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COTS Devices Pass Muster

Commercial off-the-shelf products enhance military operations

Once dismissed as inferior technology, commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) devices such as aerial and maritime drones, secure mobile phones and GPS instruments are helping Ukraine counter Russia’s assault and drawing increased interest from militaries worldwide, including in the

A relatively small percentage of the equipment that Ukraine has used against Russian invaders is inexpensive, publicly available and quickly accessible. Aerial drones, for instance, were sold in hobby stores and online before Ukrainians began using them to spot advancing enemy tanks and troops. Some COTS products are combined with manufactured or fabricated parts to fashion weapons and other warfare paraphernalia.

Russia has taken note of Ukraine’s use of COTS devices. Both nations have deployed small remote-controlled drones for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and to drop ordnance on key targets. Meanwhile, commercial GPS equipment can find and track enemy troops, including confirming the presence of opposing forces at the scene of potential war crimes. Cyber equipment monitors and even disables an adversary’s equipment.

A Republic of Korea Soldier pilots a drone during a drill with the United States in Paju, South Korea, in mid-January 2023. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Commercial technology also is improving the efficiency of traditional military equipment. Intelligence gleaned about an enemy’s location, for example, can be used to target missile strikes. “The war in Ukraine lends itself to COTS solutions,” Mark Cancian, a retired United States Marine Corps colonel and a senior advisor with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told FORUM. “You have front lines that are relatively stable. People have the time to get these things set up and learn how to use them.”

It’s critical to connect a civilian COTS device user — an aerial drone operator, for example — with a military unit that can exploit the information. “A guy flying a quadcopter around and seeing a bunch of tanks, that’s very nice and interesting, but it doesn’t really do anything militarily,” Cancian said.

Use of COTS equipment is not new, especially when it comes to drones. The Islamic State group began using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in 2016 to drop munitions as part of its terrorist attacks, according to a January 2022 report by Bellingcat, a Netherlands-based group of international researchers, investigators and journalists. The tactic has been deployed elsewhere. Terrorists in June 2021 dropped two small explosive devices from UAVs onto an Indian air base building near the Pakistani border. Though injuries and damages were minimal, the incident showed the asymmetric clout of readily available commercial products. It also led militaries worldwide to see the necessity of devising ways to counter COTS applications.

The U.S. decades ago recognized the military potential of commonly used civilian devices. In 1994, then-U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry called for deploying COTS products “wherever and whenever possible,” largely to address procurement delays and cost. Defense companies worldwide since then have incorporated attributes of COTS devices and technology into myriad products including military-grade drones. The war in Ukraine offers insight on how these technologies perform on the battlefield alongside traditional military equipment. In the Indo-Pacific, for instance, allies and partners are looking for parallels to deter the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from attempting to seize self-governed Taiwan by force.

COTS devices can effectively support advanced military technologies, author and defense policy expert Peter Singer told the Vox news website in September 2022.

Commercial drones used by Ukraine’s armed forces for reconnaissance undergo test flights in Kyiv in August 2022. GETTY Images

COTS use and potential

In Myanmar, also called Burma, a resistance group has adapted COTS drones to counter the military junta, which seized power in a February 2021 coup. “We started with a simple F11 drone, which does not reach far,” a resistance fighter told The Diplomat magazine in February 2022. “But by practicing and modifying other models from the amateur toy store, we got more and more proficient in handling them.”

The junta, meanwhile, has used military UAVs for surveillance, to break up protests and to target opponents with laser-guided missiles, The Diplomat reported.

The New Zealand Defence Force is strengthening its communications systems with COTS technology and equipment, Breaking Defense magazine reported in December 2022. “Buying COTS solutions means that New Zealand will operate as a quick follower instead of leading with expensive systems development,” the magazine reported.

Japan has sent camera-equipped COTS drones, along with military-issued protective masks and clothing, to Ukraine, Kyodo News reported in April 2022. Japan’s Defense Ministry does not classify the drones as military equipment, the news agency said.

Australian Army Lt. Gen. Simon Stuart touted innovation in his opening remarks at the Chief of Army Symposium in Adelaide in August 2022. He said the Army is the largest user of uncrewed aerial systems in Australia, with more than 400 COTS multirotor aircraft in its arsenal. Armed forces in Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam also use COTS products and technology.

COTS devices are not effective for all military operations. Few commercially available UAVs, for instance, have the range to cover vast open-water distances prevalent in the Indo-Pacific. The devices would be more useful in comparatively short-range scenarios, CSIS’s Cancian said. Taiwan could potentially use COTS drones and other equipment to deter an invasion, and the Philippines could deploy commercially produced equipment to defend its South China Sea islands.

A drone ambulance manufactured by the Indian company Raphe mPhibr is designed to evacuate injured military personnel where helicopters cannot reach. AFP/GETTY Images

COTS advantages

Mike Monnik, CEO of DroneSec, a cybersecurity company based in Melbourne, Australia, defines COTS gear this way: “I should be able to walk into a store and purchase it.” DroneSec has a network of global maps and other software designed to protect friendly UAVs and defend against malicious drones. Monnik said the technology used in many military and security drones was devised for recreational and commercial purposes.

The University of Maryland’s Center for Public Policy and Private Enterprise (CPPPE) defines COTS devices as “software or hardware that is commercially made and available for sale, lease or license to the general public and that requires little or no unique government modifications to meet the needs of the procuring agency. Because of their rapid availability, lower costs and low risk, COTS products must be considered as alternatives to in-house, government-funded developments.”

Technology changes rapidly, and militaries must understand they no longer hold a monopoly on advancements in warfare devices, CPPPE stated in a September 2008 paper — an assertion that remains true years later. “In many cases, implementing a COTS solution fundamentally changes the work of a system’s development teams (both government and contractor), and how they do it — resulting in a natural resistance to the acceptance and use of COTS,” the University of Maryland researchers wrote.

The throwaway nature of many COTS devices does not square with traditional military preferences for rugged, time-tested equipment that can operate in an array of battle conditions, Cancian said. “You can buy lots of them and think of them as disposable items that you use once or twice, and then they’re gone,” he said. “So, they’re very attractive for groups that don’t have a lot of money.”

Adapting commercially available devices for the battlefield can help militaries avoid cumbersome procurement procedures, which can take years, and enable them to quickly address threats. Conversely, COTS skeptics say the intense review of products intended for military use ensures applicable requirements and performance expectations are met. Additionally, devices built to military specifications are more likely to remain operational beyond initial deployment. There also is concern that commercial software poses security risks when adapted for military use.

Despite such reservations, COTS devices such as UAVs and secure mobile phones can serve military purposes with minor modifications. Other technologies, such as satellite imagery and cyber devices, can enhance military equipment.

In Ukraine, drone enthusiasts who once photographed weddings, fertilized crops or raced each other for sport now risk their lives to help their country repel Russian invaders, The Associated Press reported weeks after fighting began in late February 2022. Civilians track enemy convoys and relay the information to Ukrainian forces.

The potential advantages of COTS devices are strategic and psychological, Monnik told FORUM, with the mere sound of a UAV overhead capable of putting enemy troops on edge.

Types of COTS devices

COTS products also can be used to provide humanitarian aid, conduct rescue missions and monitor illicit activities such as illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. In addition to UAVs, commonly used COTS devices include:

• Naval drones, also known as multipurpose unmanned surface vessels: Ukraine has launched uncrewed boats to defend ports, cities and commercial shipping lanes. The 5.5-meter-long vessels, which resemble armored kayaks, are used for surveillance and can be equipped with explosives. Many of the vessel’s components, including the Sea-Doo engine, are produced commercially. Ukraine started a crowdfunding effort to build a fleet of the boats. Each vessel costs about U.S. $250,000, a fraction of the cost of an anti-ship missile, The Economist newspaper reported in December 2022.

• Cyber equipment: Commercially sold computers, simulators and other information technology that can enhance training, enable monitoring and disable enemy communications equipment.

• GPS technology and radar: These technologies allow militaries to monitor adversarial positions, movements and capabilities.

Moving Forward

While COTS devices will not completely replace traditional military hardware, they have proven useful as supplemental equipment in multiple theaters. Mounting evidence of their effectiveness — in Ukraine, Myanmar and elsewhere — has prompted militaries to address their use.

Such devices are particularly well-suited to asymmetric warfare, where a less-equipped force can supplement traditional warfighting concepts with COTS equipment to exploit a larger force’s weaknesses.

“The biggest benefits that have emerged from using COTS components are overall lower costs, greater availability, and faster delivery,” Military Embedded Systems magazine reported in April 2022. “Non-military-grade technologies are always going to be less expensive, with more vendor choice. But the assumption that the lower cost associated with COTS components is synonymous with lower quality is simply not true anymore, with the reliability of commercial-grade components and systems increasing greatly.”  

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