C4ISR Applications: Bridging the COTS-MOTS divide

Jake MacWhirter

COTS hardware in military applications

C4ISR applications (that’s command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) must provide the right people with the right information within time constraints to be effective. This is in conjunction with denying and disrupting the same for others. The speed of acquisition along with the validity of information is crucial for decision-making and the resulting impact. Unless conclusions can be made in good time for a positive outcome, they offer no value.

Dynamics and OPTEMPO can change quickly, while threats can escalate or travel even faster the speed of information. Access in near real-time by those who can influence the outcome is essential, as the provision of information enables mission success.

For these applications, information needs to be acquired, validated, protected, analysed, utilised, and shared; however, this does not happen in isolation or in a sterile environment. Typically, numerous field resources and equipment are employed to gather and distribute the information. In order for solutions to maintain dominance they must also keep pace with technological advances.

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Environmental factors

Traditionally, commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware doesn’t perform or cope well in demanding environments. So, to ensure the quality and reliability needed in the field, a mix of military off-the-shelf (MOTS) and COTS hardware can be leveraged. COTS hardware offers an advantage but lacks the durability required, so some level of optimisation to the device may be necessary, including the mounting of the apparatus within an overall protective enclosure. When it comes down to logistics, the equipment needs to be portable, durable and readily transportable. In the field, it needs to be suitably robust to survive environmental rigours.

Understanding the limitations of the COTS hardware in military environments is paramount, and knowing what can be done to maximise usage and prevent risk is crucial. Complications can arise from simple issues like the (unavoidable) use of commercial connectors for data and power, which can result in total loss of operation. Providing reliable connectivity, compatible with the needs of the equipment and limitations of the environment, helps to ensure the continued integration of the entire system and sustains its interoperability. Use of common connector types, locking connectors and patching help maintain the infrastructure required so the local equipment arrives and remains operational, ultimately making it suitable for fast and effective deployment.

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Securing the future

In additional area of consideration (aside from additional shock and vibration protection), is the provision of compulsory service and maintenance requirements, as well as availability of standard form factor components. This supports the future-proofing of equipment and upgrades in line with technology refreshes, reducing the total cost of ownership and increasing operational life. This must take into account the MTBF, FMEA, MTTR calculations and existing maintenance needs, because static installations are not always accessible via side or rear access points. It’s worth noting that most 19-inch rackmount equipment (in particular, networking and communication apparatus) is not designed with front access in mind.

Specific adaptation, or the provision of specialist mounting and cable management mechanisms, are often required to facilitate the prescribed maintenance and repair methodologies needed to ensure maximum operation and minimal downtime. Of course, this is only part of the battle in aiding the advantages in performance, cost and technological advancement available from COTS components. Subtle but crucial internal optimisations (ruggedisations) allow for the COTS (now COTS+) equipment to deliver its potential in an environment it had never been intended for.

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Essential expertise

Although technology continues to advance rapidly, mechanical challenges still dominate the ability to integrate commercial hardware into military applications. The attractiveness of cost and performance persists, but the lack of hardware on middle ground has led to the practice of continually attempting to utilise hardware without modification. This can potentially lead to premature or unpredictable equipment failure.

To use COTS hardware more effectively in more demanding environments, it is important to consider the limitations. Technical and mechanical expertise should be readily available to predict the failure modes as well as develop solutions proportionate to the application needs. Only then can the blend of COTS, COTS+ and MOTS be utilised to bridge the COTS/MOTS divide, therefore delivering the true potential of hybrid solutions.

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