Changes are coming for companies that work with defense and aerospace customers. Wide-ranging initiatives put in place by the United States Department of Defense (DoD) are fueling those changes. These initiatives are intended to ensure that the different branches of the military are equipped with the latest high-frequency technologies—but also to maintain competitive bidding among contractors and suppliers and to eliminate the custom “one-off” systems of the past, while generally achieve more of a shrinking defense budget.

Changes such as these will significantly impact the microwave industry for years to come. They will change the way microwave subsystems are designed, constructed, and tested; the technology that they employ; and who will pay for the development of these subsystems.

Fig. 1

Granted, the microwave industry is not the only industrial sector that will be impacted by these changes. But in addition to being one of the most technically challenging and specialized portions of a defense-electronics system, RF/microwave technology  is crucial to next-generation military systems. The result will be the most dramatic (some would say draconian) change faced by the microwave community in decades. To understand why, it’s necessary to examine some of these initiatives, one by one.

The RF/microwave industry has long been motivated to do business with the US DoD due to cost-plus-fixed-fee (CPFF) contracts and reimbursement for non-recurring-engineering (NRE) costs. It can be argued that without CPFF and NRE incentives, some of the most advanced RF/microwave technology developed since World War II might never have found its way into deployed platforms.

Now that these incentives are fading from the lexicon as the DoD clamps down on rising costs, the onus is on manufacturers supplying to the DoD to devote their own R&D resources to meet the stringent specifications required by defense systems. This also means that the most financially sound, technologically innovative companies will fare best in this new defense environment, while less well-endowed firms may struggle without those incentives that they have long enjoyed (and perhaps relied upon).

Commercial Solutions?

Recent world events have awakened the DoD to the fact that the U.S. is no longer the only country in the world with the engineering and financial wherewithal to advance the state of the art in radar, electronic warfare (EW), signal intelligence (SIGINT), electronic intelligence (ELINT), and communications technologies. Commercial technology—ranging from microprocessors and field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) to high-performance analog-to-digital converters (ADCs) and digital-to-analog converters (DACs)—are now almost universally available.

Fig. 2

Furthermore, their capabilities are often equal to those being deployed now and proposed for next-generation military systems, and decades beyond those of legacy systems. Simply stated, active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, cognitive EW, and other technologies are no longer the exclusive property of the West, a reality being demonstrated by adversaries across the globe (Fig. 1).

Military systems can benefit from the technologies and technological advances employed in the commercial sector, since many of these advances represent the leading edge of performance and technology in many different functions required by military platforms. Technology developed for the DoD in many cases no longer represents the state of the art.

Armed with this knowledge, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has been on the campaign trail in a serious attempt to interest this country’s electronics and information technology goliaths to join the DoD. Carter is pushing for these firms to integrate the latest technology into defense systems now—not in the 8 to 10 years typically required for defense procurement of advanced technology (Fig. 2).

This is a huge challenge, and not just because commercial vendors measure product life cycles in months rather than years and are wary of guaranteeing parts availability for decades. Concerns have also been raised about releasing intellectual property (IP), even if that IP is “protected” by the DoD. Regardless, without what the commercial sector can bring to defense systems, it will be difficult (if not impossible) to keep pace with the technological advances being achieved by the adversaries of the United States.

Fig. 3

The DoD’s infamous approach to system development—in which radar, EW, and other systems are designed by a single contractor using its proprietary technology to create a design dedicated to, and only usable by, a single platform—is deeply ingrained after 70 years of “refinement.” It’s now under attack within the Pentagon in the interest of reducing the number of “one-off” systems, speeding technology refresh, and dramatically reducing the sheer number of incompatible systems and their cost.

One of the key tenets of DoD’s plan to change this scenario is adoption of “open” architectures for hardware, the technologies that interconnect them, and the software that controls and orchestrates their functionality (Fig. 3). In the domain of digital embedded systems, open architectures have been a fact of life since the 1980s. But in the case of microwave subsystems, no such mandatory form factors or other common standards have existed.

That is not to say that the microwave industry has no standards to meet for military design and development. In fact, the military (MIL) specifications related to RF/microwave systems are possibly more demanding than standards applied to most other technologies. The difference is a lack of a set of rules to which all subsystems, principally integrated microwave assemblies (IMAs), must adhere. This is hardly surprising, since the DoD has typically been content just to find engineers capable of meeting its “bleeding-edge” requirements for performance under severe environmental and operating conditions, whatever size and shape the resulting subsystem might take.

However, if the DoD is to succeed in making radar, EW, and other systems transferable with minimal (or no) redesign from one platform to another (and thus reducing the number of single-platform designs), the custom design scenario must change. Or at least, it must change for those IMAs serving either receive or low-power-transmit applications that can accommodate the confines of a standard form factor, like OpenVPX.

The sincerity with which DoD is pushing open architectures is evident in documents, presentations, and other activities within the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. The Armed Forces are working with industry and standards bodies such as the VMEbus International Trade Association (VITA) and the VITA Standards Organization (VSO) to craft open standards, including those for microwave subsystems. The OpenRFM architecture defined by Mercury Systems was the first and remains the only such industry-sponsored initiative, and the company has been delivering OpenRFM-compliant products for over a year.

It was created purely out of necessity: Without a documented approach and common form factor and language, creating integrated RF subsystems at Mercury would be greatly hindered in the future. Having already initiated the now-standard OpenVPX architecture for processing systems, it was essentially the next step toward implementing the approach throughout all of the company’s many technology business units.

In addition, if widely adopted like OpenVPX, the OpenRFM standard could help the industry as a whole to create similar efficiencies in the RF domain. Among other benefits, OpenRFM allows IMAs to be created using a building-block approach. This allows subsystems to be rapidly configured with minimal software changes and with the capability to reuse of IMA across many systems and for many different applications, dramatically reducing design time and cost.

The three major initiatives outlined above are far from the only DoD efforts to squeeze more from every defense dollar, speed advanced technology into deployment, and create multi-platform systems, but they are all-encompassing. The changes they will bring to defense procurement, and more specifically to the microwave industry, cannot be overstated.

This is not the first time DoD has thrown down the gauntlet to industry. But unlike previous efforts—such as the attempt to incorporate more commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware in defense systems, which have been limited—these new efforts carry great weight. They will likely remain in place regardless of who is President, which political party controls Congress, or the size of the defense budget.

Lorne Graves, Chief Technologist

Mercury Systems, 201 Riverneck Rd., Chelmsford, MA 01824-2820; (978) 256-1300