Project Management Institute

New military procurement policy

commercial off-the-shelf (COTS)

Executive Suite


Armen Der Marderosian became group vice president and general manager, in May 1989, of GTE Command, Control and Communications (C3) Systems Sector, a division of GTE Government Systems Corporation (GSC). He directs the corporation's tactical and strategic C3 systems businesses that serve governments, military forces, and commercial organizations worldwide.

As vice president and general manager of GTE Tactical Mobile Subscriber Equipment Division in Taunton, Massachusetts (1985-1988), Mr. Der Marderosian directed the Mobile Subscriber Equipment (MSE program, in addition to managing the Tri-Service Tactical telephone switching programs. In 1979, Mr. Der Marderosian was appointed vice president and general manager of GTE Iran Inc., where he personally led the GTE group's escape from Teheran when the U.S. embassy was seized.

After joining GTE in 1963, Mr. Der Marderosian held positions of increasing responsibility through 1974 when he was selected as a Sloan Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he earned a master's degree in management. He also holds a bachelor of arts degree and a juris doctorate from Suffolk University in Boston, Massachusetts, and is a member of the Massachusetts Bar.

“Commercial off-the-shelf' (COTS) and “non-development item” (NDI) are terms that we in the defense contracting industry are hearing every day. They are the watchwords of a bold new approach our Department of Defense is taking to the acquisition of tactical military systems. The challenge being issued to industry by the government is to find ways to integrate existing components into systems that will meet the rigorous demands of the combat environment.

The Minutemen of 1775 who fought the British at Concord and Lexington were essentially farmers who took their hunting rifles off the shelf…and won the Revolutionary War. Of course, there were a lot of other items used in the war that were not off-the-shelf, such as cannons, warships, and siege machines. But whenever common items, such as rifles, food, clothes, knives, transportation could be used—they were! In many ways, this nation's first military endeavor was primarily COTS; and even this earliest example puts emphasis on the same factors that underlie the promise of COTS today—rapid introduction of technology and reduced cost.

The Commission on Government Procurement, in its 1972 report, concluded that the government should take advantage of the efficiencies offered by the commercial market. Further, in its report, A Quest for Excellence, the President's Blue Ribbon Commission on Defense Management said:

The expanded use of commercial items can apply to a great variety of products and services bought by Department of Defense. These range from personal computers, computer software, and professional services, to a host of non-technical products such as bath towels and steak sauce.

After all, commercial equipment must pass the toughest test of all: acceptance by millions of consumers. And the message has not gone unheeded. There was more COTS hardware and software used in Desert Storm than in any conflict in which this country has ever participated.

M.E formed virtually the entire backbone tactical communications network for Desert Storm

In Command, Control and Communications (C3), application of COTS has been mostly limited to strategic roles of fixed-location needs where the environment can be regulated or conditioned and where special features are not a critical requirement. There have been some tactical applications of COTS, but usually for a very short duration, where them was no other option, or where there was an abundance of the items and their cost was not a major factor—making them throw-away items.

By my definition, COTS for tactical use not only includes items available from the commercial marketplace but also modified products such as commercial computers with special software. It includes NDI products such as previously-developed military items used for new or different purposes and hybrid systems, combining COTS and NDI with newly developed capabilities, all tied together with hi-tech glue.

The apparent eclipse of the Soviet threat will likely result in a greater emphasis on tactical resources to deal with limited conflicts in different parts of the world. These will probably range from small Grenada-type efforts to larger Desert Storm-like actions. The capabilities of our enemies will differ and environments will be diverse, from deserts to mountains to jungles. All of these scenarios, coupled with the duration and intensity of the conflict, will determine the quality, robustness, survivability and feature depth required of our own C3 systems.

Of great significance are the major reductions being made in the DoD budget and the general attitude throughout the country that defense costs, while still important, are now of less priority than other types of expenditures. To be able to meet the operational needs of the future, we, government and industry, will have to find ways to make greater use of COTS, NDI and hybrid systems. This means not only more creativity and ingenuity on the part of the system designers but also a much greater willingness on the part of the planners and users to make the trade-offs necessary to allow their application. I can't help but recall the embarrassment that came when Fortune magazine, commenting on the defense procurement process, described how the military specifications for chocolate chip cookies ran to some 20 pages.

The use of COTS, NDI and hybrid systems to meet military needs is not new to GTE. In the Pacific we use COTS to provide a vast private communications network for our armed forces. At Cheyenne Mountain, a fail-safe system is provided using COTS hardware developed for the banking industry coupled with operational software developed for the military. The satellite-based communications systems developed by GTE to serve private consumer networks are also being used to provide communications for specialized Defense Department needs.

We also apply COTS to tactical requirements. Since the introduction of commercial microprocessors, such as the 68000, we have utilized them in our tactical switching and communications equipment. We are constantly looking for ways to use commercial components and subassemblies whenever they will meet the challenging requirements of our customers. By far the most productive areas for tactical requirements are NDI and hybrid systems. There is a large amount of existing equipment and software that can be used in whole or in part, modified or as is, to meet many of tomorrow's tactical needs.

The GTE-supplied Mobile Subscriber Equipment (MSE) system is probably one of the most successful examples of the hybrid concept. MSE is an integrated system composed of modified and “as is” domestic and foreign NDI systems and several newly developed subsystems, all of which use an array of COTS components. MSE, a $4.2 billion total package firm-fixed-price (FFP) procurement spanning the period 1986 to 2010, not only saved the Army over $3 billion in acquisition cost but was delivered, fielded and accepted in just over 26 months. MSE would not have been possible without the perseverance of General Max Thurmond and Undersecretary Jim Ambrose who insisted that it be acquired as an NDI/COTS system, “warts and all,” and that no changes would be made until after the initial fielding.

… in the first days of the Revolutionary War…two lanterns in the Old North Church signaled the approach of the British Forces. Certainly this was COTS for military C3.

The proof of the concept is in the battle! And for most of today's systems that proof was Desert Storm. A number of contractors brought systems to Southwest Asia that incorporated COTS, NDI or hybrids, and most were successful. GTE was no exception. We had a wide array of such systems, which were highly successful during Desert Storm. By any measure—financial, schedule or performance—MSE, one of the Army's most successful acquisitions, had it's true test under fire in the deserts of Iraq and Kuwait. The concerns that an NDI system could not meet the requirements of the commander in the field were soon put to rest. MSE was the battlefield commander's mobile communications system of choice. Linked to 50 GTE tactical digital voice switches and 20 tactical message switches, MSE formed virtually the entire backbone tactical communications network for Desert Storm. In Congressional debriefings, our Defense Department stated that: MSE performed well [in Desert Storm] adding robustness to corps and division C3, enabling commanders to exercise command and control over great distances. Ease of operation and rapid installation, added flexibility and mobility to MSE.

GTE's Adaptive Programmable Interface Unit, another hybrid product, was used in support of the Army's automated medical system, which was deployed throughout the Persian Gulf. With it's worldwide private satellite and earth station network, GTE provided data, video and voice communications between the Gulf and the rest of the world. During Desert Storm, thousands of U.S. troops were indebted to the Phone-Home program for which GTE provided satellite transmission to MCI. The program provided a telephone link, handling more than 4,000 calls a day between the Persian Gulf and the families of U.S. troops.

There are obviously good and bad points about COTS, NDI and hybrid systems. But one thing is for sure, off-the-shelf does not mean at no cost. In many instances extensive investment is required for the incorporation of COTS, especially in the software area. When dealing with tactical systems that must interoperate with other systems in real time, the system engineering, architecture, and integration demands are also enormous. Just as costly are the testing and logistics activities needed to assure that the COTS product does not have unspecified characteristics that will compromise the integrated system. We also must assure that the approaches of the commercial producer to configuration management and spares provisioning are consistent with our needs.

I began this message by citing the use of COTS in the first days of the Revolutionary War. It was back then that two lanterns in the Old North Church signaled the approach of the British Forces. Certainly this was COTS for military C3. We have come a long way since then. Our C3 systems are much more sophisticated and much more costly. COTS offers great promise. It is up to government and industry, working together, to fulfill that promise.

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JANUARY 1992 pm network



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