Defense Acquisitions:

DOD Efforts to Adopt Open Systems for Its Unmanned Aircraft Systems Have Progressed Slowly

GAO-13-651: Published: Jul 31, 2013. Publicly Released: Jul 31, 2013.

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What GAO Found

An open systems approach, which includes a modular design and standard interfaces, allows components of a product (like a computer) to be replaced easily. This allows the product to be refreshed with new, improved components made by a variety of suppliers. Designing weapons as open systems offers significant repair, upgrade, and competition benefits that could translate to millions of dollars in savings as the weapons age.

The services vary in their use of open systems on the Department of Defense's (DOD) 10 largest unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). The Navy used an open systems approach at the start of development for the air vehicle, ground control station, and payloads (i.e., cameras and radar sensors) for three of its four current and planned UAS and anticipates significant efficiencies. For example, Navy and contractor officials expect the Small Tactical UAS to be able to integrate at least 32 payloads developed by 24 manufacturers, some in a matter of days or months rather than years as previous programs experienced. Conversely, none of the Army or Air Force UAS programs initially implemented an open systems approach, relying instead on prime contractors to upgrade and modernize the UAS. The Army is now developing an open ground control station for each of its three legacy UAS programs. Only one of the Air Force's three UAS programs plans to implement an open systems approach on fielded aircraft.

Policies and leadership can help drive DOD's acquisition community to use an open systems approach, but challenges exist. Although DOD and the services have policies that direct programs to use an open systems approach, the Navy is the only service that largely followed the policy when developing its UAS. In addition, while new open systems guidance, tools, and training are being developed, DOD is not tracking the extent to which programs are implementing this approach or if programs have the requisite expertise to implement the approach. Navy UAS program officials told us they relied on technical experts within Naval Air Systems Command to help develop an open systems approach for their programs. Until DOD ensures that the services are incorporating an open systems approach from the start of development and programs have the requisite open systems expertise, it will continue to miss opportunities to increase the affordability of its acquisition programs.

Why GAO Did This Study

For fiscal year 2014, DOD requested over $11 billion to modify existing weapon systems--more than 10 percent of its total procurement budget. Traditionally, DOD has acquired proprietary systems, which are costly to upgrade and limit opportunities for competition. Through its Better Buying Power initiatives, DOD has re-emphasized the use of an open systems approach as a way to reduce costs through effective competition.

GAO was asked to examine DOD's progress in implementing an open systems approach for UAS acquisitions. This report addresses (1) the characteristics and benefits of an open systems approach, (2) DOD's efforts in implementing an open systems approach for its UAS portfolio, and (3) challenges, if any, DOD is encountering in implementing this approach. GAO analyzed relevant literature and DOD policies on open systems and interviewed agency and private industry officials to understand how open systems have been implemented and their benefits. In addition, GAO assessed acquisition documents and questionnaire responses from 10 current and planned UAS programs to determine their open system strategies.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that the Air Force and Army implement their open systems policies, DOD develop metrics to track open systems implementation, and the services report on these metrics and address any gaps in expertise. DOD partially concurred and stated that its current policies and processes are sufficient. GAO maintains additional action is needed.

For more information, contact Michael J. Sullivan at (202) 512-4841 or sullivanm@gao.gov.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To improve the department's implementation of an open systems approach for UAS and other weapon acquisition programs, as well as its visibility of open systems implementation and program office expertise, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretaries of the Air Force and Army to implement their open systems policies by including an open systems approach in their acquisition strategies.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To improve the department's implementation of an open systems approach for UAS and other weapon acquisition programs, as well as its visibility of open systems implementation and program office expertise, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics to define appropriate metrics to track programs' implementation of an open systems approach.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretaries of the Air Force, Army, and Navy to require their acquisition programs to include open systems metrics developed by the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics in their systems engineering plans, track progress in meeting these metrics, and report their progress to the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics at key acquisition milestones.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretaries of the Air Force, Army, and Navy to assess their respective service-level and program office capabilities relating to an open systems approach and work with the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Systems Engineering to develop short-term and long-term strategies to address any capability gaps identified. Strategies could include the Navy's cross-cutting approach where a team of a few technical experts within the Naval Air Systems Command could be available to work with program offices, as necessary, to help develop open systems plans.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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