GAO urges open system development, finds it lacking in UAVs

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The Government Accountability Office is again urging the Defense Department to adopt an open system approach to weapons system development even while acknowledging that the Pentagon would have to undertake extra work to do so.

In a July 31 report (.pdf) that specifically addresses development of military unmanned aerial vehicle programs, auditors make a case for open standards coupled with modular system design. That permits the replacement and upgrading of parts, since functionality can be parsed out to components in a loosely coupled system governed by standardized interfaces any manufacturer can build to--meaning that system maintenance need not be dominated by a single manufacturer.

The idea isn't new; in fact, auditors note that DoD guidance on the importance of an open system approach in weapon system electronics dates to 1994 with periodic expansions of its applicability in acquisition guidance and policy issued since then.

The approach does require additional upfront work and possibly cost, auditors say. Developing standards where they don't exist would require defense officials to work with standards organizations several years in advance to ensure they're available at the start of development. In the place of developing standards, the DoD could buy data rights from manufacturers, an initially expensive proposition even if over time the benefits outweigh the initial cost.

When it comes specifically to UAV development, auditors say that of the DoD's 10 largest UAV systems, only three, all developed by the Navy Department, took an open system approach at the start of development.

Two large Air Force UAVs--the Predator and Global Hawk--had language in their planning documents stating that program officials would introduce open system elements later during the lifecycle, a plan that mostly hasn't come to fruition due to Predator's age and fiscal constraints in the Global Hawk program, auditors say. "As a result, the two systems remain largely proprietary and are now facing challenges sustaining and upgrading their systems," they add.

The military does have a common and open ground control station architecture called the UAS Control Segment, the first versions of which it released in 2010. But neither the Predator nor Global Hawk systems are slated to adopt the UCS, and complicating the UCS architecture effort is another ground control architecture the Air Force developed without the involvement of other services or the office of the secretary of defense, auditors say.

The second architecture is complementary to the UCS, Air Force officials told auditors, but plans to field both architectures for the Reaper UAV mean that the ground segment will create additional costs for the DoD, auditors say defense industrial contractors told them. Auditors also note that the Air Force is no longer investing in UCS upgrades.

For more:
- download the report, GAO-13-651 (.pdf)

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