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Top HASC Dem Raises Concerns on Open Architecture, Prototyping

Requiring open architecture in new defense systems as mandated in an acquisition overhaul bill introduced last week by the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) chairman is a “one size fits all” approach that may slow down the acquisitions process, according to a Democratic committee aide.

Whether the Pentagon already has enough flexibility to use open architecture or should be mandated to use it more often is emerging as a likely sticking point between committee Democrats and Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), who made it a centerpiece provision of his overhaul bill.

Standard interfaces between a platform such as an airframe and system components would allow for components to be incrementally added or upgraded throughout the life of the platform, saving money and increasing interoperability, the bill said.

But Thornberry’s approach to open systems would leave the services without sufficient flexibility “to use open systems when they need to, and not use it when they don’t,” the HASC Democratic staff member told Bloomberg BNA in an e-mail.

“Open systems isn’t a panacea or a magic wand; it is simply one design approach that isn’t applicable in all cases,” the staff member said. “By adding mandates and certifications regarding open system design, it will just clog up an already painfully slow acquisition process.”

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the committee said last week that he would not co-sponsor Thornberry’s bill, but hasn’t yet specified which provisions he finds objectionable.

In an e-mail, HASC majority spokesperson Claude Chafin said that while the Defense Department (DOD) can already design open systems, “the implementation of that architecture across the Department is spotty.”

“The Chairman’s proposal pushes DOD to prioritize open systems to ensure the military can more rapidly field new capabilities in the future,” Chafin said.

The DOD's use of open architecture has been “inconsistent” and “fragmented into multiple architectures,” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments Research Fellow Katherine Blakeley told Bloomberg BNA in a March 24 e-mail.

The open architecture provisions are “underwhelming,” Dentons LLC Partner Jessica Abrahams told Bloomberg BNA March 23.

The problem is that the bill is fundamentally based on weapons systems, which do not fit the market of high-tech companies, Abrahams said. The government acquisition cycle also is so long that it is not conducive to the way high-tech firms view innovation, she said.

The focus on open architecture could discourage some firms from pursuing contracts, especially large primes, because it will no longer give them a monopoly over a weapons system's upgrades, Abrahams added.

The DOD's press office did not respond to requests for comment. However, at a March 22 HASC hearing, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said DOD objects to some aspects of the bill without mentioning any specific provisions.

“In the current draft, there are some things that are problematic for us, so I'm also hopeful that we can continue to work with you on your proposals to ensure that DOD has the flexibility needed to apply the principles in your work to addressing all the diverse acquisition challenges we have to solve for our war fighters,” Carter said.

The DOD already can authorize prototyping, the Democratic staff member said, and the proposal adds bureaucracy to the process. It would restrict prototyping by adding time and funding limits and require each service to create a management layer to supervise prototypes, the staff member said.

The requirements add to new prototyping authority in the fiscal 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that haven't been implemented yet and give the DOD new reprogramming authority the appropriations committees have not approved, the staff member added.

Chafin said the bill provides flexible funding that the services do not have to rapidly prototype emerging technologies or respond to threats. It also sets service-level management controls over funding so it isn't misused or diverted to other purposes.

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