DoD’s helicopter modernization program a testbed for open architecture

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Defense Department acquisition leaders have long held out the promise that open systems architectures might be able to help deliver weapons systems that stay within their budgets and adapt to emerging threats as quickly as they need to. But so far, the Pentagon has had a lot of trouble translating that promise into actual results.

A program to modernize the military’s helicopters might finally get DoD over that hump.

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Defense Department acquisition leaders have long held out the promise that open systems architectures might be able to help deliver weapons systems that stay within their budgets and adapt to emerging threats as quickly as they need to. But so far, the Pentagon has had a lot of trouble translating that promise into actual results.

A program to modernize the military’s helicopters might finally get DoD over that hump.

With its Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program — a multi-service endeavor to replace an inventory of helicopters that has been stressed to the breaking point by 13 years of intense combat — DoD would very much like to avoid a repeat of its experience with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, whose 9 million lines of exquisite, purpose- built software code helped make it the most expensive weapons program in history.

For the helicopter program, officials are aiming for a family of systems that share not just a common hardware platform, but also make use of software modules that can be written once, reused many times across various existing and future helicopters, and can be easily swapped out when new technological innovations come along — all without the need to perform an expensive redesign of an entire aircraft.

One reason the Pentagon has had difficulty in moving open architectures from concept to reality is that its acquisition process is structured to build its platforms one-by-one. The helicopter program made for an attractive target to start learning lessons about how to change that acquisition culture, since it already was structured to build a common family of systems.

“It’s different this time,” said Dan Bailey, who’s pushing the effort as the director of the Joint Multi-Role Program at the Army Missile Research Development and Engineering Center. “We’ve been after this for several decades, and we’ve struggled because it takes multiple programs over long periods of time to learn the different business practices and the processes that go into implementing open standards. The question has been how to move forward.”

Program officials decided the answer was take things one step at a time. The ultimate objective is a single joint technical architecture that all airborne software systems will one day plug into, but they want to use the helicopter program to teach DoD how do that sort of thing. So in the short term, they’ll take baby steps, demonstrating technologies and business processes as they go.

For example, Bailey said it’s already clear that the new helicopter family will need to use a fiber optic bus to move data from one aircraft system to another.

“We have to learn what that means to us from an architecture perspective and from a modeling and tools perspective,” Bailey said during a recent panel organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We don’t want to learn what fiber means to us in the first iteration of FVL and then have to change it in every subsequent iteration. We want to learn what we need to do before we build the first helicopters. In a much shorter period of time, we can do this through science and technology with fewer resources and learn as we go, so that the first iteration of future vertical lift has the standards, processes and tools we need at the very beginning.”

Results encouraging, so far

Officials within the FVL effort have launched four separate four-month projects within a construct they’ve termed the Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrator, which is designed to prove to DoD itself that it can turn the idea of open standards into real-world military utility.

DoD tasked vendors to write computer programs called “fusion applications,” meaning they should be able to work across multiple aviation platforms without the developers knowing what the target platforms actually were.

And the results so far have been encouraging, said Dr. Thomas Dubois, who helped lead one of the demonstration contracts the military awarded to his company, Boeing. His vendor team, which also includes Sikorsky, initially suspected that writing software code that can interoperate across multiple platforms would be a heavy lift.

The vendors won’t know whether they succeeded until the military finishes its tests, but they decided to test their own fusion app against three different platforms, Boeing’s Apache helicopter, the newer Sikorsky Raider and another project that’s still in Boeing’s own internal developmental process.

“We wanted to cover the legacy, the emergent, and the future, all with basically one application, and then ask how much the software needs to change to get it to run from one to the other. To the credit of the standard, we really didn’t have to make many changes,” Rider said. “It’s the equivalent of getting somebody to write an app that can run on your iPhone, your Windows phone and your Android device with almost no changes.”

The time is now

Joseph Riter, a senior technology manager at Honeywell, another vendor selected for the technology demonstration, said his company has had a similar experience in building programs to the new set of open standards.

“What we demonstrated and validated is not just that we can conform to a standard, it really is a concept of an ecosystem, and that everything can work in the system,” Riter said. “What we’ve really achieved here in this first exercise is getting a glimpse of whether we can do procurement against a model- based methodology. And I think the first report out is that, yeah, we can.”

The demonstrations probably will not produce a completely open-architected helicopter that’s ready to be fielded by the military within the next few years. Whatever payoffs come from the experiment will take a couple decades to realize, given the lead time required to build any new airframe for military purposes.

But Cmdr. William Hargreaves, who is in charge of modernizing the Navy’s fleet of H-60 helicopters, said now is the time to start.

“It shouldn’t take me two years to defeat a new threat,” he said. “If somebody else has already developed a solution, it shouldn’t take me two years to contract for, design for, integrate and field that solution. We’ve got to be able to do this faster and more furiously.”

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