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One of the most prevalent trends in defense acquisition is that modernizing and upgrading platforms and systems need to be based on open systems architectures, which is now called a modular open systems approach (MOSA). The central thesis of MOSA is that by requiring common standards and interfaces in its major platforms, components, weapons, and systems, future acquisitions of new capabilities and upgrades to legacy systems can be accomplished faster and at lower costs. MOSA can support greater competition, enhanced innovation, and more rapid technological refresh while reducing sustainment costs.

Under one name or another, the idea of MOSA has been around for a long time. The most prevalent definition of MOSA is that it is a technical and business strategy for designing an affordable and adaptable system. Among the key principles of MOSA are:

  • Open Standards. By implementing open standards as distinct from proprietary standards, acquisition programs can access a range of parts, components, modules, and systems from different vendors with the assurance that they will be compatible.
  • Interoperability. This principle involves the ability of parts, components, modules, and systems to be integrated with one another.
  • Modularity. Modularity requires that critical physical or logical functions and processes be defined and conducted discretely while still being interoperable with other components. These functions will be conducted in separate, scalable, reusable modules, which can be changed out with minimum time or effort.
  • Interchangeability. This is the ability to replace two or more parts, modules, components, or products for one another without additional changes in hardware or software. Interchangeability is critical to exploiting the potential in MOSA for rapid and low-cost upgrades and technology insertion. This property provides opportunities for upgrades and technology insertion.

In the FY 2017 National Defense Acquisition Act (NDAA), Congress directed the Department of Defense to implement MOSA in all MDAPs receiving Milestone A or Milestone B approval after January 1, 2019. According to Section 2446 of the FY 2017 NDAA, these programs “shall be designed and developed, to the maximum extent practicable, with a modular open systems approach to enable incremental development and enhance competition, innovation, and interoperability.:” Furthermore, the use of MOSA for MDAPs will “afford opportunities for enhanced competition and innovation while yielding significant cost savings or avoidance; schedule reduction; opportunities for technical upgrades; increased interoperability, including system of systems interoperability and mission integration; or other benefits during the sustainment phase of a major weapons system.” 

One major acquisition effort that appears to be aggressively implementing MOSA is the U.S. Army’s Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program. The FVL program seems particularly well-suited to employing MOSA because it involves the near-simultaneous development and procurement of two aircraft, the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft and the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft. The Army wants to use MOSA for both avionics and mission systems electronics. MOSA will promote commonality across both platforms, enable innovation and reduce sustainment costs.

Unfortunately, focusing efforts to introduce MOSA in new acquisitions means it will be decades before a significant fraction of U.S. platforms and equipment will be designed for modularity and flexible upgrades. There must be a concerted effort by the Pentagon and defense industries to apply MOSA principles to legacy platforms and equipment.

The Pentagon has long recognized the importance of MOSA to the maintenance and upgrading of existing platforms and systems. Nearly a decade ago, then-assistant secretary of defense for systems engineering Stephen Welby observed that it was critically important to apply OSA principles to legacy systems. He went on to explain that:

“For those programs, the challenge of diminishing manufacturing sources and materiel shortages and the fact that we can often no longer find replacements for the capabilities we need to trade out to extend the life of our systems is critical. The industrial base may have gone away over time. The market for commercial components has moved on. We find ourselves increasingly challenged, and it drives the non-recurring engineering costs associated with these service life extension programs. If we were smarter about thinking about modularity and we could predict where we'd be relative to those commercial component lifecycles, we could think about making sure we've defined our open system interfaces in ways that bounded our exposure to many of these components and think about replacing subsystems. I think increasingly, that’s a place where we find a compelling business case for open systems.”

Unfortunately, relatively little has been done to implement MOSA for legacy platforms and capabilities, even on the subsystem or component levels. In part, this reflects challenges with Intellectual Property. But it also reflects the reluctance of the military to break vendor locks and expand access to new sources of supply and innovation, even if it means reduced cost and improved capabilities.

MOSA must not be focused strictly on new acquisitions; it must also be a central element of strategies for upgrading legacy platforms and capabilities. The majority of the U.S. military’s current array of platforms, weapons systems, and networks will still be in service in 2040. This aging force structure will experience rising sustainment costs that will eat away at the resources needed for R&D, modernization, end strength, and training. In addition, without continual upgrades, this aging force is in danger of becoming obsolescent. Applying an open systems approach to selective upgrades to legacy platforms and capabilities will ensure more rapid and effective technology insertion at reduced cost.

Implementing MOSA across the force makes a great deal of sense. DoD talks a good game, but there is little evidence that there is a real institutional commitment to open systems after more than two decades. Without that, sustainment costs will continue to rise, innovation will be slowed, and the risk of obsolescence of systems and platforms will increase.


Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Gouré has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.



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