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Everything is Now modular and plug-and-play

Bottom Line Up Front: The 2021 Defense Budget says all future DoD systems must be plug-and-play and modular AND that every vendor must be able to access technical data so that anyone can create and sell the Pentagon any module.

Modular? What do you mean “Modular”?

Remember the Defense Science Board’s recommendations on how to fix Defense Acquisitions? One of the many things it recommended was that things be built in discrete chunks or modules that could be swapped and upgraded.

A couple of years later, the Defense Innovation Board’s recommendations seconded the idea of building DoD systems from many small modules that could be upgraded and changed on the fly. Their report uses the word “modular” with respect to tech development 27 times.

The newly rewritten 5000 Policies reflect the new direction. The very first, top-level policy, 5000.01—The Defense Acquisition System, says in Page 5:

e. Emphasize Competition.

The DoD Components will acquire systems, subsystems, equipment, supplies, product support, sustainment, and services in accordance with the statutory requirements for competition.

(1) Acquisition managers will take all necessary actions to promote a competitive environment, including consideration of alternative systems, data rights, and modular design to meet current and future mission needs.

(2) Planning and contracting for appropriate amounts of data rights, and incorporating a modular and open design to enable upgrades, technology refreshes, and future re-competes may enhance competition throughout the life cycle.

In other words, in order to encourage competition, the DoD will demand technology that can be divided into small, plug-and-play modules that can be swapped out and upgraded. AND —this is the really critical part— anybody can build any module.

As of 2021, it’s the law

As you can see from the picture at the beginning, Section 804 of this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (you have to scroll down a bit to find Section 804) codifies the idea of modularity into law.

What does the law say?

If this is your line of business, I encourage you to read Section 804 for yourself. Better yet, have some legal beagles go through it with a fine-tooth comb. Still, here’s a few relevant details that I, as not-a-lawyer, thought were interesting.

  • First, it defines “modularity” in the most comprehensive way possible: “The term ‘modular system interface’ means a shared boundary between major systems, major system components, or modular systems, defined by various physical, logical, and functional characteristics, such as electrical, mechanical, fluidic, optical, radio frequency, data, networking, or software elements.
  • The intent is to dice up all DoD systems into little chunks that can be swapped, replaced, upgraded, or reused. It wants modules, it says, “that can be separated, recombined, and connected with other weapon systems or weapon system components in order to achieve various effects, missions, or capabilities.
  • The relevant Program Office becomes the repository of the interface syntax and format for communication between the modules, and it becomes theirs to share with any vendor they please
  • The requirement to go modular “shall apply to any program office responsible for the prototyping, acquisition, or sustainment of a new or existing weapon system.”
  • That means the new rules don’t just apply to new DoD programs and technologies, they also apply to older stuff “for which no common interface standard has been established.”
  • No later than January 1, 2022, the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment will issue the new rules on modularity.

Wait, What About My Intellectual Property?

  • The United States shall have government purpose rights in technical data pertaining to a modular system interface developed exclusively at private expense or in part with Federal funds and in part at private expense and used in a modular open system approach.”
  • Don’t worry, you’ll get paid: “For technical data pertaining to a modular system interface developed exclusively at private expense for which the United States asserts government purpose rights, the Secretary of Defense shall negotiate with the contractor the appropriate and reasonable compensation for such technical data.”

Oh no, what about my vendor lock?

Sorry, those days are gone. These new rules were built to break vendor lock. Vendor lock does not exist anymore.

This is a disaster!

No, this is a golden opportunity!

A Golden Opportunity?

Yes! If you invent a better mousetrap, it means —here’s you big opportunity— every contract ever is now open to you, even those you did not win. If your mousetrap is better than the other guys’, you can stroll in, show it to the Pentagon, and they throw out the old one and buy yours instead!

But what if someone invents a better mousetrap than mine?

To repeat; the very first, top-level policy, 5000.01—The Defense Acquisition System, says in Page 5 that the purpose of all of this is: e. Emphasize Competition.