Going commercial

Compared with a decade ago, the federal IT community has made enormous progress

in realizing that using more commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technologies

in large systems typically provides the government with significant cost,

schedule and risk-reduction advantages. As John Ortego, head of the National

Finance Center, has aptly put it, there are two flavors available for many

IT systems: vanilla and rocky road.

The weapons area in the Defense Department has a harder challenge using

COTS products because weapons systems don't have commercial counterparts.

In addition, new weapons have not been introduced in the 1990s on which

to try out the new commercial philosophy.

But the effort to go commercial in weapons is beginning to bear fruit.

I recently came across the example of an Air Force program called the Miniature

Air-Launched Decoy (MALD), which uses printed circuit boards originally

manufactured for Coca-Cola machines.

MALD is a decoy plane designed to fool enemy air defenses in the initial

stages of an American air attack. Enemy radar picks it up as a fighter plane,

and anti-aircraft weapons are directed at it rather than at the real planes.

Enemy positions are revealed, allowing countermeasures. MALD is designed

to replace target drones used, for example, in the Persian Gulf War.

The Air Force established an affordability philosophy for MALDs that

set in advance a $30,000 price tag, compared with $300,000 for the old target

drones, and asked the contractor, Northrop Grumman Corp., to develop as

much functionality as possible for the bogey. Production decisions would

be based on whether the Air Force was getting the performance it needed

for that price.

To get the cost down, the contractor worked aggressively to replace

traditional military specification (milspec) items with COTS products. In

addition to the Coke machine boards, commercial resistors and capacitors

were used, at a 75 percent cost savings from milspec counterparts. The Global

Positioning System box is the same used in the Lincoln Town Car. An auto

industry subcontractor produces the fuel tanks, modified from those used

in cars. Some of the switches were actually purchased from a NAPA auto supply

catalogue. In all, the government saved more than 70 percent on material


The Air Force faced an interesting dilemma with the Coke machine boards.

They put some resin on the boards to ruggedize them for military conditions.

But it turned out that the boards couldn't tolerate the low air temperatures

in the milspec requirement. It was determined that the old requirement had

been based on temperature levels that typically occur only two days a year.

Faced with the alternatives of $800 for commercial boards and $5,000 for

milspec boards, the user said they'd modify their requirement. That's a

lesson for IT folks thinking about how much to adapt requirements to commercial


— Kelman was the administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy

from 1993 to 1997. He is now Weatherhead Professor of Public Management

at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.


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