Cross-compatibility is an essential feature of equipment and systems designed for use on the battlefield. Without this trait, one product or another may be well suited to the fulfillment of specific functions, but in the end may serve to undermine the broader goals of the mission at hand for want of its use in combination with other tools or software. For that reason, open standards are the driving force in defence technology.

“In the past, if a system integrator wanted a specific function – say a new target acquisition algorithm – you would buy a box and bolt it on,” says David Jedynak, chief technology officer at Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions (CWDS). “In the open standards space you must use building blocks that are well supported by the industrial base and have standard connections. With those standards, instead of buying a box you can buy a board for that function and insert it into a vehicle with open standards topology.”

“In defence, you need computing power, storage and networks, but they must be fit for the battlefield,” he adds. “You have to consider what the technology does, where it has to be used and what its pedigree is. All of those are more challenging than in other markets.”

Upgrade the acquisition process

Curtiss-Wright is a leading supplier of boards and systems designed to be compliant with the OpenVPX standard (VITA 65), and understands the open architecture philosophy well. It supplies systems to naval, aerospace and ground defence markets with a product range that reaches from managing the flow of liquids on nuclear-powered submarines to stabilizing weapons systems on armoured tanks. For the US air force, for example, the Defense Solutions division supplies key embedded computing technologies, sensors, control equipment – and boards.

With the C4ISR/EW Modular Open Suite of Standards (CMOSS) and SensorOpen System Architecture (SOSA) Technical Standard being supported by three services in the US military, individual boards can be inserted into a chassis on a vehicle, making technology refresh much simpler and cost-effective.

“With a slot, you can ignore a whole lot of things,” says Jedynak. “For instance, you don’t need to worry about environmental re-testing for individual components because all of that is handled at the chassis level. It makes it much quicker to bring new capability into the field.”

“The adoption of these standards is technically great,” says Jedynak. “It saves on size and weight of components, and you gain power efficiency, too.

“The technology side is easy, but the acquisition side is more challenging,” he notes. “In buying a blade, you need to have the right chassis and backplane, the right power supply and everything else around it. So, there needs to be more and better collaboration between the parties who supply different components and that is a hard shift in mindset.”

Step by step

While not suggesting a complete cultural shift, Jedynak stresses the need for a change in how parties in the chain of acquisition communicate and collaborate.

“The goal is to reach a situation where a defence organisation can look for a new technology, such as new battle command software, and acquire that one blade in the knowledge that it will fit all of its platforms,” he explains. “Say it needs an upgrade to address a specific threat, then open standards such as CMOSS and SOSA make the technology side much easier, which enables a better and faster way to get upgrades to the battlefield.

“What goes with that, however, is a redrawing of the lines that determine who provides the chassis, the slots and the blades. To achieve the necessary change in mindset, we need to ensure that the acquisition community has confidence in the standards, and help people understand that the acquisition process needs to evolve.”

Shifts in mindset do not come easily in the defence sector. Nevertheless, Jedynak is confident that the right standards are in place now and that the advantages they bring will draw all parties together around a common goal.

“As CTO, I have learned that the technology aspect is only 10% of the challenge,” he says. “The rest is getting people to change how they behave. It’s hard to get people to take a quantum leap, but the change we need to happen has begun and it’s just a matter of time.”