Maintaining a Competitive Edge with an Architecture-First Approach

The speed and ubiquity of technological innovation is having massive impacts across all sectors, and the U.S. military is no exception. From ground sensors to satellites, software is the fabric that enables modern planning, weapons, and logistics systems to function. But these advancements are not without their challenges.

As former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis put it, “Our military remains capable, but our competitive edge has eroded in every domain of warfare—air, land, sea, space, and cyber. The combination of rapidly changing technology, the negative impact on military readiness resulting from the longest continuous period of combat in our Nation’s history, and a prolonged period of unpredictable and insufficient funding, created an overstretched and under-resourced military.”

To maintain military superiority in a world of increasingly capable and technologically-enabled adversaries, defense organizations are turning to commercially-developed technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), data analytics, virtual reality, and more. To realize the full potential of these emerging technologies, though, defense organizations must modernize the platforms that host and integrate them.

While successfully integrating new technologies and adapting them to ever-changing mission demands remains a challenge for the Department of Defense (DoD), open frameworks are emerging as a powerful solution. As opposed to traditional, “closed” systems, this new, modular and horizontal approach makes adding, upgrading, and swapping components easier, providing missions with immensely more flexibility, speed, and agility. 

In traditional, closed architectures, the services that support mission applications are tightly connected, both with each other and to the underlying technologies themselves, making it challenging for missions to quickly remove unnecessary components and replace them with new and more relevant ones. 

With approaches that promote loose coupling and modularization, the underlying technologies are abstracted from the services, enabling independent parties to create different components that can all evolve at different rates.This allows missions to employ services and applications in a “plug-and-play” fashion and leverage the most powerful new technologies.

Another limitation of traditional systems is that, because of their reliance on proprietary or highly customized interfaces, adding in new technologies and reusing capabilities across different mission areas is difficult. Open application programming interfaces (APIs), on the other hand, enable organizations to bring in any technology or application. 

Lastly, in traditional systems, the concept of operations (CONOPS), business logic, and data models were all hardwired in, and could only support the program of record. Open frameworks allow organizations to orchestrate mission workflows across the enterprise. Because all of the components within the framework are abstracted from the framework itself, they can be easily extended to new mission threads. The idea behind this horizontal, enterprise view is as the mission evolves, the framework evolves with it. 

The ultimate success of open frameworks, though, depends not only on these technical principles but also on the right combination of mission experts, software architects, and users. With productive and consistent collaboration between these three groups throughout the entire process -- from creating a common vision to continuous prototyping -- defense organizations will be able to build more adaptive frameworks that better accommodate rapid technology insertion and intelligently service the mission at hand.

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