Software-defined Defense – Key to Combat Superi­ority

Software-defined Defense. Copyright: iStock-1399136562

By Dr. Martin Krause and Dr. Mike Körner //

Today, most products in the defense sector can no longer do without software, and digiti­zation is becoming an increasingly important differ­entiator. In recent months, a paradigm shift towards software as the defining element has become increasingly apparent. Is software-defined defense on the way?

Software-defined Defense

Software-defined defense describes a sophisticated combination of hardware and software in which the entire functionality spectrum of the armament system is constructed around the functionality of the software. This does not represent a proprietary system, but an open, modular architecture with standardized interfaces for hardware and especially for software. While hardware is often exhausted to a significant extend, software-driven functionalities offer a comparatively high potential to enhance the performance of the overall system.

Civilian products where a combination of hardware and software has been successfully built around software functionality include the iPhone or Elon Musk’s Tesla cars.

Advantages and possible applications

This offers numerous advantages, including:

  • Fundamental new functionalities
  • Shorter development times
  • Lower development costs
  • Higher flexibility
  • Interchangeability of individual modules
  • Higher potential for performance enhancing upgrades

It is a data-centric approach where automation is not necessarily about operating autonomous systems without a human operator (human-out-of-loop). Rather, it enables one operator to efficiently and effectively monitor and guide a large number of systems, such as a swarm of drones (human-on-loop).

Possible applications for software-defined defense exist in almost all areas of the armed forces: autonomous systems (UxS), manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T), command and control (C2), cyber warfare, networked communications, virtual/ augmented reality (VR/ AR), logistics, electronic warfare (EW), intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), and many more.

While the software portion is on the rise with every new military system, these systems are mostly based on proprietary software that is only sporadically developed once the systems are delivered. Software-defined defense is still in its infancy and no complete system has yet been developed based on this concept. Various major development programs such as the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) are attempting to create cross-domain networking of sensors, effectors, and situation pictures at a previously unattainable level. This is being done through new approaches such as a Multi-domain Combat Cloud. However, there are also initial examples, which can already be observed in the Ukraine war.

Starlink – resilience through flexibility

Elon Musk’s Starlink communication satellites proved particularly important for Ukraine’s military coordination. Their forces relied on the small, portable terminals to communicate and relay information across the battlefield. The Starlink terminals were also integrated directly onto reconnaissance drones, allowing them to reconnoiter enemy positions and relay target coordinates directly to artillery via Starlink satellites. This has led to a significant shortening of the so-called “kill chain”.

Russia attempted to disrupt Starlink communications in the early months using electronic warfare and targeted jamming attacks on the frequencies used. However, these jamming attacks were only successful for a short period of time. At Starlink, a software update for the satellites and terminals was developed in a very short time, which successfully repelled the Russian jamming attacks. The Starlink system thus proved adaptable and resilient via software updates. Classical proprietary satellite systems without the possibility of software updates would not have been capable of this adaptation in the frequency spectrum. Military experts were enthusiastic about the possibilities of such software updates.

However, there are now increasing reports that Russia is back in the lead, as Russian electronic warfare (Tobol system) now relies on a different attack vector. Instead of jamming the frequencies, reports say that they are relying on jamming the GPS signal. This disrupts or complicates synchronization between the Starlink ground station and the Starlink satellite. How Starlink will respond to this new challenge remains to be seen. However, scientists have now demonstrated that the signals from Starlink satellites can be used to determine position with an accuracy of eight meters. This inherent GPS alternative could put Starlink back in the lead over Russian electronic warfare and, of course, would have other interesting applications. The Starlink example provides a preview of the speed and dynamics of mutual adaptations in future software-defined defense.

Challenges for the introduction of Software-defined Defense

The rapid adoption of software-defined defense faces a number of challenges:

  • Lack of interoperability of systems
  • National norms and standards
  • New cyber security risks
  • Complexity of the overall system
  • Integration of non-digital legacy systems
  • Legal and ethical requirements

Transformation of the business model

For traditional defense companies, the introduction of software-defined defense is associated with a comprehensive transformation. The business model will change from a hardware-driven project business to a software-driven service business. This change is associated with the development of new competencies, especially in R&D and product management as well as in the context of redesigning development processes. However, early and deliberate transformation is worthwhile, as it enables a long-term competitive advantage to be gained.

This advantage takes effect as soon as governmental customers will demand these functionalities. For example, in the case of the US Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle program (OMFV), with which the Pentagon intends to replace the US M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicle (IFV), this is already explicitly the case in the form of a modular open system architecture (MOSA).

Of course, there is a certain resistance to this transformation process among the established OEMs, as the companies have long benefited from the lock-in effect of proprietary systems. And the service business will partially cannibalize the established project business. However, changing customer demands will most likely enforce this adaptation sooner or later anyway. In this respect, setting the course at an early stage creates a first-mover advantage that differentiates one’s own products from the competition and avoids a changeover that will be even more painful later on.

ACTRANS is a management consultancy with a focus on the aerospace and defense industry. Together with our network of experts, we support our clients in aligning their product portfolio, processes, and technology to software-defined defense.