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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Under Secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, implementation directive for Better Buying Power 3.0, which was issued in April 2015, stated that DOD needed to continue its efforts to ensure that weapon system designs are modular and that the government is in a position to control all the relevant interfaces. Program managers were reminded to apply open systems approaches in product design wherever feasible and cost-effective to enable competition for upgrades, facilitate reuse across the joint force, ease technology insertion, and aide adoption of incrementally upgraded software. To facilitate greater use of modular open system architectures (MOSA), the Under Secretary tasked DOD's MOSA initiative team to, among other things, collect data on ongoing efforts to apply open systems approaches to programs and to develop a set a modularity technical enablers. The Fiscal Year 2015 and 2017 National Defense Authorization Acts also included requirements for DOD to plan for and use MOSA on weapon systems. An official from DOD's Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Systems Engineering stated that acquisition strategies for emerging systems reviewed throughout 2016 and the first part of 2017 clearly identify how programs are addressing MOSA across the acquisition life cycle.

    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: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Defense (DOD) partially concurred with our recommendation. According to an official in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, the department is putting greater emphasis on using modular, open system architectures on weapon acquisition programs as a result of GAO's work and Congressional requirements contained in the Acquisition Agility Act (Section 805 of the Fiscal Year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act). The department has not developed metrics to track program's implementation of an open systems approach because, according to the DOD official, open systems is a complex issue and DOD has not identified what to measure to track its effectiveness. Instead, DOD is currently working to identify the elements needed to properly implement an open systems approach. As more programs incorporate these elements in their acquisition approach, the department may be better positioned to track open systems implementation.

    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: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Defense (DOD) partially concurred with our recommendation. According to an official in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, the department is putting greater emphasis on using modular, open system architectures on weapon acquisition programs as a result of GAO's work and Congressional requirements contained in the Acquisition Agility Act (Section 805 of the Fiscal Year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act). The department has not developed metrics to track programs' implementation of an open systems approach and therefore the services have not reported on their progress of using open systems at key acquisition milestones. According to the DOD official, open systems is a complex issue and DOD has not identified what to measure to track its effectiveness. Instead, DOD is currently working to identify the elements needed to properly implement an open systems approach. As more programs incorporate these elements in their acquisition approach, the department may be better positioned to track open systems implementation.

    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: The Department of Defense (DOD) partially concurred with our recommendation. A DOD official noted that the department's understanding of an open systems approach has evolved since our recommendation was made and each military service has established working groups and communities of practice related to the implementation of a modular open systems approach. In addition, the official noted that Defense Acquisition University (DAU) curriculum addresses both open systems approaches and intellectual property, and that its course on open systems approaches was updated in 2018. DOD Human Capital Initiatives officials also indicated that DOD would be conducting a competency assessment of the the engineering workforce across the department, which would provide an indication of the open system capabilities at the service and program office level. However, that assessment has yet to be conducted and therefore it remains unclear the extent to which capability gaps exist.

    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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