Military Embedded Systems

MOSA provides the flexibility the DoD needs to modernize the battlespace


September 13, 2021

By Nicholas Borton, SRC Inc.

Faced with operating across an increasingly complex and contested battlespace, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) must innovate at pace to successfully counter emerging threats around the world. Central to the DoD’s multidomain strategy is the Modular Open Systems Approach (MOSA) – a concept enabling the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force to rapidly integrate best of breed subsystems on board any platform type in any operational environment.

Whether engaging violent extremist organizations in the Middle East and North Africa or peer adversaries in Eastern Europe and the Indo-Pacific region, the U.S. military must operate as a truly joint force on land, in the air, in space, and at sea.

In order to ensure mission success and most importantly, the survivability of the warfighter across this multidomain battlespace, the DoD must enable, enhance, and accelerate the deployment of affordable, capable, and interoperable sensor systems to provide the armed services with the tactical advantage over highly capable adversaries.

Central to the DoD’s multidomain strategy is the Modular Open Systems Approach (MOSA) – a concept enabling the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force to rapidly integrate best of breed subsystems on board any platform type in any operational environment.

MOSA was mandated in Section 805 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 to be a baseline expectation whenever a system requires adaptability. The DoD re-emphasized the MOSA initiative in the 2019 Tri-Service Memorandum, calling the need for rapid evolution of capabilities and technologies using architecture modularity, open systems standards, and appropriate business practices a “warfighting imperative.” Further, in 2021, the U.S. passed into law the requirement for MOSA to be included in the DoD’s acquisition process.

Today, MOSA is an umbrella for several of the DoD emerging standards. Examples include the Sensor Open Systems Architecture (SOSA) Consortium, an open collaboration between government, industry, and academia members to create an “open system reference architectures targeted towards sensor systems”; Future Airborne Capability Environment (FACE), another cross-collaboration like SOSA focused on safety-critical airborne software reuse; the U.S. Naval Air Systems Command’s Hardware Open Systems Technologies (HOST); and the U.S. Army’s C5ISR/EW Modular Open Suite of Standards (CMOSS) .

These standards will provide the DoD with various benefits:

  • Shortening cycle times to counter emerging threats
  • Reducing integration time and costs
  • Reaching higher technology-readiness levels (TRLs) faster
  • Enabling high-level competition for capabilities and technology

The MOSA has the potential to create a real transformation in the way the defense industry and the DoD interact and develop critical solutions. There will be challenges to overcome, but ultimately the benefits of the MOSA will enable a marketplace where the best modular solutions can be developed at the pace of relevance – enabling warfighters to maintain their competitive advantage and helping the DoD use, re-use and repurpose solutions for years to come.

Embracing the change

Over the past 15 to 20 years, industry has watched various open architecture (OA) efforts come into being and then disappear cyclically. Various branches of the armed services have contributed to specific OAs in their own way, pushing the OA standards to solve their respective problems.

The pivot from pushing a handful of siloed OAs to the strategic MOSA initiatives marks a fundamental change in the market. But to fully exploit the potential of MOSA, a series of challenges associated with compliance, qualification, and procurement models must also be addressed.

Previous attempts to promote adoption of OA standards focused solely on technological advancements and standardization. The inclusion and tight integration of business and industry concerns in the broader MOSA initiative, in contrast, is what helped evolve the OA ecosystem into a larger, more strategic approach, embraced by both government and industry. The realization and vision to focus on the formation of markets, which enables competition; while also fostering openness and standardization in technology created something of a double bottom line, which aligned industry and government players and thereby enabled the MOSA initiative to realize its desired benefits.

Consortia like FACE and SOSA are embracing this new vision of modularity and openness which not only takes the technical problems into account, but also positions business considerations as first-class concerns. Needs such as protection of intellectual property and formation of open markets are examples of those business concerns that the MOSA initiative is tackling that were largely ignored in the past OA cycles.

Additional impacts

Additional impacts include the need to distinguish open architecture from MOSA. Since MOSA is an approach, it comprises both business and technical aspects, whereas OA is a type of system architecture intended to make it easy to replace or upgrade components. Open architecture in and of itself does not require modularity, but MOSA promotes a modular approach to solution development that is combined with actual OA standards to increase interoperability of those systems.

So how to tell that an OA will work within the MOSA framework? The quickest method is to check the standard against the requirements for modularity and openness. Modularity: Modular entities encapsulate functionality and behaviors with well-defined interfaces that align with DoD procurement needs; also, modular entities are “gray boxes” which protect the IP of the entity vendor.

Openness: Is it widely available, with published definitions? Do all interested parties have the opportunity to shape the standard/architecture? Is there is a governance process for stakeholders to participate in its development and evolution. In addition, a third-party conformance verification and certification process must be in place to ensure adherence and integrity within the market.

For the business aspects of MOSA to properly function, the modularity and openness requirements must be satisfied. If any pieces are missing, the business portion of MOSA will be greatly hindered and many of the benefits derived from the entirety of the MOSA initiative will not occur or will require significant extra effort to achieve.

Changing business models

As it moves towards adopting a more commercial mindset to support rapid fielding of capabilities across the multidomain battle­space, the DoD must be supported by industry partners who truly understand the MOSA concept. The DoD envisages an open marketplace in which all relevant subsystems of a capability can be selected as and when necessary, depending upon current and emerging threat assessments.

This situation means that industry partners – who previously might have supplied entire end-to-end solutions to the DoD – could be providing a significantly smaller piece of a wider capability. But where there is change, there is also opportunity; as some forms of traditional markets close, other opportunities arise to take their place. Instead of focusing on developing only a few end-to-end systems, now a single company can integrate its best technology, alongside the technology of other companies, into multiple systems across the DoD. Such a collaborative integration effort leads to better, more capable systems that will deliver the best possible technology to the warfighter.

Due to this change, small to medium-sized companies like SRC are taking the MOSA initiative seriously, shifting internal investments and programs to support emerging CMOSS and SOSA-aligned systems. Industry is already responding through the development of more software-centric business models, where minimum viable products are supplied to the DoD at the earliest opportunity, with future developments being achieved through a series of incremental software upgrades.

To balance costs, industry is also driving down the cost of hardware development, shifting from ‘boutique’ or custom-developed hardware and where possible, utilizing more commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware solutions.

This decoupling of software, hardware, and systems presents a new challenge for the DoD and industry. Whole systems with comprehensive capabilities will still need to be developed, manufactured, integrated, and sustained. Whereas once the DoD might have worked with a single entity providing a combined software and hardware solution, now it is most certainly going to work with two or more providers, leading integration and collaboration efforts. Consequently, the DoD will need to reinvent its relationship with system-integrator industry partners. The upshot: MOSA provides the opportunity for both the DoD and industry to work together in the system-integrator role in order to leverage the strengths that both factions bring to the table.

The MOSA shift will also result in many different groups within industry obtaining a more equal seat at the table – many providers, supplying many pieces to form the whole solution. Not only does this dividing of systems into smaller components enable the “best-of” potential inherent in MOSA, it also simplifies long-term sustainment and facilitates upgradability to ensure warfighters’ access to the best capabilities and technological advancements industry has to offer.

Understanding the tradeoffs and benefits of OA

The larger shift towards MOSA provides many benefits – namely, decreased integration times, higher TRLs, and competition in capability development.

But with these benefits come some tradeoffs with adhering to the OA standards in the MOSA space, because adhering to any standard reduces choices. The reduction of choices also reduces the ability to highly optimize a solution for a particular problem. This could mean an end solution that is slightly bigger, slightly heavier, slightly more power hungry, and perhaps with a lower compute performance than a purely custom solution could provide. But none of these “trade spaces” should be seen as deal-breakers. When an appropriate OA is chosen, there is still room for creativity in overcoming these tradeoffs.

Overcoming size, weight, and power (SWaP) plus performance issues is different for each OA: Some OAs are better at optimizing for SWaP or performance than others – choosing the standard that provides the best solutions for the most important considerations is crucial to an optimal solution. In addition, having heterogeneous compute capabilities can significantly mitigate the OA performance and power tradeoffs.

While the responsibility to produce high-quality, high-performing solutions falls on industry, there is an equally important portion of the MOSA responsibility that falls on the DoD to ensure success.

The DoD responsibilities in the MOSA realm are twofold: first is an upfront investment in technology, which is often higher than a specialized custom solution, and second is a long-term commitment to updating the OA solution with the latest technology to reduce SWaP and performance compromises.

While the cost of the initial upfront investment can be difficult to overcome, that investment helps to reduce integration times, achieve a higher initial system TRL, and ultimately encourages competitive procurement for the solution’s initial set of capabilities.

While tradeoffs exist in the MOSA ecosystem, they are not insurmountable. Together, the DoD and industry can take steps to mitigate the trade spaces and develop capable solutions that meet warfighters’ needs.

Path to adapting OA

Today, industry partners like SRC are heavily investing time and energy into forging a future for a truly MOSA ecosystem across the DoD. Those efforts can be seen in the success of existing standards like the Army’s CMOSS standard.

Enabled by the integration of low-SWaP software-defined radios (SDRs) capable of driving radar, EW, and ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] system upgrades, CMOSS is enabling reconfigurability and reuse of technologies across the Army, in addition to reducing costs and mitigating technical obsolescence.

CMOSS is playing a critical role in the development and integration of systems in larger programs that will bring crucial cyber-electromagnetic activities (CEMA) capabilities to the battlefield. Examples of CMOSS-compliant programs currently in development include the Army’s Terrestrial Layer System Brigade Combat Team (TLS-BCT, Figure 1), Terrestrial Layer System Echelons Above Brigade (TLS-EAB), and Multi-Function Electronic Warfare Air Large (MFEW-AL). TLS-BCT will bring integrated signals intelligence, electronic warfare, and cyber capabilities to the brigade level, enabling joint all-domain operations across the force, while EAB is a Division, Corps and Multi-Domain Task Force capability planned as an extended-range, terrestrial sensing, collection, and electromagnetic attack system of systems. MFEW-AL will bring similar electronic sensing and attack capabilities to group 3 and above UAS, helping to supplement TLS capabilities by flying higher and farther down range, while seeing around obstacles into terrain blocked areas.

[Figure 1 | Shown is the concept for the U.S. Army Terrestrial Layer System Brigade Combat Team (TLS-BCT) system. Artist’s rendering courtesy Lockheed Martin.]

SRC is developing a family of MOSA/OA SDRs to meet the needs of programs adhering to various MOSA standards. These SDRs combine wideband radio frequency (RF) spectrum, significant signal processing power, and multiple input/output (I/O) interfaces into scalable solutions that are able defend against technologically sophisticated, near-peer adversaries – now, and in the future.

Examples include the SRC5986A Stan-dard and SRC5986E Rugged Micro Transceivers – both small form-factor multi-channel SDR systems currently used to support EW, radar and ISR systems.

SRC has also designed a series of CMOSS/SOSA Aligned Plug-in-Cards, including the SRC6458 CMOSS SDR, a variant of SRC’s microtransceiver SDR series; the SRC7743 3U VPX chassis – a seven-slot, modular platform designed to support highly intensive radar signal processing applications and CEMA; and the SRC7778 CMOSS/SOSA aligned DSP payload, which comprises a 3U OpenVPX hardware-accelerated processing platform designed for high-performance DSP applications. (Figure 2.)

[Figure 2 | The SRC7778 CMOSS/SOSA aligned DSP payload sports a 3U OpenVPX platform aimed at high-performance DSP applications. SRC Inc. photo.]

The large number of programs leveraging the OAs within the MOSA framework demonstrates the DoD’s desire to build these MOSA markets to enhance system interoperability and capability.

As more programs continue to leverage MOSA and help build these markets, a few questions must be considered:

  • How much OA should be used for this solution or system?
  • How much “custom solution” is allowable in the system?
  • Can “custom solutions” be properly separated to facilitate a transition to OA when technology or standards advance?
  • Which OAs should be considered for which areas of the system?

The answers to these questions will have important effects as industry and the DoD work to balance system performance and SWaP constraints with the interoperability, repairability, and modularity provided by adherence to MOSA. These questions also force system designers to choose which OA ecosystem the system will support and draw from. As more systems and solutions consolidate on a smaller number of OA standards that fit their unique needs, the markets around those standards will gain strength. While these markets grow, it is important to realize that each OA will maintain their own individual markets due to technological differences which make them incompatible with each other.

This situation presents a challenge for the DoD and industry partners: To im­prove OA standards on a regular basis, at pace with technology, while also finding commonality between the various open architectures.

Syncing up standards

The SOSA consortium is tackling the problem of commonality and standards evolution head-on. One of SOSA’s guiding architecture principles is to leverage existing standards wherever possible, which has led to SOSA becoming a “best of breed” OA standard with respect to sensor systems.

Companies must identify collaborative efforts in alignment with the DoD to expertly integrate OA-compliant solutions across the full spectrum of capabilities. Multifunctional companies capable of designing, developing, integrating, testing, and sustaining such solutions will be positioned to solve the DoD’s most challenging problems as it seeks to successfully adopt and roll out the MOSA.

MOSA, if correctly implemented, gives the services the opportunity to have a more unified toolbox. Industry partners can develop both specific solutions for niche missions and more universal systems that can easily be modified and repurposed to fit the needs of multiple missions. This approach would increase research and development speed, giving the DoD faster access to the right tools for the job, while simultaneously providing the flexibility to re-use and modify those tools as necessary to maintain a ready, efficient, and effective fighting force.

Nicholas Borton is a machine intelligence hardware architect at SRC, Inc. and vice chair of the SOSA Steering Committee. Borton has worked at SRC for more than 17 years and is currently conducting research in edge-machine-learning to maximize the use of size, weight, power, and cost, in addition to furthering open standards adoption at SRC. Borton earned his bachelor’s degrees in both computer engineering and electrical engineering from Clarkson University.

SRC Inc.