Off the Shelf for Subs

Technology refresh key for maintaining submarine fleet

We all know how bureaucratic the military procurement process is, and we all know how a lot of gear, particularly computer-based electronic equipment, is outdated by the time it actually hits the field.

In many cases, Commercial Off-the-Shelf (COTS) equipment can fill the requirement. COTS seems to be getting more and more popular as our forces struggle to keep up with mission requirements and the traditional system continues to be bogged down.

Case in point:

Captain Brian Vance of the Program Executive Office of Submarines in San Diego made the comments at the Navy League Symposium in Washington last month.

“We want to maximize COTS usage,” Vance said. Open architectures and open source software are all in play, Vance says. He mentioned that the Navy plans to build on the success of the Acoustics Rapid COTS Insertion program-better known as A-RCI.

A-RCI is a sonar system upgrade installed on all classes of Navy submarines. The system integrates and improves the processing of data from sensors including the towed array, hull array and sphere array. These improvements are achieved by use of COTS-based hardware and software that speeds processing while enhancing fidelity. Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for A-RCI.

The A-RCI program provides common sonar systems within an open systems architecture that exploits commercial computing technology, enabling powerful algorithms to detect and classify the slightest underwater sounds.

Seems to me, particularly with all the advances being made in sound processing software and the unimpeded growth of computing hardware capabilities that going more open with this makes sense.

The current submarine technology insertion period is approximately two years, Vance says. The Navy’s goal is to get that down to 35 days per submarine

With the cutbacks in the sub fleet and the various ASW programs, our sub and anti-sub forces need all the advantages they can get.


  1. COTS is a euphemisim for ‘taking it up the ass’. It’s funny because they see all the advances being made in the private sector and it never once occurs to them to do business the way the private sector does. Instead they keep paying more for failure and wondering why all their programs fail. Typically the way a COTS program works is they start out with the stupid idea of putting commercial hardware on a vehicle. Then when that doesn’t work they decide to call it MCOTS or modified COTS. That’s when it really gets Caligulesqe. Typically by the time the rape fest is over, it would have been cheaper to have gone with a full up mil development program from the start. It’s absurd, really. I remember back in the late ’80s and early ’90s when 3D audio was all the rage in defense research. They dicked around with it until the mid ’90s. At that point the stereo manufacturers had got wind of the potential for such a system in home audio equipment. It took them about 3 years to do what military research programs had not been able to do in a decade. Today you can download modules to add 3D sound to your own video game program for free. Once that happened all interest in 3D audio in military applications was lost. I tried to propose using 3D audio in a sonobouy monitoring station in the P-3 once. No interest. I thought, what could be better than allowing the operator to be able to spacially distinguish the location of a whale sound from that of a possible enemy sub? It would be a great use of the cocktail party effect. You know, you’re in a party talking to some people in one group then you hear your name mentioned in another group, so you shift your attention away from the local conversation to one in another location without moving your head or even shifting your eyes. People are good at that. Seemed like a perfect use of a new technology, but there was little money to be milked from the US taxpayer, which is especially true of anything that might make the life of an enlisted soldier better. If an officer is manning the workstation you might be able to make something good happen, but if its for an enlisted, forget it. The stupidity is the only thing that phenominal about they way we buy weapons today.

  2. DFENS, A 3D system would have been the cat’s meow. I was one of those P-3 acoustic operators (although I also went through the school a second time to qual as a non-acoustic)and let me tell you what, that sort of diferential alanlsys would have had a HUGE impact. There are some low-level cots things we did, such as purchasing HP-67 calculators with programmable cards for all the P-3B flight crews, and also of purchasing state of the art SONY headsets for our acoustic stations, vice the crappy Navy-issued things. I see a place for cots items, but I see it down on the dirt-floor level, where a squadron can make a purchase to upgrade a system or fill a need specific to what they are doing. However, like you say, there is so much potential for bleeding money that it’s rediculous. Here’s a civilian example for you. Up here in Maine, I applied through the State VocRehab program for a computer to help me work from home. I had some mobility issues at the time, and at least this way i could be productive. Well, the state said sure, but needed to get the specs from me on what I required, what software, etc. I told them that everything I needed was currently on sale at a specific location, and that price was a steal. Oh no, the State Rep said. We can’t authorise you to buy off the shelf like that. You have to go through our vendor, and list everything you need. Turns out the State would’ve been paying almost 5 grand for that computer and software, since, through their exclusive vendor deal, they were paying FULL RETAIL PRICE for eveything. Every single piece of software was a seperate purchase, at full mark-up. I said, no thanks, and paid out of pocket, since I could not in good faith ask the taxpayers to foot a bill like that. But I digress. Any enhancement of our sonar capabilities is long overdue. I have great concerns in the years ahead about our ability to adequately conduct ASW operations, especially with the S-3 being phased out and no mid-range platform in the pipeline. The P-3’s are being withdrawn at an accelerated rate due to fatigue, and the P-8 is no where near ready to join the fleet. Surface units don’t seem to have much time for dedicated ASW training anymore either. When’s the last time you saw an aswex that wassn’t interupted by other training? Add to this the fact that China has some 60 top-end diesal boats in the fleet. I hated operating against conventional boats, even back in my days. Easy to deal with when snorkeling, but when they pulled the plug and went sinker, watch out. hard to hear a battery, you know? Anyway, enough for now. Respects,

  3. Yeah, it’s nuts. COTS should be cheaper, but the whole system is set up to always cost more and take longer. That Lockheed program (ACS, I think it was called) was supposed to be a poster child for COTS. In fact it was. Everyone in the competition proposed a commercial airplane as the basis for the ‘modification’ that was anywhere from 2 to 5 times too small to do the job. That’s how they were going to save you money. Didn’t they screw away something like a billion dollars on that one before it got cancelled? C-130 AMP same way. Avionics system is COTS, right? Based on that of a 737. Except no avionics system has ever taken $2 B to develop. Hell, the whole C-130J program only cost $1 billion, and that’s with new engines and a bunch of other upgrades. COTS my ass!

  4. I was on a flight test a couple days back. One thing that occurred to me, beyond the fact that I’m getting too old to be a crew dog, was how useful it would be to have a 3D audio capability built into the radio and intercom system. The ability to hear each crew member at their stations instead of only ‘in the headset’ would be of great value in crew resource management. It would certainly help to be able to spacially separate out the voice of a crew member who might be stepping on an air traffic control call, especially in the case of an emergency when a pilot might be getting a lot of data at once through the headset. We used to talk about stuff like that back in the days when there was research money to be had for 3D audio development. Now that it is a reality, it will be decades before anyone steps up to implementing the technology. What a suck hole the aerospace industry has become. We’ve gone from the leading edge to the trailing edge of technology within my lifetime. Yee haw.

  5. Here’s some classic COTS work on the Presidental Helicopter program. Check this out: The U.S. Navy now wants what amounts to an all-new helicopter for its next presidential transport, leading to a two-stage development process that is significantly more complicated – and perhaps more expensive – than expected. Navy officials told Dow Jones Newswires that the final fleet of 23 VH-71 helicopters will need new, longer rotor blades, new engines, a new transmission and a new tail so they can carry the president and a heavy electronics system over a 350-nautical-mile range. These helicopters will require an extensive battery of flight tests and design reviews, and it’s not yet clear whether they can meet a 2015 goal for entering service. Bend over, the Pres needs a new helo. The beauty part is, once they’re done ‘upgrading’ this helo at your expense, the Italian company that builds it will be able to make their new helo available to customers without spending a dime of their own money to develop the new model. All I can figure is that the US taxpayer is a moron for continuing to pay for this crap.