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.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: In providing comments on this report, the agency partially concurred with this recommendation, but has not yet taken any direct actions necessary to implement it. In its official response to this recommendation, DOD agreed on the value of implementing an open systems approach, but cited existing department policies and guidance which it believes are sufficient for the military departments to implement open systems architecture in acquisition programs. DOD also noted in its comments that the decision to implement an open systems approach in a particular program's acquisition strategy is made on a case-by-case basis based on a number of considerations to include mission, threat, vulnerability assessment, operating environment, and business case. In addition, DOD Instruction 5000.02 adds emphasis to the use of open systems architecture and it addresses the additional supporting element of intellectual property rights acquisition for a program's life cycle. We agree that an open systems approach should be informed by these considerations, and we also cited both OSD and service-level policies and guidance governing an open systems approach in our report. However, a number of Air Force and Army unmanned aircraft programs missed opportunities to adopt an open systems approach early in their life cycles, but did try to do so later on when it became more costly and complex.

    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

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: In providing comments on this report, the agency partially concurred with this recommendation, but has not yet taken any actions necessary to implement it. In its official comments on this recommendation, the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Acquisition) indicated that DOD believes the appropriate venue to assess program implementation of open systems architecture is through the existing Milestone Decision Process. During this process, programs are assessed against their mission needs, operating environment, threats, vulnerabilities, and business case. According to DOD, an open systems architecture is a means of implementation that is addressed in a program's Acquisition Strategy and Systems Engineering Plan documents, which are assessed at multiple decision reviews and used throughout the life cycle of the program. Issues and mitigation strategies, which may include open systems architecture, are considered by the Milestone Decision Authority and approved for implementation in the overall context of program affordability, execution, and risk. In addition, the Office of the Secretary of Defense published an Open Business Model in March 2014 in which it encouraged the reuse of program assets (such as software), noting the creation of a forum for program and industry officials for posting applications available for reuse, and plans for the department to capture reuse metrics to articulate cost savings. We continue to believe that it is important for DOD to monitor its implementation of open systems to determine if the services are embracing this acquisition strategy.

    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

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: In providing comments on this report, the agency partially concurred with this recommendation, but has not yet taken any direct actions necessary to implement it. DOD noted that program implementation of an open systems approach should be assessed through its existing milestone decision process. DOD further noted that acquisition strategies and systems engineering plans, which document a program's open systems strategy, are assessed at multiple decision reviews and are considered by the milestone decision authority in the overall context of the program. We agree that the milestone decision process is the appropriate venue to review programs' open systems strategies. However, as discussed in our report, we found that OSD does not have adequate insight of the extent to which an open systems approach is being used by weapon acquisition programs and thus cannot have reasonable assurance of the widespread use of an open systems approach across the department.

    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

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: In providing comments on this report, the agency partially concurred with this recommendation, but has not yet taken any direct actions necessary to implement it. In addition, DOD did not explain its position or what, if anything, it would do in response. DOD did not comment on whether the military services and their program offices have sufficient capabilities with respect to open systems. As we discussed in our report, we found that OSD does not know if program offices have the systems engineering expertise required for effective implementation of an open systems approach or if additional expertise is needed. To address this possible gap, we continue to believe that the Air Force, Army, and Navy should 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.

    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

 

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