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A United States Defense Standard, often called a military standard, "MIL-STD", or "MIL-SPEC", is used to help achieve standardization objectives by the U.S. Department of Defense.
Standardization is beneficial in achieving interoperability, ensuring products meet certain requirements, commonality, reliability, total cost of ownership, compatibility with logistics systems, and similar defense-related objectives .
Defense Standards are also used by other non-Defense government organizations, technical organizations, and industry. This article discusses definitions, history, and usage of Defense Standards. Related documents, such as Defense Handbooks and Defense Specifications are also addressed.
Definitions of military standards, specifications and handbooks
Although the official definitions differentiate between several types of documents, all of these documents go by the general rubric of "military standard", including defense specifications, handbooks, and standards. Strictly speaking, these documents serve different purposes. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), military specifications "describe the physical and/or operational characteristics of a product", while military standards "detail the processes and materials to be used to make the product." Military handbooks, on the other hand, are primarily sources of compiled information and/or guidance. The GAO acknowledges, however, that the terms are often used interchangeably.
Official definitions are provided by DOD 4120.24-M Defense Standardization Program (DSP) Policies and Procedures, March 2000, OUSD (Acquisition, Technology and Logistics):
- Defense Handbook - A guidance document containing standard procedural, technical, engineering, or design information about the materiel, processes, practices, and methods covered by the DSP.
- Defense Specification - A document that describes the essential technical requirements for purchased materiel that is military unique or substantially modified commercial items.
- Defense Standard - A document that establishes uniform engineering and technical requirements for military-unique or substantially modified commercial processes, procedures, practices, and methods. There are five types of defense standards: interface standards, design criteria standards, manufacturing process standards, standard practices, and test method standards.
- Standard - A document that establishes uniform engineering or technical criteria, methods, processes and practices.
- Specification - A document prepared to support acquisition that describes the essential technical requirement for purchased materiel and the criteria for determining whether those requirements are met.
For purposes of this article, "defense standards" will include standards, specifications and handbooks.
As you might expect, the DOD has standards about the format of standards:
- MIL-STD-961E, Defense and Program-Unique Specifications Format and Content, 1 August 2003, Dept. of Defense
- MIL-STD-962D, Defense Standards Format and Content, 1 August 2003, Dept. of Defense
Origins of military standards
Defense standards evolved from the need to ensure proper performance of military equipment. For example, about 1300 British soldiers died in the Zulu war, in part because they could not open the ammunition cases (van Opstal, 1994). Defense standards provide many benefits, such as minimizing the number of types of ammunition, ensuring compatibility of tools, and ensuring quality during production of military equipment. This results, for example, in ammunition cases that can be opened without tools. The proliferation of standards had drawbacks, however. It was argued that the large number of standards, nearly 30,000 by 1990, imposed unnecessary restrictions, increased cost to contractors (and hence the DOD), and impeded the incorporation of the latest technology. Responding to increasing criticism, Secretary of Defense William Perry issued a memorandum in 1994 that effectively eliminated the use of most defense standards. This has become known as the "Perry memo". Many defense standards were cancelled. In their place, the DOD encouraged the use of industry standards, such as ISO 9000 series for quality assurance. Weapon systems were required to use "performance specifications" that described the desired features of the weapon, as opposed to requiring a large number of defense standards. In 2005, however, the DOD partially reversed itself and issued a new memorandum that permits use of defense standards without obtaining a waiver, but did not reinstate any cancelled defense standards.
According to a 2003 issue of Gateway, published by the Human Systems Information Analysis Center , the number of defense standards and specifications have been reduced from 45,500 to 28,300. However, other sources noted that the number of standards just before the Perry memorandum was issued was less than 30,000, and that thousands have been cancelled since then. This may be due to differences in what is counted as a "military standard".
List of DOD Standards and Specifications
- MIL-STD-105, Sampling Procedures and Tables for Inspection by Attributes
- MIL-STD-188, a series related to telecommunications
- MIL-STD-202, quality standards for electronic parts.
- MIL-STD-498, on software development and documentation
- MIL-STD 461, on the control of electromagnetic emissions
- MIL-STD-810, test methods for determining the environmental effects on equipment
- MIL-STD-882, standard practice for system safety
- MIL-STD-883, test method standard for microcircuits 
- MIL-STD-1234, sampling, inspection, and testing of pyrotechnics
- MIL-STD-1246C, particle and molecular contamination levels for space hardware (has been replaced with IEST-STD-1246).
- MIL-STD-1474, a sound measurement for small arms standard
- MIL-STD-1553, a digital communications bus
- MIL-STD-1589, JOVIAL programming language
- MIL-STD-1750A, an instruction set architecture (ISA) for airborne computers
- MIL-STD-1760, smart-weapons interface
- MIL-STD-1815, Ada programming language
- MIL-STD-1913, Picatinny rail, a mounting bracket on firearms
- MIL-STD-2196, pertains to optical fiber communications
- and many others
- Christensen, David S., David A. Searle, and Caisse Vickery, (1999), "The impact of the Packard Commission's recommendations on reducing cost overruns on defense acquisition contracts", Acquisition Review Quarterly, v 6, no. 3:251-262. 
- DOD 4120.24-M, (2000), "DSP Policies & Procedures", Office of the Undersecretary of Defense (Acquisition, Technology and Logistics), March.
- Fowler, Charles A., (1994), "Defense acquisition: Grab the ax", IEEE Spectrum, v 31, no. 10:55-59.
- Kratz, Louis A., (2005), "Elimination of waivers to cite military specifications and standards in solicitations and contracts", Policy Memo 05-03, Assistant Deputy Undersecretary of Defense (Logistics Plans and Programs), Department of Defense, recorded in Defense Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, July - August 2005, p 91. 
- McNally, William P., (1998), "Will commercial specifications meet our future air power needs?", Acquisition Review Quarterly, v 5, no. 3:297-316. 
- Perry, William, (1994), Memorandum from the Secretary of Defense to the Secretaries of the Military Departments, "Specifications & standards -- A new way of doing business", June 29, The Pentagon, Office of the Secretary of Defense. 
- Poston, Alan, (2003), "The current state of human factors standardization", Gateway, Human Systems Information Analysis Center, v 14, no. 2:1-2. 
- Reig, Raymond W., (2000), "Baselining acquisition reform", Acquisition Review Quarterly, v 7, no. 1:33-46. 
- U.S. General Accounting Office, (1994), Acquisition Reform: DOD Begins Program to Reform Specifications and Standards, Report to Congressional Committees, October, GAO/NSIAD-95-14.
- U.S. Department of Defense, (2000), MILSPEC Reform Final Report - An Ending: A New Beginning, April, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Acquisition, Technology & Logistics), Defense Standardization Office.
van Opstal, Debra, (1994), "Roadmap for MILSPEC reform: A national imperative", Program Manger
, v 23, no. 1:10-13.