COTS – Wave of the Military’s Future

Every enlisted Navy technician has gone through the following experience:

You are working on a technical problem in a piece of high-tech equipment. Basically, it’s a computer dressed up in fancy clothing and designed to do a specialized task. In due course, you isolate the problem, and replace a proprietary board containing several ICs and appropriate support elements and circuitry. You find two in stock. When you requisition one of these, the system automatically places an order with the supply system to replace the missing unit.

Your labor, of course, is “free” – in the sense that you are on call 24/7 and are paid whether or not you repair that particular piece of equipment. The replacement board costs the government $5,000. Not that it’s worth $5 grand in the real world, but because it is proprietary, and the manufacturer only makes 50 such boards annually, and this is the only way for him to profit on the deal.

Without profit, of course, there is no board in the first place.

Later on, you discover a problem with your personal PC, and – because you are a hot technician – you troubleshoot your own problem. It turns out to be akin to the problem you experienced earlier with your high-tech gear on the ship. Only this time, the replacement board costs $15 and change at the local electronics warehouse.

Come tax time, you can’t help but wonder why your tax dollars are being wasted like this. You know for certain that the shipboard high-tech gear could easily have been designed to use inexpensive off-the-shelf boards used by countless computers all over the world. Sure, the box might need hardening, and the mounts might need modification to accommodate shipboard existence, but the difference between several hundred boards at $5,000 and their equivalent at $15 will pay for a lot of needed modifications.

During the last decade, scenes like this have repeated themselves through the armed services, nowhere so much as in the Navy. To their credit, men and women who make it their business to study these kinds of things concluded that the government procurement process was all wrong. The result of their investigations was a Defense Department wide mandate to go COTS where possible – for Commercial Off-The-Shelf.

From the technician’s point of view, the changeover might appear trivial, but the actual task has been herculean in scope and plagued by programmatic resistance and unexpected pitfalls.

The Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) was on point to accomplish the conversion for the Navy. In December, 1997, NAVSEA issued the COTS Steering Board Charter, which outlined how it expected to determine how to implement the massive conversion. This was kind of like a tool to create a tool to create a tool to do a job.

Then in July, 2002, NAVSEA issued NAVSEA Instruction 9083.1-COMMERCIAL OFF THE SHELF (COTS) POLICY.

The Scope of NAVSEA 9083.1 included “ships and systems, sub-systems, components, and equipment procured by [NAVSEA] and affiliated Program Executive Officers .… COTS products include hardware, software and firmware.” NAVSEA 9083.1 specifically excluded NAVSEA’s 08 nuclear programs, but otherwise, it was all inclusive.

I have long championed the COTS concept – since back in the early 1960s when I was a submarine enlisted technician, and reemphasized later during my submarine tours as a commissioned officer and subsequent shipboard duty aboard NOAA research vessels. Nevertheless, in the real world of life at sea, and especially under combat conditions, COTS has not always lived up to its expectations.

For example, COTS equipment is market driven; available products are there precisely because a consumer demand exists for them. The moment that consumer demand wanes, the equipment disappears. Furthermore, most COTS equipment has built-in obsolescence, something we all acknowledge in year-to-year car models, but would be reluctant to accept in shipboard radar systems.

COTS equipment typically comes with a manufacturer’s guarantee or warranty. Once this period passes the consumer is on his own. We have all experienced equipment breakdown one or two days after warranty expiration. The wry humor of a non-working VCR at day 366, however, contrasts markedly with a malfunctioning battle radar with an expired warranty.

Spare parts is another area of major concern. Since one of the advantages of COTS equipment is manufacturer support, spare parts and/or replacement units are manufacturer responsibility during the warranty period. How, then, does the Navy integrate spare parts usage into its resupply system? When the warranty runs out, how does the supply system take up COTS equipment support?

COTS has become a buzzword – a panacea solution for a plethora of problems. Unfortunately, many of these problems do not solve readily using the COTS approach. Frequently, COTS solutions address a market-driven problem that differs significantly from the military one. The solution, therefore, addresses only part of the problem for a shipboard system, and actually addresses unnecessary additional elements that may hinder primary performance. Nevertheless, because COTS is the solution of the hour, the Navy ends up having to live with an incomplete program.

Sometimes, commercial systems simply do not address a specific military need. A good example is submarine hull penetrators. A commercial market does not exist for these, and so the only option is to develop them internally. A manufacturer, however, cannot exist on the profits from submarine penetrators alone, unless they are priced in the millions of dollars, which Congress will not allow. Consequently, the Navy (and the military at large) must establish long-term relationships with certain manufacturers, and ensure that they have a lifeline of procurement work to keep them economically viable.

It is not all bad news, however. Commercial enterprises sponsor a significant level of research in their product development, so that finished products on the shelf, available for immediate inclusion in a naval system cost the government zero research and development funds. This is a big deal, worth potentially billions of dollars.

One excellent example of this is the Navy’s COTS-based Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) system. Basically, this is a multiple-ship network that makes the electronic inputs of an entire battle group available to each vessel in the group, in such a way to be completely secure, and operational under strict EMCON.

In a recent interview with COTS Journal, Navy Capt. Dan Bush, CEC Program Manager, described how COTS allowed an E-2C Hawkeye to mount a 700-pound COTS package that had weighed a prohibitive 3,000 pounds using traditional Navy procured elements. This single example illustrates how COTS can make a huge difference at any level.

The NAVSEA COTS Steering Board and the Southern Chapter of SOLE (International Society of Logistics) had scheduled the COTS Workshop 2002 at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University for the end of October. Unfortunately, NAVSEA’s problems surrounding implementation of COTS, and the current international situation which is occupying much of the Navy’s attention forced a cancellation of this meeting. DefenseWatch will report the results of this workshop when it eventually takes place.

COTS is not a panacea for all the Navy’s logistic problems, but it has offered a surprising amount of inexpensive solutions to some very ticklish problems, and has allowed the Navy to move much closer to a state-of-the-art battle plan for its sea-based and land-based forces.

Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor

Submariner, diver, scientist, author & adventurer. 22 mos underwater, a yr in the equatorial Pacific, 3 yrs in the Arctic, and a yr at the South Pole. BS Marine Physics & Meteorology, PhD in Engineering. Authors non-fiction, Cold War thrillers, and hard science fiction. Lives in Centennial, CO.

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