Speculating MIL-SPEC's Meaning

Predictably similar to so many other industry terms and phrases, MIL-SPEC and its numerous synonyms are amorphous. Tasking a targeted explanation is not a simple achievement. Though it lacks that one clear-cut definition -- for you, dear readers, we'll try anyway.

MIL-SPEC, i.e., military specification, aka military standard (MIL-STD), is typically considered a United States Defense standard used to describe an item that can meet standardization objectives determined by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). Also referred to as MIL-STD, this defense standard aims to ensure products meet very specific requirements, commonality, reliability, compatibility with logistics systems, total cost of ownership (TCO) and similar defense-related objectives.

Additional users of defense standards include other non-defense government organizations, technical organizations and industry.

But what, exactly, are military specifications, and how are they different from military standards, and does "defense standard" encompass both terms or is it synonymous with both?

According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) (pg. 4), "'military specifications' describe the physical and/or operational characteristics of a product, and 'military standards' detail the processes and materials to be used to make the product." The standards, as further noted, can also describe how to manage the manufacturing and testing of a part. Further noted the GAO, some principal purposes for MIL-SPECs: to ensure interoperability between products; to provide products that can perform in extreme conditions; to protect against contractor fraud; and to promote greater opportunities for competition among contractors.

Defense standards originate from the necessary ensuring of military equipment's proper performance, and from there they evolved. Despite the benefits of these standards' compatibility, reliability and commonality, the proliferation of standards had a number of drawbacks. There were so many standards — nearly 30,000 by 1990, according to Wikipedia — there then came considered-unnecessary restrictions, increased cost to contractors, and an impediment of the incorporation of the latest technology. A memorandum in 1994 was issued by the then Secretary of Defense in response to growing criticism, effectively eliminating the use of most defense standards. (This has become known as the "Perry memo.") As such, many defense standards were cancelled, and the DoD encouraged the use of industry standards in their place. (See previous article on industry standards.)

Earlier this year, however, the DoD partially reversed its previous proclamation, issuing a new memorandum that permits use of defense standards without obtaining a waiver; though it did not reinstate any cancelled defense standards.

A MIL-STD/MIL-SPEC/defense standard can also mean the actual documentation that lists, explains and altogether establishes the standard or specification itself, a compilation of prerequisites than an item must meet for DoD acceptance; whether for uniform engineering or technical requirements for processes, procedures, practices or methods.

There are considered five types of defense standards: manufacturing process; interface; design criteria; test method; and standard practices.

"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," Wikipedia noted. "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.'"

The DoD, with a generously in-depth explanation, defines "MILSPEC" as — wait for it — "military performance specification." That's it.

If the DoD is unsure what counts as a military standard — as in, why doesn't it provide a universal, end-all-be-all meaning of the "defense standard" — how are we to know exactly what it means? Is it the product or service? Is it the documentation? There is no clear-cut definition, without which many more thousands of purported standards can be added or eliminated — a massive headache without meaning to those in the industry. And, of course, there are SO MANY of these standards and specifications (thousands? tens of thousands?), that you'll be hard-pressed to find a complete list of them online. (You can, of course, try some of the links at the end of this article.)

And so, dear readers, we tried to offer you a lucid and precise illumination of meaning and origin regarding MIL-SPEC…or MIL-STD…uh, defense standards…whatever it should be called. Anyway, we tried and we hope it helped. Otherwise, we throw up our arms with you in absolute frustration that we aren't allowed to know.


ACQUISITION REFORM DOD Begins Program to Reform Specifications and Standards

General Accounting Office (GAO) Report to Congressional Committees

October 1995


"Defense Standard"



Dept. of Defense, Executive Summary 1996

Ch. 14, Acquisition Reform


Memorandum for the Standardization Executives of the Military Departments and Defense Agencies

Louis A. Kratz

Defense Standardization Program, March 29, 2005



DoD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms



Defense Standardization Program


DOD Specifications and Standards (DODISS)


Defense and federal specifications and standards, DoD adopted non-Government standards, and many other types of Defense Standardization Program (DSP) documents are indexed in the ASSIST database. You can search the database by using either ASSIST-Quick Search or ASSIST-Online.

National Standards Systems Network (NSSN), National Resource for Global Standards


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