The Beauty of COTS

By Ron Sherman | January 1, 2000
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The percentage of funds allocated for avionics in U.S. military aircraft programs has grown to enormous proportions. Fortunately, with help from the 1995 reforms in defense acquisitions, a fundamental change exists in the way the avionics industry and the military cooperate to provide state-of-the-art technology at lower costs.

The answer is simple: embrace fast-changing commercial avionics technology to fit military requirements. However, this has meant an about-face in the thinking of a huge military bureaucracy and change in the commercial avionics industry’s development and management methodology.

VIA Honeywell

Many commercial avionics suppliers, including Honeywell, Rockwell Collins and AlliedSignal, have adopted this change. Honeywell’s Versatile Integrated Avionics (VIA) is a mature, flexible, general purpose processor developed for the commercial airline market. VIA has direct applications for military aircraft and offers a commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) solution. In fact, the COTS way of doing business in the military avionics area has become standard for both the industry and the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD).

VIA is an advanced product based on an integrated modular avionics design for the Boeing 777 widebody airliner. According to Honeywell, "For military applications, VIA contains a data transfer module for Mil-Std-1553B busing with provisions for operations either as a bus controller, backup bus controller or remote terminal. The design uses an open system architecture fundamental to tailoring for military aircraft interface.

DoD looks closely at new communication, navigation, surveillance/air traffic management (CNS/ATM) avionics equipment, recognizing the need to be compliant to worldwide access for its aircraft. In this context, Honeywell has Future Air Navigation (FANS-1) software, which has been certified for commercial use, but also fits the requirement for the Global Air Traffic Management (GATM) program.

Honeywell’s Dale Broomhall, a government avionics product manager, explains. "The military began to commercialize its avionics products as early as 1993. It has taken several years for avionics supplier and military contract officers to communicate with each other, and now, each side understands the process. Military requirements are performance based."

The avionics industry and military employ one vital acquisition tool, the IDIQ (indefinite development, indefinite quantity) contract, established by the U.S. Air Force. A similar program is underway in the U.S. Navy. It enables the service to order off-the-shelf avionics from suppliers on an "as needed" basis. In fact, both services have established a Website ordering system. The IDIQ contracts allow military program offices to be more flexible, and the contracts can be updated periodically.

Essentially, avionics suppliers like Honeywell work directly with prime military airframers, or, as part of an integrated product team (IPT) to supply complete avionics suites for new aircraft or update programs. The company is updating tactical and navigation avionics in F-18, F-15, and F-16 programs through Lockheed Martin and Boeing as prime contractors. It also is on the Lockheed Martin and Boeing teams for the Joint Strike Fighter and provides liquid crystal displays (LCDs) and processors for the F-18 E/F Super Hornet.

Other Honeywell programs include GATM modifications ordered by the Air Force for tankers and transports, as well as the bomber fleet. Tactical aircraft, according to Honeywell, will be updated as early as two to five years from now.

Of course, any military mod programs depend on the budget process. The latest, and possibly the last GATM upgrade contract will be for the C-130 tactical airlift fleet. Some larger upgrade programs could take five to 10 years to complete.

Honeywell is bullish on new commercial digital display programs for the military. "Commercial based multifunctional displays are becoming common for ground requirements," says Broomhall. "The future extends beyond airborne applications to include ground infrastructure-based programs.

"The military expects a great deal of commonality and performance at lower costs," Broomhall states.

AlliedSignal TCAS and EGPWS

AlliedSignal, soon to be merged with Honeywell, provides products to the military focused on flight safety, including its Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems (TCAS) and Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning Systems (EGPWS). Commercializing military avionics, notes Rod Sigle, AlliedSignal’s director, government sales and marketing, "reduces life cycle costs while providing the latest technology…It enabled us to capture business in partnership with other avionics manufacturers and prime airframers."

Sigle refers to such programs as enhanced TCAS on the KC-135 upgrade program as a sub to Rockwell Collins; safety systems on the Joint Primary Aircraft Trainer (JPATS) as a sub to Raytheon; avionics upgrade on Boeing’s program for the T-38; and enhanced TCAS for the C-130 and C-17 upgrade programs. AlliedSignal is well into the IDIQ program for COTS to the military.

AlliedSignal provides flat panel (LCD) displays to upgrade U.S. Navy CH-46 helicopters. "We are migrating out of CRT displays," says Sigle. "We will produce only flat panel liquid crystal technology for MFDs, due to the military’s preference for LCDs."

In addition, AlliedSignal is integrating its safety products into color MFDs produced by other avionics companies. "We are also involved in an effort to develop ground-based, as well as airborne VHF data links," he adds.

The Navy primarily is interested in EGPWS, as well as communications and the navigation family of radio products based on airborne data links for large airliners. These are VHF-based, as well as multimode receiver (MMR) products, including an upgrade for T-34 trainers, Navy JPATS and the recently completed EA-6B upgrade.

AlliedSignal sees little avionics acquisition for new military platforms but many opportunities to upgrade older aircraft. The company says it will focus on product support, modernization, large hazard avoidance systems, satellite navigation and integrated MFDs.

"The use of advanced TCAS technology is adding military capability to advanced formation flying and facilitating low altitude flight," says Sigle. "There’s a duality component to TCAS when integrated with IFF [identification friend or foe] transponder codes that link aircraft flying in formation.

"At the same time, EGPWS technology has enabled some exploration into very low altitude missions," Sigle adds. "We’re also looking at future software modifications to enable TCAS and EGPWS to be utilized in the military helicopter market."

Sigle says the military, thirsty for data on commercial technology, has its eye on future mandates and requirements, as well as equipment commonality and reliability. "We regularly brief and exchange information with military program managers on this subject. They are attuned to what is going on in the commercial market."

Rockwell Collins

GPS systems enhance position-dependent military functions such as laser targeting, gun laying, anti-jamming and flight management. By integrating flight deck communications, navigation and displays with mission and airspace requirements, companies like Collins can supply commercial-based systems to satisfy military requirements. It also is a leading supplier of data link terminals to the military.

"The underlying trends driving the military avionics market, and therefore, driving the future of our military avionics products is modular (open) architecture of the system," says Dave Decker, a government systems manager at Collins. He notes that the F-22 avionics suite comprises products from several avionics manufacturers.

Another underlying trend is digitalization of the battlefield. "Data links are most important. High-speed data links are nearly impossible to be jammed, are very accurate, and provide pilots with greater combat mission awareness," Decker says. Other trends include joint tactical radio systems (JTRS) technology for all services. "This is a significant trend in communications. Open architecture for all radio systems help the military in inter-functionality," Decker adds.

Half of Collins’ government business is GATM (CSN/ATM) based. "Systems we developed for commercial and business aircraft are being tailored for and provided to the military," Decker says. "The military favors systems that can be easily updated. This is technology tied to FAA requirements."

Rockwell Collins currently is updating the flight deck on the CH-47 helicopter and the avionics suites of the KC-135 fleet to meet GATM standards. As GATM requirements unfold, the company says these systems can be updated. Upgrades for the JSTARS and KC-10 tanker/airlifter also are underway with Collins equipment. And Collins is working with Sikorsky Aircraft to provide new avionics for the H-60 military fleet.

Butch Ardis, Technical Advisor for Avionics Architecture in the Engineering Directorate for the U.S. Air Force’s Aeronautical Laboratory, puts the acquisition of COTS technology into perspective. He says there are cases in which transport aircraft will utilize entire commercial avionics suites, however, there is no case where such products would satisfy all fighter aircraft requirements.

"We’re finding ways to take advantage of lower funding levels by utilizing commercial based processors," he adds. "What we use, however, depends on the program. It is all driven by digital technology."

Here is where IDIQ helps. "We’re in constant communications with our suppliers as our need to learn more about rapidly advancing technology and technology obsolescence," says Ardis. To satisfy operational requirements, he says, "Some platforms and systems are so complex they take an inordinate amount of time to develop, test and produce. Now, we try to come up with flexible requirements for incremental capabilities. This is called evolutionary acquisition."

The U.S. military’s largest problem is affordability; avionics costs eat up funding, and the military’s capability to buy new technology is becoming more acute. "We must insure our acquisition strategy will have reduced ownership costs," Ardis emphasizes.

The U.S. Navy’s avionics directorate at the Naval Air Systems says the same. It seeks common solutions through the use of COTS. The focus is on flight safety systems including TCAS, flight recorders, the Mode S transponder and EGPWS. NavAir also seeks to upgrade Navy flight decks with active matrix liquid crystal displays. The Navy even looks into fitting state-of-the-art commercial avionics technology in the AV-8B and F-18 fighters.

Like its sister services, the Navy is migrating away from the Mil Standard acquisition strategy to available commercial technology. This new strategy, it says, provides solutions for very low costs, greater reliability and functionality. Most important is the total life cycle cost of any product purchased through COTS. It is the most effective solution to satisfying operational requirements.

The NavAir managers have welcomed acquisition reform. They say working with industry on commercial technology products actually frees them to look into the best solution from a business and product point of view in a timely manner. And Navy program managers also have embraced the use of commercial avionics technology to move their programs along faster and at lower costs.

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