The U.S. military's best chance of preserving its military supremacy as technology allows potential adversaries to catch up may be a new generation of software-based, open-architecture weapon systems that can be adapted on the fly, according to defense officials.
Such systems have been sought for some time because, in theory, they enable relatively effortless upgrades without a need to replace hardware, and because they avoid "vendor lock" -- jargon for acquisitions that tie DOD to a particular company for a very long time. But in the context of the Defense Department's concept for anti-access, area-denial warfare, the idea is taking on a decidedly operational flavor.
"What we have to do, I believe, is migrate some of our systems to more open systems so they're more easily adaptable," Al Shaffer, the acting assistant secretary of defense for defense research and engineering, told Inside the Pentagon in a recent interview. He pointed to the hard-won lessons of Iraq, where electromagnetic jammers designed to thwart roadside bombers were designed to accept software upgrades that allowed the systems to take into account whenever insurgents changed frequencies to trigger bombs.
A close parallel to that scenario, and one that is expected to feature prominently in DOD's future war planning, is air defense. New processes for jamming or misleading radars, based largely on signal-processing algorithms, have defense officials concerned. Known as Digital Radio Frequency Memory, one technology sets up a cat-and-mouse dynamic whereby the speedy adaptability of radars against constantly changing countermeasures determines whether missiles or aircraft can slip through aerial defenses.
Increasingly, the promise of open, software-based systems is becoming a strategic issue as well. With DOD's track record on over-budget weapons and an acquisition system often called sluggish, future adversaries could force the Pentagon to spend disproportionate amounts of money in response to frequent threat changes, some officials fear. Without major adjustments, "we are going to spend ourselves into oblivion," Air Force Maj. Gen. Steven Kwast warned at an industry conference in March. Kwast is the Air Force lead for the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review.
Defense acquisition chief Frank Kendall has asked a team to examine how cost-imposing strategies of other countries might be "turned," Shaffer said at the same conference.
"If I can change the performance characteristics of a platform or system by simply changing the software load, or changing one or two modules for transmit and receive, instead of the entire system, then it becomes much less expensive to have that capability," Shaffer later told ITP. "And that will force someone else to really think about [whether] they really want to continually develop new systems."
Under the moniker "engineered resilient systems," defense officials have begun experimenting with new design concepts that could improve systems' adaptability to new requirements and usher in cost reductions for maintenance and redesign, Shaffer wrote in an email to ITP relayed by a spokeswoman. The project includes finding "methods and tools which foster more robust designs when untrusted components may be included," in addition to exploring design processes and their interplay with computational and physical testing, and advanced algorithms, Shaffer wrote.
Initial ERS demonstrations with the military services are underway, according to Shaffer. "One example is Navy ship design environments where naval architects are experimenting with new set-based design methods to determine the ability to quickly adapt ship designs to severe requirements changes," he wrote. "These tools enable identification and exploration of designs that are robust to requirements shifts; in essence, the future of open systems approaches."
Set-based design, born in the automobile industry, is a principle that allows for a wide net of exploratory approaches to solve a particular problem. The list of ideas is then gradually winnowed down, while the option to make changes is kept open for as long as possible.
According to Shaffer, examples for open systems and software-based design already ongoing include the Future Airborne Capability Environment (FACE) project, which aims to define a "common operating environment for airborne defense software products." The Army's Future Vertical Lift and Joint Multirole Rotorcraft as well as the Navy's Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System Innovative Naval Prototype incorporate FACE to varying degrees.
In a memo prescribing the implementation of his Better Buying Power 2.0 initiative last month, Kendall vowed to "enforce open system architectures and effectively manage technical data rights."
"We must improve the department's early planning for obtaining technology through an open business model concept with emphasis on having open, modular system architectures that can be supported through multiple competitive alternatives," Kendall wrote.
According to Shaffer, existing acquisition policies can handle the envisioned reliance on open systems in programs. At the same time, the approach "does require the government and its suppliers to rethink the value proposition in delivering capabilities to DOD," he wrote.
Companies could benefit because they might sell licenses for their software products to multiple platforms, thus serving a greater market than would be possible with hardware-based offerings alone, according to Shaffer. -- Sebastian Sprenger