Doing more with less: How today’s electronics providers are adapting to DoD budgets cuts
In February of this year, the DoD proposed a new budget which would cut procurement and research spending on communications and electronics by nearly one-fourth in the next two years. When also factoring in military activities with substantial electronics content, such as aircraft avionics, vetronics, and missile guidance, total estimated DoD spending levels for military electronics would decline about 13% from 2011. In this climate of mounting pressure to reduce DoD budgets, these new figures are prompting the military electronics community to reevaluate how their offerings can best meet the DoD’s budgetary restraints while being fielded quickly and in large quantities.
Former Secretary of Defense, Robert M. Gates, previously voiced his concerns over military spending and called on the military to forget the “exquisite” platform and instead seek the “80-percent solution”—equipment that’s affordable and can be fielded quickly and in large quantities. The movement within the military to focus on price and capability over ideal, envelope-pushing systems has prompted the design of sophisticated computing subsystems that meet the military’s stringent budgetary and engineering requirements.
COTS solutions prove ideal for budget-conscious DoD programs
Military vehicle and platform programs will always need upgrades to counter new enemy threats. Leveraging existing technologies rather than creating and developing new technologies from scratch is far less costly, and therefore, the preferred method of the DoD. With the goal to make existing systems last longer, military programs are looking to COTS suppliers to provide newer hardware to extend the life of existing programs. By designing electronics that can be used in multiple applications, satisfy size, weight and power (SWaP) requirements and provide more multi-function solutions, COTS suppliers are quickly gaining traction within many DoD programs.
One of the design techniques implemented by many COTS suppliers to help mitigate shrinking DoD budgets is modularity. A sought-after feature in today's military electronics, modular designs provide superior longevity and flexibility as subassemblies can be upgraded in the future without a complete system redesign–an especially attractive feature to organizations faced with tightening budgets. To date, more than 100 COTS-based vendors produce products based on modular PC/104 standards. With this broad base of PC/104-compatible options, modular designs for military computing systems are enabling expandable systems solutions that can combine multiple functions in a single box and be tailored to application requirements.
As an example, one manufacturer of a military rotary wing aircraft specifies the multicore version of Parvus’ DuraCOR pre-integrated subsystem with COTS PC104+ modules supporting MIL-STD-1553 avionics bus interfaces and MPEG video encoding. The prime contractor leverages the unit to provide platform mission processing, among other capabilities. In a recent quick-reaction capability (QRC) demonstration for the U.S. Government, the DuraCOR unit was repurposed to link with a stand-alone Ethernet switch subsystem to expand the aircraft’s situational awareness capabilities by sharing and receiving real-time video feeds with ground commanders. To further reduce size, weight and power (SWaP),customers such as this are now integrating Ethernet switches and other I/O functionality (based on modular embedded architectures) into open card slots within the computer housing, eliminating the need for separate computer/switch boxes. As this customer demonstrates, the flexibility of pre-integrated, modular subsystems allows this computing platform to perform a variety of functions for various applications.
Ruggedizing commercial products to meet military standards
With military customers requiring systems that are economical – yet robust – a “ruggedized” commercial product can often be the best solution to meet the needs of a specific military application. Ruggedized products, such as computer networking appliances, can take advantage of the technological advancements made by the world’s leading networking manufacturers, and when combined with proven ruggedization techniques, offer a robust, cost-effective computing choice engineered to meet today’s military requirements.
For example, with the government’s wide-spread adoption of Cisco Systems products and their comprehensive feature set, military contractors are increasingly seeking Cisco-based rugged computing solutions for deployment in tactical military applications onboard land and air vehicles. Ruggedized Cisco products are also in high demand due to the fact that many military personnel are trained to operate Cisco’s network management software – reducing time to deployment on the battlefield. While Cisco products may contain superior networking capabilities, their original mechanical design is not traditionally capable of enduring rugged military conditions. To allow the military to benefit from Cisco technologies, ruggedization techniques can be implemented by COTS systems engineering companies to harden and secure the systems to make them military ready.
One of Cisco’s latest L2/L3 Ethernet switches, the IE-3000, recently proved to be an ideal ruggedization candidate for military use, as this switch was originally designed for industrial Ethernet applications, including factory automation, energy and process control and intelligent transportation systems (ITSs). While its intended commercial use already exceeded traditionally benign enterprise environments, Parvus engineers further ruggedized the Cisco Systems’ commercial IE-3000 switch (later called the DuraNET 3000) with IP67 ingress protection against dust/water, military-grade connectors, EMI filtering and shock/thermal enhancements so that this unit can be deployed in demanding military IP networking technology refresh applications.
By adopting ruggedized Cisco switches and networking solutions, the government can provide a cost-effective method for implementing the latest networking technology while still meeting their stringent environmental standards.
The ability for military customers to optimize COTS subsystems is a key motivator for the further adoption of this technology as it reduces costs and speeds time to deployment as compared to custom designs. However, many prime contractors are facing human resource constraints or aggressive project schedules that restrict their engineering groups from modifying products in-house. Application engineering groups at Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) fill this void by assisting system integrators with application-optimized, turnkey solutions that reduce development time while increasing customer interface and feedback, ultimately lowering the costs of modifications and the risk associated with third-party subsystem integration.
Subsystem integration services, also called application engineering, are becoming increasingly popular as customers witness the cost benefits of leveraging qualified COTS subsystem platforms. Application engineering teams quickly become experts at understanding requirements and proposing the most rugged yet cost-effective approach to meet their program’s functional and environmental requirements. Common requests of Parvus application engineers include the integration of application-specific boards, loading of custom operating systems, upgrading of memory/mass storage devices, and handling mechanical, connector or interface customizations.
Military electronics suppliers prepared to meet challenges
The budgetary restrictions imposed on the DoD’s military programs present many interesting challenges to today’s electronics suppliers. Not only must today’s military electronics withstand extreme conditions, but they must reduce SWaP and maintain performance—all with a budget-friendly price tag. Fortunately, by deploying a number of techniques and services, military electronic suppliers can confidently deliver computing and communications systems that will meet the military’s demanding requirements.