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10 Procurement Improvements for Greater Interoperability

How to purchase survivable communications for modern weapons systems.

Defense leaders need to adopt and embrace new acquisition approaches for communications solutions that are scalable, interoperable and easily integrated into modern weapons systems.

More than ever, today’s defense mission success relies on data-sharing across domains, nodes and warfighters. Global threats are increasingly prevalent and complex, and defeating them depends on reliable information exchange. The exponential growth of sensor-generated data is promising but only if the data can be properly shared with those who need it. But because stovepiped platforms and systems gather disparate volumes of data, it is difficult to make sense of it all.

A few key threat environment trends necessitate communications procurement change. First, electronic warfare systems are now ubiquitous, erasing what was previously a barrier to entry for adversarial actors. Second, increasingly common conflicts that span simultaneous areas of responsibility require international coalition assets to cooperate, which further stresses the need for communications interoperability. Third, supply chain pressures remain in flux and require robust, flexible procurement strategies to ensure resilience. Fourth, global commercial communication infrastructure, such as that of 5G, is growing and evolving rapidly, and although that presents opportunities in potential defense threat environments, the reality is that modern conflicts may not occur where such robust infrastructure is present. Finally, and critically, due to increased tensions around the world, the threat of a near-term conflict necessitating all-domain collaboration is realistic and potentially imminent.

Several failure modes have plagued acquisition of communications solutions in the past. For example, the current acquisition process, called Joint Capability Integration and Development System, while often effective for long-duration acquisitions of standalone systems, baits acquirers into procuring solutions that work best for a given platform’s requirement. But communications gaps are often found when separately procured platforms need to interoperate. Examples of suboptimal communications procurement include the interoperability gap between the F-22’s and F-35’s tactical data links, the troubled Joint Tactical Radio System program’s attempt to acquire one-size-fits-all software-defined radios, and the optimistic but ultimately unfunded Joint Aerial Layer Network concept.

As the Defense Department seeks to define and acquire the next big communications infrastructure, called Combined Joint All-Domain Command and Control (CJADC2, or simply JADC2), a more pressing time for change could not be clearer. And yet, as Rep. Pat Ryan (D-NY) recently said, some members of Congress are “concerned service-led initiatives associated with JADC2 will be insufficient to provide the joint integration that is urgently required.”

Defense Department acquisition leaders can deliver transformative changes that empower the military with advanced, interoperable and secure communications solutions.  U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Ethan Robert Jones
Defense Department acquisition leaders can deliver transformative changes that empower the military with advanced, interoperable and secure communications solutions. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Ethan Robert Jones

We have ways to acquire interoperable military communications, however. By acknowledging the current state of affairs and overcoming the limitations of their current approaches, Defense Department acquisition leaders can deliver transformative changes that enhance the acquisition process and empower the military with advanced, interoperable and secure communications solutions. Below I recommend key steps to transform future acquisitions and strengthen our nation’s defense capabilities.

1. Establish a joint/international enterprise vision: By establishing a common vision, defense leaders ensure a cohesive approach and foster innovation across the industry. This vision must be set at the “Tier 0” level, meaning it cannot be an every-platform-for-itself approach. It must be overarching. It must be coordinated across services and aligned nations.

2. Procure through communications project element (PE)/project office (PO): This recommendation differs from a common failure mode, which is to procure through the platform’s prime contractors. This approach enables defense leaders to obtain the best price while avoiding costly prime contractor passthrough costs or suboptimal prime or subcontractor partnerships. It also promotes ongoing competition for the latest technology and ensures alignment with cross-stakeholder requirements.

3. Align the PE/PO to service the transition customer stakeholder community: Such alignment ensures defense leaders that the requirements and mission support for combatant commands are incorporated into the acquisition process, thus improving coordination with research and development organizations and ensuring a coherent approach in line with joint and international enterprise vision.

4. Acknowledge that no one-size-fits-all communications system is viable: Recognizing the lack of a universal data link system helps defense leaders avoid unsuccessful attempts to develop a single panacea. Instead, focus on different solutions for different platforms and operational concepts aligned to the common vision.

5. Bake in gateways, translators and tunnels into the enterprise vision: These Rosetta Stone “glueware” solutions represent a key opportunity to bridge gaps. They should be planned into the overall vision described in recommendation #1 and acquired across a number of platforms. Rather than addressing these gaps post-platform procurement by “sprinkling on” aggregated enterprise translators, such as the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node, I recommend baking in both aggregated and disaggregated gateways and translators into future architectures early in the planning process.

6. Define open standards: Defining clear and unambiguous open standards promotes interoperability, competition and scalability. Planning for and following through on acquisition of open standards solutions is critical to enabling open architectures that can leverage the best-of-breed components with well-defined interfaces.

7. Ensure open standards development is an inclusive process, at the right classification level, void of industry-shaping: The standards must be collaboratively developed with cross-service government and industry participation. This inclusivity fosters industry alignment, encourages iterative innovation and enables informed decision-making based on modern threats.

8. Bake in scalability: Plan for scalability future-proofs solutions while ensuring that communication systems can expand as the number of nodes and devices grows, as they will when constructs like Internet of Things proliferate the future warfighting landscape.

9. Plan for future market disruption: By anticipating future market disruptions, defense leaders can future-proof solutions and minimize the need for extensive and costly rework during the procurement process.

10. Plan that all future nodes and platforms have some form of communications: The days of “alone and unafraid” nodes have come and gone. Assuming every weapon, drone or sensor will one day be a communications node lays the foundation for incorporating innovative ideas and emerging technologies while avoiding costly future rework.

Defense acquisition leaders have a tremendous opportunity to support our national defense posture with improved practices. Adopting these 10 steps promotes joint and international collaboration, fosters innovation, interoperability and scalability, and future-proofs the warfighters’ next-generation communications solutions. These improvements will lead to increased mission success when it is desperately needed.


Scott Rosebush is the Cubic Corporation vice president and general manager of Secure Communications.

The opinions expressed in this article are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of AFCEA International.

Global threats are becoming more common and complex and defeating them requires reliable information exchange. Credit: Jason Wells/Shutterstock
Global threats are becoming more common and complex and defeating them requires reliable information exchange. Credit: Jason Wells/Shutterstock
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