Senior military officials and lawmakers are sending a clear two-word message to the Defense Department acquisition community: Go faster.

Increasingly the military services are interpreting that order, along with legislation loosening procurement restrictions, to mean adoption of a modular open systems approach to acquisition.

“There’s not a day that goes by when our commandant doesn’t tell us to go faster,” Maj. Gen. Niel Nelson, Assistant Deputy Commandant for Combat Development & Integration and Deputy Chief of Marine Corps Combat Development Command, said.

“We really believe that open architecture is where we want to go in the future,” Nelson said Oct. 19 at Defense Daily’s 10th annual Open Architecture Summit, held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. “We’re driving it into our requirements documents.”

Jim Keffer, Director of Cyber at Lockheed Martin Government Affairs, introduces the  General Officers Panel at Defense Daily's 2017 Open Architecture Summit at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
Jim Keffer, Director of Cyber at Lockheed Martin Government Affairs, introduces the General Officers Panel at Defense Daily’s 2017 Open Architecture Summit at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

The Marine Corps is working to divest legacy systems it can’t fix or upgrade, Nelson said. It then will require that all new systems be built with open interfaces into which new and emerging technologies like sensors and processors can be plugged with minimal integration time and cost.

He held up the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle as a model of open architecture (OA) design. Not only is it built on a set of requirements common to both the Army and Marine Corps, but it was built with a “digital backbone” that adheres to the Army’s VICTORY architecture into which new electronic components can be plugged.

“That’s the way of the future,” Nelson said. “It takes so long to get something that we want to be able to upgrade it, fix it and do different things with it.”

In fiscal 2015, the Air Force conducted a survey and found only about 20 percent of its information technology (IT) systems were OA-based. The remaining 80 percent represents legacy systems designed and built in the past, Air Force Maj. Gen. Sarah Zabel, the service’s director of IT Acquisition Process Development, said at the summit.

“Ever since then, everything has to be open architecture or has to explain through the acquisition system why not,” Zabel said.

The Air Force has established a set of open architecture standards for aircraft mission systems called Open Mission Systems (OMS). As an added level of system security, requirements for OMS do not extend to vehicle management systems that control steering and safety systems, Zabel said.

Services see OA systems as a path to rapid, affordable upgrades to both legacy and future platforms, but there is not enough data to support some of the claims OA acolytes regularly make, Zabel said. More is needed to ensure common standards, modularity and open systems bear fruit.

“The development of these systems, it takes a while, so we don’t have a lot of track record of cost savings,” Zabel said. “We do have a track record of savings in time to integrate a new component into a system or put together a new system. We are very pleased with results of the open architecture approach. [There is] definite enthusiasm within the Air Force for going to open architectures.”

Ricky Smith, deputy chief of staff, G-9, Army Training and Doctrine Command, said 2003 was the first time he could find OA written into an Army requirements document. But it wasn’t until 2010 when the user community became adept at why it needed industry to provide platforms with a modular, open systems approach, he said.

Now it is a regular requirement of new acquisition programs, he said. As a large service with massive fleets of legacy vehicles, the Army is challenged when integrating new technologies. Like the Marine Corps, it is trying to consolidate and baselinethe proprietary legacy systems it has, upgrading those with OA-enabled components and then bring on new fully modular and open platforms when budgets allow.

Smith gave the example of the Common Robotics System. The ground robots requirements are specific about enabling reconfiguration for multiple mission, he said.

“There is going to be a new threat. There’s going to be something that happens or you’re going to have an opportunity to improve … this radio,” Smith said. “But when you do that, we didn’t build the M1 Abrams or the Bradley or any of those vehicles for that. Clearly there is need to change.”