Modular Open System Architecture allows continuous weapon upgrades

Modular Open System Architecture, or MOSA, has long been a key design element in the private sector, but has not historically been a major goal in defense acquisition. That is changing as the bipartisan National Defense Strategy refocuses the Defense Department on technologically advanced adversaries like China, a major shift after decades of focusing on smaller — and less technologically advanced — asymmetric threats.

A 2023 report found that China is developing and deploying capabilities five to six times faster than the U.S. To maintain its combat advantage, the U.S. must develop new capabilities faster, more cost-effectively, and with the flexibility to modify a system once applied.

The NDS identifies MOSA as a key tool in achieving this transformation. A key reason is that MOSA reduces capability development and upgrade timelines. Moore’s Law – the prediction that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles every two years – is one of the most striking examples of how the pace of technological change continues to increase.

Digital engineering in design, development and testing, combined with advanced manufacturing in production, is another important factor. This increasing rate of technological progress, combined with China’s speed and agility, means that the traditional defense acquisition system of slow, serial processes leading to decades of long product development cycles followed by even longer development cycles no longer meets its needs. shipment.

This traditional system focuses on tightly integrated or closed systems with connections — including software interfaces — between parts of a platform, e.g. radar, fire control, computers, etc., that are custom designed and unique to the platform, with the intellectual property behind this integration owned by the original manufacturer. Instead, MOSA uses standardized connections between major parts of a system that allows users to easily remove and replace major components, subsystems, and software. This allows for regular technology upgrades of specific components without a wholesale change to the platform.

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With MOSA, instead of building a “perfect” closed system, the US can put “good enough” systems in place and build them up later with rapid and flexible technology upgrades. Traditional, closed systems must be upgraded in their entirety, forcing DOD to wait for major upgrades. With MOSA, the Pentagon can gradually and continuously upgrade weapons systems at the pace of technological progress.


The political sector has been doing this for years, e.g. laptops and mobile phones. MOSA allows DOD to develop a capability with technology that is ready today and then upgrade with a plug-and-play approach as new technology matures without having to replace the entire system.

A second key reason why MOSA is necessary is that it broadens the available supplier base initially and, more importantly, throughout the life cycle of the system. In the traditional, closed process, once a system is chosen among competing developers, the winner becomes a virtual monopoly for the rest of the system’s life.

For tightly integrated systems, technology upgrades are proprietary and require replacement of entire systems. With the MOSA architecture, component-specific upgrades can be made and sourced competitively from any manufacturer that produces to interface standards.

A third key reason is that MOSA reduces life cycle costs. The initial cost of developing an open architecture system may be higher, but the total life cycle cost is lower. MOSA’s plug-and-play functionality allows systems to be upgraded incrementally and selectively (individual components versus the entire system). It also allows for competition in these upgrades, rather than exclusive source awards to the original manufacturer.

The Pentagon is now embracing MOSA and real progress is being made. In the military, MOSA requirements were important considerations in the selection of the XM30 mechanized infantry fighting vehicle and future long-range attack aircraft. The Air Force stated that the Next Generation Air Dominion Program will be a “Completely Open System of Systems Architecture.” In the Navy, systems such as the Air and Missile Defense Radar are procured using Open Systems.

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This is only the tip of the iceberg. Within a decade, MOSA is expected to be the dominant architecture for the capabilities.

To boost these gains and continue progress, we recommend the following:

— The Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment and the Military Departments codify and enforce acceptable DOD-wide open systems architecture standards.

—Establish a policy that all systems entering Milestone B or approved for Medium Acquisition Level will require the use of open systems architecture or a waiver that warrants an exemption.

— The Chief Information Officer of the Department of Defense and the Military Departments develop and operate an open systems test bed to enable the continued evolution of Open Systems best practices.

MOSA is an essential element in implementing the NDS and maintaining our technological superiority over advanced adversaries such as China and Russia. The initial steps have been taken and real progress is being made. Now is the time to make the full shift at DOD to open systems.

Al Shaffer served as the first Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment. John Whitley served as Assistant Secretary of the Army for Financial Management and Comptroller and Deputy Secretary of the Army. Both are consultants to Pacific Defense, a developer of MOSA technology that recently won the Army’s C4ISR/Electronic Warfare Modular Open Suite of Standards, or CMOSS, contract. The opinions expressed here are their own.

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