The Challenges of COTS: Part 1

DSEI LogoOne of the things you are taught on the Army’s Battlespace Technology MSc is that the Military is no longer the world’s technology trailblazer. It wasn’t that long ago that the defence world’s need for technological advancement drove changes in the way commercial technology did things e.g. GPS which was first used by the US DoD in the 90s.

In the UK at least, that isn’t the case these days. It’s taken a while but I have noticed, over the few years I have been involved in this sector, that the MOD is coming around to this fact (albeit after a lot of harrumphing and newspaper shaking). The new breed of military technology specialists and the DE&S civil servants supporting them are turning more and more to proven commercial technologies to solve military problems.

Health and Usage Monitoring System (HUMS)
This is good news for Microlise, the company I work for. Telematics, or HUMS in military parlance, is a proven commercial tool that brings with it significant benefits. It has been talked about for many years within the defence world, but has yet to attract the necessary funding for a wide scale deployment, rather a series of successful (and some not so) trials and proofs of concept.

These came to a head with the most comprehensive tender I had seen on this subject last year. The fact that it ultimately got shelved for funding reasons is a discussion to be had another time! But as the Army’s budget shrinks and military commanders are being asked to do “more with less” (or as I heard it stated by one General “do the same with less”) it won’t be long before HUMS can’t be put off for much longer.

All this preamble brings me on to the subject of my next couple of blogs where I want to offer up a few thoughts on the challenges of bringing in to service a Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) system.

The Case for COTS
The military already uses COTS across the spectrum, they vary from simple clothing, tools etc right up to high tech systems and sub systems. Some are very simple to implement, if you’re buying a new pair of trainers to issue to your soldiers, then a few simple tests, a bit of commercial to-ing and fro-ing and you can roll them out to the masses. When you start fitting sub-components in to a vehicle system that includes not only the standard vehicle architecture but throw in a secure communications system, a remote weapons station, defensive aide suite and then fill it up with people and high explosives you have a very different beast. You also have a series of considerations you don’t often need to consider in the commercial space.

The tender I referred to earlier was a good example of this and what I’ll use as a guide to my thoughts. In it the Army wanted a HUMS system that was proven in the commercial world, that could be deployed in a relatively short space of time and that was fit for purpose. The briefs received reinforced this, with emphasis placed on a simple commercial solution to be successful. Clearly those boxes were ticked and Microlise embarked on its first full MOD tender.

Expos, Conferences and Showcasing Knowledge
With DSEI 2015 imminent then it is probably worth discussing first of all the need to prepare the ground, so to speak.

Defence shows such as this are expensive to smaller companies, but the investment is most certainly worthwhile. It seems an obvious statement, but the MOD can only ask for what it knows about.

True, they can identify a capability gap and ask industry to fill it, but a comprehensive tender process is only possible with an element of background knowledge. There are many ways that this knowledge is gained, expos and conferences are great examples. Being able to showcase your technology, face to face and demonstrate to the MOD what is available should not be underestimated as a powerful tool.

With HUMS, most military tech professionals are aware of the technology and some have developed a considerable working knowledge. But there is still a lack of understanding of what the technology can and perhaps more importantly, cannot do. Being able to speak to decision makers and give them an idea of these is critical path activity, for both industry and the authority.

I suggested that this is an expensive business and there’s no doubt that this is true (just ask our marketing team or the board who sign off my requests!). You have to be smart in how you approach them.

Shows the size of DSEI have a tendency to swallow up those businesses with smaller stands/booths/displays and if you have not engaged with people and invited them to visit you, then there is a chance your goods won’t be seen. We’ve spent significant man hours talking to people, finding out who the key stakeholders are, aligned ourselves with bigger companies and used our commercial connections to ensure that we make best use of our time at these sorts of events. All I can suggest to other SME businesses is that, if you can’t justify the small fortune for a stand of your own, is to talk to some of the big boys and see if they want to help you out and if nothing else get yourselves down there, get in front of people and let the MOD know what is out there. Having been on that side of the fence I know that it will be appreciated.

Looking Ahead
The release of the ITT I referred to earlier, clearly showed evidence of significant industry engagement and forethought. However it did throw up some significant challenges that, perhaps, with further engagement might have been avoidable. The whole process all led to Microlise learning some valuable lessons that we will certainly be taking forward in to our future bids. In my next blog, I’ll be addressing a few of these key challenges and offering some work arounds, for what they are worth.

Hopefully we’ll see some of you reading this at DSEI 2015.

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