DARPA Uses Open Systems
DARPA Uses Open Systems,
‘Plug and Fly’ to Boost Air Power
By Cheryl Pellerin, DoD News,
Defense Media Activity.
Washington D.C. — (DoD
News) — March 30, 2015 — The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is
unveiling a new program to boost U.S. air superiority by separating payloads
such as weapons and sensors from the main air platform, and using open-system
architectures to seamlessly integrate plug-and-fly modules into any kind of
The program, called System of Systems Integration Technology and Experimentation,
or SoSITE, aims to develop and demonstrate concepts for flying combinations of
aircraft, weapons, sensors and mission systems that distribute air-warfare
capabilities across interoperable manned and unmanned platforms.
This graphic illustrates the main idea behind DARPA’s System
of Systems Integration Technology and Experimentation, or SoSITE, program.
SoSITE aims to develop and demonstrate concepts for maintaining air superiority
through novel system-of-systems architectures -- combinations of aircraft,
weapons, sensors and mission systems -- that distribute air warfare capabilities
across a large number of interoperable manned and unmanned platforms. The vision
is to integrate new technologies and airborne systems with existing systems
faster and at lower cost than near-peer adversaries can counter them.
The DARPA vision is to integrate new technologies and airborne systems with
existing systems faster and at a lower cost than advanced adversaries can
counter them, Dr. Nils Sandell Jr., director of DARPA’s Strategic Technology
Office, told DoD News in a recent interview.
“We feel that the [Defense] Department is facing some significant technical
challenges,” he said.
Threatened Technological Lead
“I talk to my friends and neighbors, and they take it for granted that [the
United States] has air superiority and that we can impose our ability to project
power anywhere we want to,” he said, adding that high-end potential adversaries
have been systematically developing their own equipment and systems.
“Our technological lead is definitely threatened,” Sandell said. “The threats
are not only external but also self-inflicted by the extreme degree of
complexity being crammed onto massive military platforms.” “Our systems are
becoming so complex, so time consuming to produce, that we can't keep pace with
commercial technology and we can't keep pace with the threat,” the director said.
Because fielding or upgrading advanced airborne systems can take decades and
cost billions of dollars, he added, it has not been possible to modernize
subsystems in the complex platforms apace with rapid advances in commercial
System of Systems
“A system-of-systems approach could help overcome [the] inherent issue with
high-cost, monolithic, multifunction platforms,” Sandell said. Distributed
air-warfare platforms have other advantages, he added.
“What we would like to enable is a future scenario in which a smaller number of
manned aircraft would combine with unmanned aircraft to do total job,” the
director said. “They would be networked together … and the unmanned aircraft
could venture into the more dangerous territory, providing some degree of risk
avoidance for the pilots.”
The unmanned platforms would be simpler and could do individual jobs like carry
weapons, electronic warfare systems or sensors –- the last allowing the manned
aircraft to be silent and harder to detect, he said.
Distributed Air Warfare
“The fundamental idea is to take platforms that today are manned, monolithic and
expensive, and distribute the capability over a much more heterogeneous set of
platforms to perform similar functions,” Sandell said.
In such a configuration, the pilot becomes a battle manager, deciding what the
small aircraft should be doing and how to orchestrate it, Sandell said, and
DARPA has a suite of programs whose automation is designed to help pilots with
“We’ve recently come out with [a program] called Distributed Battle Management,
and that's exactly to provide the automation and decision aids to enable a pilot
to be able to fly his jet and do these future tasks,” the director said. It’s
also important that the pilot is the decision maker, he added.
Communications in Contested Environments
“We're not talking about a totally robot army or something like that,” Sandell
said. “The pilot has to be able to exert control [and] to be in communication
with these platforms, so we have a communications program called Communications
in Contested Environments that's working the issue of getting these platforms to
talk to one another.”
DARPA’s vision is that the combination of robust communications and automation
will be sufficient to allow the pilot to do those tasks, he added.
Sandell said he wants to be clear that DARPA is not trying to replace air
platforms like the F-35 or the F-22, but rather to augment their capabilities.
“[The monolithic platforms] are going to be expensive,” he said. “We probably
won't be able to buy as many of them as we would like to if history plays out,
so we want to be sure that the services, who ultimately make decisions about
what to buy, [have] an enriched set of options as they go forward.”
For the SoSITE program, a second focus involves DARPA and the services’
engagement in open-architecture efforts to allow platforms to be upgraded with
equipment that seamlessly plugs and plays.
Sandell said the legacy approach, which often involves a yearslong process to
agree on standard interface, can limit the ability to integrate new technology
that doesn’t fit within that interface. By contrast, he added, open-architecture
tools more easily allow the integration of new technology when it comes along.
The Air Force has an effort called Open Mission Systems, and DARPA is
collaborating closely with them, Sandell said. The Navy has an open-architecture
effort called Future Avionics Capability Environment that DARPA works with, and
they have recently shown impressive accomplishments, he added.
SoSITE Program Phases
The SoSITE program has two phases, and it is now in the two-year-long first
phase, which has two technical areas, or TAs.
TA1 is architecture analysis, and TA2 is integration technology. The program is
less than a quarter of the way through the first phase. In the second phase, the
plan is for the two Phase 1 technical areas to come together for the program’s
According to DARPA, the agency has awarded contracts to develop concepts for
system-of-systems architectures and tools for rapid integration and testing.
Under those contracts, Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin and Northrop
Grumman are developing and analyzing promising architectures and designing plans
for flight experimentation with the architectures.
Apogee Systems, BAE Systems and Rockwell Collins are developing tools and
technologies to enhance open-system architecture approaches.
Robustness Against Cyberattack
One of the limitations of open architecture is that it provides what Sandell
said is known as “an increased attack surface” for cyberattacks.
“What we're doing on our program, in our development of system-of-systems
integration technology, is building robustness against cyberattack into the
design process, as opposed to putting it in as an afterthought,” the director
This involves things like building software into the system that is located in
random places in memory so an attacker won't know where to go to find it,
Sandell added. “There are techniques of that type we're building into the
process,” he said.
Of the three contractors who are developing techniques to better integrate
system of systems, at least two of them are addressing the cyber problem and
coming up with all sorts of techniques, Sandell said.
Looking to the Future
“They draw on our [Information Innovation Office] folks here at DARPA, the
primary folks who do cyber, so we're not doing research on cyber so much as
making sure the state of the art in cyber protection is built into the system of
systems design process,” he added.
Looking to the future, Sandell said that monolithic but sophisticated platforms
like the F-35 probably will continue to have very high value.
“I think they will be part of a family of systems or of a system of systems and
not single silver-bullet solutions by themselves,” the director said. “In
particular, we think that any of the future platforms would be designed in much
more of an open-architecture fashion, so although the platform may last for a
long time and take a while to develop, the electronics in it can be upgraded
much more rapidly.”
He said he thinks, in a sense, "the F-35 is the last of a kind. I don't think
we'll develop anything that tightly integrated in the future.”
(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter @PellerinDoDNews)