Table of Contents
- BENEFITS OF COTS
- DISADVANTAGES OF COTS
- ADDRESSING OBSOLESCENCES ISSUES BY COTS
With the increasing technology breakthrough, Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) technology have increasingly become a preferred choice by the military procurement department. In this essay, the term Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) is defined as a software or hardware that is commercially developed and made available in the commercial sector, which requires little or no unique government modification. In the cutting edge commercial world, where technologies are constantly evolving, the use of COTS offers the promise of “faster, cheaper and better” by COTS vendors competing for market share. [footnoteRef: 2] The military acquisition team have recognised this trend and capitalised on it, by maximising the use of COTS, so long as they are able to meet military regulations and specifications.
BENEFITS OF COTS
With rapid technology advancement, the military is adopting a new military acquisition strategy towards COTS solutions. The expectation of this strategy is to upgrade the military inventories at lower cost and faster acquisition lead time. In 2003, the first standard aircraft, “Hawkeye 2000”, was delivered to aboard, USS Nimitz, a supercarrier operated by the United State Navy. Hawkeye 2000 features a Mission Computer Upgrade (MCU) based on COTS technology, capable of quicker processing and with expanded memory capacity. This case of COTS technology insertion benefited the USN in terms of shorter delivery schedule, cheaper development & logistic cost, with improve capability and reliability.
Competitive Product Performance
As COTS vendors strive to expand their customer base, such competitive environment encourages product improvements with increased capabilities. Open market motivates them to drive standards to greater heights, so as to meet customer’s specifications requirements. The development and testing are also more comprehensive while standards improved with each product’s generation. With growing demands for standards, product specifications compliance is no longer optional but a requisite. As more new competitors entering the market, there is no more monopoly power in play. Now that they can have more proposals to consider from, customer can have the option to replace any COTS vendors who cannot meet their specification requirements.
Reduced Acquisition Cost
COTS vendors usually run their business model based on economies of scale where they exploit the cost advantages by expanding their scale of production. The development, manufacturing and supports provided for COTS solutions result in the amortization of cost price over a larger customer base. With economies of scale achieved, COTS vendors can strike lower production cost per unit, and hence able to consumer’s acquisition cost can be greatly reduced. On top of this, there is an increasing trend of market competitors entering the market. Vendors tend to strategize for their products to stay cost competitive to ensure continuous price competition. One prominent example is the Army’s procurement of 322 units of the US Army Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) on June 2006. After careful review on four competitive proposals, the project was awarded to European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company North America (EADS NA). EADS NA adopted the COTS strategy and was still able to satisfy all mission specification required at a cost lower than developing a new custom LUH. Faster Lead TimeThe “traditional” acquisition process of customise solutions from scratch requires several years of development, procurement, manufacturing, testing and evaluation. COTS solution, on the other hand, offers instant technology insertion. Since COTS are readily available off-the-shelf, and also with larger customer base, vendors are able to offer test samples early in the procurement process to evaluate product suitability for military application. The fact that the COTS solutions have already achieved mature design, only little modification may be required to satisfy the military specifications. This results in improved man-hours in Engineer & Design phase, and hence a positive impact in terms of cost and schedule.
Improved After-Sales Customer Support
COTS solutions also has its technical benefits in terms of after-sales customer support. Due to its larger market share in the commercial market, COTS vendors are able to provide swift resolving solutions to their customer. With more product feedbacks and performance history available, vendors will be able to collect more diagnosis data and reports from the ground. In order to stay competitive in the market, they must be able to diagnose, embrace and overcome problems as sustained issues are unacceptable. As a result, there will be better customer support as product reliability and stability can be achieved with constant updates and improvisations provided to the customer.
DISADVANTAGES OF COTS
Product Performance in the Military EnvironmentMost COTS vendors may not have experience with military scope of projects, or sufficient product feedback on their product performance in the military environment. Hence, readily available test reports and approved certificates may not be sufficient to meet the requirements of the military specifications and regulations. With limited test data, the only way is for the Governments to make further investments to modify the COTS to suit the requirements based on operational context and its harsh environment where the equipment will be operating in.
Safety Implication Due to Lack of Visibility
Unlike the traditional bespoke development & construction, adopting COTS technology may have raised certain concerns with regards to safety. As the development and testing process of the system have been transferred to the COTS vendors, this lack of visibility of the process and source code deprived the end user from any risk assessment considered by the vendors.
Furthermore, it is more difficult to determine the COTS reliability upon integration into the system as a more comprehensive risk assessment has to be re-evaluated. In 1997, a software glitch leaves a Navy Smart Ship stranded in water. [footnoteRef: 5] USS Yorktown, a guided missile cruiser, was outfitted with the state-of-the-art COTS computer workstations operated by Microsoft Windows NT. The upgrading program was initiated with the aim to reduce crew workload, operational cost and to improve combat readiness. In contrast, an error in the computer database crashed the program causing a cascade of system failures in the ship’s electronic control system leaving the warship dead in water as the propulsion system was shut down. Navy and marine industry experts commented that the integration of the full-up modern COTS control system on an old machinery system was a failure. Fortunately in this incident, the downtime of approximately 2. 5 hours did not result in any casualty. However, this can also be a lesson learnt on the detrimental safety impact of such incident. When engage in a naval war, or even with bad sea state during peacetime, such propulsion failure may cause severe loss of crews or, in worst case scenario, the whole vessel together.
In order to mitigate such risk, there is a need to adopt a defensible approach in using COTS components in Safety-Critical Systems[footnoteRef: 6]. This, however, may increase the acquisition cost as it may involve expensive analysis, testing and certification procedure, which defeat the main purpose of exploiting COTS solutions to save costs.
Security Implication Due to Increased Exposure
Specifications and developments of military systems that adopted COTS solutions may expose project information and missions. Information of the COTS products such product specifications, capabilities, delivery schedule etc. , as are usually easily accessed by public or “near public”. This exposure of information can be used to determine the capabilities and limitations of the military systems. Apart from the ability to judge the possible military missions by having information of the COTS technologies the military possess, in some worst case scenarios, even allowing black hat hackers access to the military systems. As COTS technologies are easily accessible, the attacker may be able to get hold of a similar version, even by legitimate means, to conduct reverse engineers, experimenting tests etc. One common attack target is the popular Microsoft software on the market. Due to its dominant market share on the commercial market, it became the Black Hat Community’s favourite point of attack that Microsoft has to respond by developing routine patches for the attacks’ countermeasures. One technical approach to reduce the vulnerability of COTS solution is by developing security wrappers to secure the COTS components. Security wrappers can be described as a software barrier that prevents unwanted information from infiltrating the component and ensure that restricted information are not released to the output.
ADDRESSING OBSOLESCENCES ISSUES BY COTS
In every system, obsolescence of its components or software is inevitable due to technological evolutions or other commercial factors. This obsolescence issues greatly affect the military systems as system supportability, safety and mission readiness are being compromised. Singapore’s military system typically outlive many of their components, hence becoming a challenge to sustain the military systems.
The existing bespoke acquisition method faced challenge having their parts replace as the components are not easily available in the commercial market due to market forces. Components used in the custom-built systems may be costly and difficult to procure as demands in the market is low and manufacturers deemed that they are uneconomical to continue production. This is detrimental to the military as the military inventory cannot be replaced in time and will compromise with their mission operation. In the global war against terror, also known as, Operation Iraqi Freedom, it was expected of the US Department of Defence to expedite equipment delivery to the frontline deployment. Instead of developing and testing their system from scratch, the priority is to deliver the new technologies and replacements to the frontline troops soonest possible so that they can smoothly carry out their mission. This approach of COTS exploitation mitigates against technological obsolescence as the customer base for COTS solutions are broader, hence replacement parts are easier to access and replaced. Quicker, Cheaper, Better upgrade of COTS Technology Apart from addressing obsolescence issue, replacement of components on the COTS products may even be an upgrade through the designing of technology insertion. By introducing COTS technology insertion, the military is able to keep up with the latest state-of-art technology because the COTS vendors are constantly upgrading their products. In order to maintain technologically competitive, the R&D team of vendors strives to enhance their products in the commercial market. Technology insertions can be architect into the next upgrade on the existing COTS product. Back to the example of the introduction of COTS to replace the existing mission computer of the US Navy’s Hawkeye, upgrade of the COTS technology provides faster introduction, lower development & logistic cost and with greater capability. The initial COTS MCU upgrade for the Hawkeye took 7 years to complete. Along the years, there were significant reduction in development times for the Group II Mission Computer Replacement Program (GrIIM RePr), then another follow-on upgrade with COTS Single Board Computer. The reduction of development time also resulted in lower development cost. Furthermore, the use of COTS insertion increases the competition among the various COTS suppliers in the market strategizing for price competition. The increased competition reduced the cost of upgrade from $200M to $9M.
The technology development is changing more rapidly than ever. In order to stay abreast with such rapid advancement, products need to look out with constant upgrades. The traditional way of bespoke customization solution for every system is too long of a process to keep up in this fast pacing society. In order to progress with these quick changing needs, the military systems have to be more flexible, integrable and expandable. As part of the ONE SAF, the Republic Singapore of Navy (RSN) is underway with the vision of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) in the transformation of the 3rd Generation SAF. The RSN is adopting Integrated Knowledge-based Command and Control (IKC2) as a pivoting role to realise this vision. By leveraging on the commercial, COTS-based approach allows infusion of advance technologies in the RSN platforms with shorter development time and at a lower cost. Indeed, this strategy is not guaranteed risk-free as there are also issues with COTS solutions. The RSN needs to recognise and selectively exploit this adaptation within RSN operational context that best serve the SAF.