From The Editor | August 7, 2013

4 Key Factors Driving Military Electronics Development

By Jim Pomager
Follow me on Twitter @jpomager

DARPA  Persistent Close Air Support (PCAS) Concept

Over the past few months, the VertMarkets Electronics Group has had the privilege of attending several large electronics and electro-optics conferences that had a heavy focus on military and defense technology. (I say “privilege” because travel budgets in this sector are something of a luxury these days.)  We attended dozens of sessions and presentations given by the likes of DARPA, military research labs, prime contractors, market research firms, and others. We spoke with hundreds of companies that supply components, systems, and services to the defense industry, and the folks who are implementing those solutions in their designs. Based on these (and other) interactions, below are four factors we see having significant influence on the development of current and future military electronics platforms. I’ve also included links to relevant articles from our most recent Electronic Military & Defense magazine, for further exploration of each topic.

1. An Ever-Changing Threat Landscape
In its Defense Budget Priorities and Choices Fiscal Year 2014 report, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) wrote that “today America faces an increasing array of potential challenges to its national security.” Threats no longer come from a “one monolithic overwhelming existential threat,” as DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar put it in a recent speech, but from many — nation states, terrorist and criminal organizations within and across nations, and even from individuals. And these threats have access to an expanding assortment of weapons, from electronic warfare (EW) to cyber, nuclear, chemical, and biological.

In response, the U.S. is seeking more adaptable solutions, systems that can be quickly upgraded or modified in real time to address the threat du jour. One possible avenue to realizing this vision is through additive manufacturing. Our Electronic Military & Defense magazine cover story, Additive Manufacturing And Its Implications For Military And Defense, explains how 3D printing could soon enable on-demand fabrication of weapons, electronics, and other critical parts in the field.

Today’s irregular and unpredictable threat environment also demands new approaches to threat detection. In the article Biothreat Detection Using Intrinsic Autofluorescence, a new way to assess biothreats by detecting natural light emissions from cells and tissues is proposed. And in A "Smoke And Mirrors" Approach To Remote Explosives Detection, we learn how ring-down spectroscopy can be used to remotely detect and analyze trace amounts of nitrogen dioxide from explosives — and immediately send the results to a smartphone.

2. Need To Modernize Aging Systems
Many U.S. military platforms currently in use were developed for use in the Cold War (or earlier) and are approaching the end of their service lives. For this reason, U.S. President Barack Obama made the modernization of outdated weapons an important element of his defense strategic guidance, to better equip the military for current and future engagements (see Factor #1). Areas like unmanned systems, cybersecurity, and ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) will be priorities going forward.

One offshoot of this is the emergence of multifunction technologies, which integrate diverse capabilities like radar, electronic warfare (EW), and communications in a single system. Perhaps the most prominent example of this is the active electronically scanned array (AESA) architecture, whose multiple transmit/receive (T/R) modules can each execute a different function simultaneously. We have several articles about AESA in Electronic Military & Defense, focusing on: a new NAVAIR AESA characterization capability, a high-speed digital interface standard that is simplifying AESA system design, and overcoming the challenges implicit in testing AESA T/R modules.

In some cases, these new “game-changing technologies,” as the DoD’s Prabhakar refers to them, are literally bringing science fiction-like technologies to life. Take, for instance, directed energy weapons. In the article Directed Energy Weapons Development, Asif Anwar of market research firm Strategy Analytics provides an update on current defense projects aimed at adding high-power RF and laser-based weapons to military arsenals.

3. Reducing Size, Weight, And Power (SWaP)
To be more flexible and relevant in today’s military context, the next generation of military platforms — and the components, subsystems, and systems that go into them — must also be smaller, lighter, and more power-efficient than ever before. The rise of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), particularly the proliferation of small, low-altitude craft, is indicative of this trend. So is the demand for soldier systems, which equip infantry and other military personnel with a growing amount of computing, sensing, communications, and other electronic capabilities.

On the topic of SWaP, The Role Of COTS Hyperspectral Sensors On Tactical UAVs discusses the viability of COTS hyperspectral sensors for use in low-altitude, tactical UAVs. Reducing Size And Power In Phased-Array Radar Systems considers the role of monolithic microwave integrated circuits (MMICs) in the development of compact phased-array radar systems for UAVs and other platforms. And Practical Electro-Optical Situational Awareness For Armored Vehicles outlines considerations for choosing situational awareness systems that meet the SWaP (and other) requirements of armored vehicles.

4. Declining Budgets And Fiscal Uncertainty
I won’t waste time telling you what you already know. Suffice it to say that the U.S. sequester, the Eurozone crisis, the troop drawdown in Afghanistan and Iraq, and many other factors have led to the tightening of military budgets and reductions in defense spending and R&D. At the time of this writing, the DoD was projecting a 20 percent drop in the overall defense budget from the post-9/11 peak (2010 to 2017). The picture certainly isn’t pretty, but it’s also not unprecedented — we survived a comparable scenario following the decline of the Cold War.

In the meantime, the military and its suppliers will need to get creative and be hyper-focused on cost and operational efficiency to succeed. For more on this topic, check out Solving The Repair-Or-Replace Dilemma, about a compelling approach to dealing with defective or obsolete electronics. In addition, Budget Constraints Drive Adoption Of Advanced Interconnects describes how budget constraints have increased the adoption of COTS and MOTS (modified off-the-shelf) fiber optic and M12 interconnects.

The coming years are sure to be challenging ones for the U.S. military, defense contractors, and the OEMs that support them. But by designing technology that addresses these four trends, the industry can ride out the storm and be well positioned for the upturn that will inevitably come.

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Image credit: DARPA