Open to innovation: Why modular open systems are key to the future of DOD

An affordable and adaptable system with a scalable architecture allows for incremental system upgrades, minimizes obsolescence and speeds up development cycles.

How do you embrace innovation without straying too far afield from the accepted principles of scalability, adaptability and affordability? For the Defense Department, the answer appears to be adoption of the Modular Open Systems Approach (MOSA), which integrates a modular technical design with open business practices. MOSA was introduced in a memo signed by the Secretaries of the Army, Air Force and Navy and issued on January 7, 2019.

The memo states, “MOSA supporting standards should be included in all requirements, programming and development activities for future weapon system modifications and new start development programs to the maximum extent possible.” The mandate was even codified into U.S. law (Title 10 U.S.C. 2446a.(b), Sec 805), ensuring that any major defense acquisition programs are designed and developed using a modular open systems approach.

Guardrails for innovation

So what is an open systems approach/architecture? Simply put, it refers to “guardrails to guide things — not hard, level requirements that stifle innovation,” says Chris Behre, the lead for directed energy, modular open system architecture in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering and technical director of the Surface Navy Laser Weapon System Portfolio for Naval Surface Warfare Center's Dahlgren Division.

MOSA emphasizes adherence to five major guiding principles: establish enabling environments, employ modular design, designate key interfaces, select open standards and certify conformance. The goal is to design an affordable and adaptable system with a scalable architecture that allows for incremental system upgrades, minimizes obsolescence and speeds up development cycles. Given the majority of cost in today’s complex military environment lies within sustaining and maintaining the system itself, MOSA promises significant cost savings.

When MOSA is applied to the government-owned specifications, data rights are clearly defined. All vendors have access to the specification and can openly compete in acquisition. Because of the interoperability that MOSA brings, multiple vendors can supply end nodes as long as they meet the specification. This reduces “vendor lock” and the high cost of proprietary systems. The vendors retain their intellectual property and the government owns the integration. This reduces cost, risk and duration of projects.

Delivering on its promise

The question is: Does MOSA truly deliver on its promise to go better, faster, cheaper? Look no further than examples outlined by Carnegie Mellon University Software Engineering Institute, and it’s clear the answer is a resounding yes.

  • The Navy's Program Executive Office (PEO) for Submarines instituted the Advanced Processor Build and Technology Insertion process, a phased approach that delivered significant performance improvements -- to the extent that the Navy abandoned support for legacy MIL-SPEC products.
  • The Army's PEO for Aviation named the Future Airborne Capability Environment open standard as the common operating environment for its new capability development, with the goal to introduce new opportunities for innovation, improve interoperability and minimize time and cost.
  • The Army introduced the Vehicular Integration for C4ISR/EW Interoperability (VICTORY) initiative as a way to correct the problems created by the "bolt-on" approach to fielding equipment on Army vehicles. Implementation of VICTORY allows tactical wheeled vehicles and ground combat systems to recover lost space while reducing weight and saving power. This is a significant savings in size, weight, power and cooling.

As with any approach that holds tremendous promise, MOSA is not without its challenges. The most prominent of these is the historical focus on introducing MOSA in new acquisitions rather than implementing the approach for legacy platforms and capabilities. While any progress is good progress, this effectively means that it will be years before DOD is truly able to keep pace with innovation. And when sustainment costs are as significant as they are, that time means a great deal of money lost.

So why not apply MOSA to legacy platforms and equipment? Challenges with intellectual property are a key barrier to success, but the fundamental issue is a reluctance to break vendor locks and form new relationships -- an issue that can and must be overcome.

A path forward

The key to finding a path forward to broad adoption of open systems across DOD lies in a few key areas, the first of which is standards and applications. Open systems rely on consensus-based standards to act as guardrails to keep systems on track. These standards are a key tenet of MOSA and are essential to enable information sharing and interoperability. By developing and selecting open standards at the start, agencies have the flexibility and agility to switch partners, integrate new technology, effectively making vendor lock-in a non-issue.

Some companies have MOSA-enabled legacy devices with middleware that takes the messages of the stove-piped system and converts them to the language of the platform. This is a significant move toward true data fusion where the outputs of one sensor become the inputs of another. Not only does this reduce size and weight, it also enables the creation of capabilities not seen in the individual components. This modernization of legacy devices allows the services to create a glide path to full MOSA implementation while saving significant money by repurposing what they already own.

Adopting MOSA for both legacy systems and new acquisitions will ensure mission-critical systems keep pace with innovation and don’t become obsolete. No longer is it enough to talk the talk -- we must walk the walk and find a path forward to truly embrace open systems within DOD.