapid and potentially accelerating pace of technological change. Hunter said open systems will allow DoD to upgrade and add technologies and capabilities more easily.

Hunter said the big reason why open systems is part of Thornberry’s approach is that he wants less technology development done as part of major weapon acquisition programs and more tech development done outside of major programs through experimentation and prototyping. Calling this a “structural change to the system,” Hunter said the open systems approach supports Thornberry’s idea because when all this technology development gets done during prototyping, it will be iteratively inserted into weapons platforms instead of built in from the front.

It is unclear if the Senate has a similar appetite for such a structural change to technology development. Hunter said there was a pretty extended debate within the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) in the fiscal year 2015 authorization season. Ultimately, he said, an agreement was reached that gave DoD a pretty strong push toward doing open system approaches in almost all cases, but did not come down to an absolute requirement.

SASC is scheduled to mark up its version of the FY ’17 defense authorization bill the week of May 9. The full HASC is scheduled to mark up its bill next week.