Managing complexity – engineering and COTS
The complexity of modern military technologies – from the research and development costs of creating a new solution, to the footprint of a supply chain – means that manufacturers are less likely to build equipment without a guaranteed contract. As a result, they may be reluctant to invest funds in a solution that may not ultimately be profitable. Just-in-time logistical models for consumables have become more favoured, as the customer had largely guaranteed the acquisition, and costs could be planned and programmed into supply contracts. Similarly, disposing of cancelled equipment could face challenges around regulatory barriers and profitability.
For software firms, however, this challenge is different.
Engineering and development concepts are similar to tangible platform procurements; yet remain very different. Prototypes, for example, remain centred on code that comes together in support of a physical product. Cost comes more in human hours and intellectual capital than hard content. A prototype software programme can go through a wide number of iterations before it is ready to launch and will continue to be refined and developed through its lifecycle. Physical equipment has to limit its number of changes to block upgrades so that multiple new capabilities can be installed in one major update, while software can be easily patched and upgraded in a much shorter cycle.
The challenge for software modernisation
Over the last two decades, militaries around the world have sought to increase their deployment of computing power through the digitalisation of the battlefield. Building networks and deploying sensors and computing power closer to the tactical edge has meant the need for robust software capabilities has increased.
Challenges through the accreditation process can compound this issue, as new requirements and milestones for the software are added in. Should a bespoke solution be stumbling ahead of its rollout, further delays for acceptance and introduction into service would be inevitable. If another programme is relying on the rollout of the software system, then this can lead to greater programme delays, and potential capability gaps.
While militaries may take a broader platform-level approach to acquisition and sustainment, the development and delivery cycle for a software system is much shorter.
“We typically see the IT side of a vehicle platform or subsystem going through an innovation cycle every one to two years. For the electronics side - the networking infrastructure, power interfaces, plugs, and cabling, and so on – this goes through an innovation or replacement cycle every four to six years," says Christoph Pauls, Business Product Manager at Systematic Defence.
"The mechanical componentry, which brings in new mounts and cabling, as well as other interfaces or entirely new systems, could only be really changed every 10-20 years.”
As a result, the IT systems within an armoured vehicle are usually added in at the end of the initial development cycle to ensure that all the planned subsystems can be integrated together. However, with the IT environment constantly evolving to account for a range of factors such as cybersecurity, changing interoperability requirements, and new subsystems and payloads, it is essential to keep updating it.
Thankfully though, updating software is much less intrusive than hardware updates, meaning that the regular iterations can be easily deployed and amended without too much hardware engineering.
So, what is the solution?
For military customers seeking software solutions, the desire now is to reduce risk and acquire open architecture platforms. While there may be the temptation to keep acquiring internally developed and military-oriented solutions for the sake of “national security” reasons, acquiring commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) products are more likely to be rapidly deployed with lower risk.
Some governments are beginning to recognise this benefit, with Norway’s 2020-21 Cooperation for Security: National Defence Industrial Strategy recognising the “as civilian as possible and as military as necessary.” The commercial sector and the military can create the best solutions when technology, personnel, expertise, organisational structure, and management are properly coordinated, leading to increases in defence capability.
Managing multiple deployment cycles can be a complex challenge for defence customers, particularly when dealing with both hardware and software systems. Changes in personnel and programme managers can further complicate acquisition and implementation pathways, compounding any other changes in capability scope.
COTS technologies see the product supported by the industry owner, with development being funded to support further development spirals. Risk is moved away from the military customer and shouldered more intensely by industry.
Within software systems, open architecture technology means the new sensors and technologies can be incorporated using a plug-and-play system, granting greater flexibility and ensuring a level of futureproofing for new subsystems.
Additionally, sourcing staff to help with the development and maintenance of a software system is much simpler if using a COTS product, as industry standard software code and technology is likely to be deployed. This can mean that a military can utilise reservists, readily train their own personnel on publicly available coding platforms, and utilise a wide choice of industry consultants where necessary.
Systematic’s SitaWare suite of software is delivered through a COTS model, and allows end-users to avoid vendor lock-in through its support of open architecture principles. Our operating processes ensure that users receive regular updates to their software, but can also work to develop their own modifications and applications to bolt onto the software as desired.
You can read more about our ability to rapidly integrate ISR sensors here, as well as our integration of systems into vehicles using GVA principles here. If you're interested in Low Code/No Code solutions, read our recent blog piece.