Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Russian air power steps forward with deliveries of Su-30SM super-maneuverable jet fighters

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 28 Nov. 2012. The Russian air force took delivery this month of the first two of a planned 30 Sukhoi Su-30SM jet fighters. This aircraft, an advanced version of the Su-30MKI fighter that Russia developed together with India, takes Russian military aviation a big step forward.

At first glance, the new Su-30SM twin-engine fighter has a profile that looks similar to the U.S. Air Force Boeing F-15E jet fighter-bomber. It has straight up-and-down twin tails and big square engine intakes. Suffice it to say, this aircraft isn't stealthy like the U.S. Lockheed Martin F-22 and F-35 combat aircraft.

The Su-30SM presents a big fat radar cross section, which could make it detectable at long ranges. Still, I don't think surprise and stealth is a big part of this new aircraft. The Su-30SM is big, powerful, and looks like it's designed for close-up dogfighting.

Although the Su-30SM is weak in stealth capabilities, its major ace-in-the-hole is its maneuverability. The aircraft has one of the most modern thrust vectoring systems in the world, and most likely would be a match even for the world's most advanced jet fighters in close-quarters combat.

Thrust vectoring means the Su-30SM has the ability to manipulate the direction of its engine thrust to control speed and turning. Few other of the world's aircraft have this capability. In the U.S. only the F-22 and F-35 have any thrust vectoring capability at all, and perhaps not as advanced as the Su-30SM.

When we think of jet fighters, we usually think speed; the faster the aircraft can get to the fight, the more effective it will be. Still, the main advantage of the Su-30SM might be its ability to fly slowly.

The jet's thrust vectoring gives it the ability to hang in the air virtually motionless without stalling. When it does that, everyone else just flies right past it. Few other combat aircraft in the world may be as maneuverable as the Su-30SM.

In addition to thrust vectoring, the new Russian fighter -- like its Su-30MKI predecessor -- has avionics appropriate for fighters, ground-attack capabilities, and canards and a long-range phased-array radar system for the air-superiority role.

For proponents of advanced fighters like the F-35, F-22, and the Eurofighter, looks like there's a new game in town.

Monday, November 26, 2012

DARPA Robotics Challenge promises advances in robot autonomy

In December 2014, robots will be tested in a disaster scenario to see if they can accomplish complicated tasks such as driving utility vehicles, removing debris blocking entryways, climbing ladders and traversing industrial walkways, and using power tools.

The Robosimian
All of this will be part of the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DPC). The challenge aims to develop ground robots that can perform complex tasks and use available human tools, such as vehicles. The goal is to advance the robotic technologies of supervised autonomy, dismounted mobility, dexterity, and platform endurance. By using supervised autonomy, the robots developed will be able to be controlled by non-expert operators and enable effective operation despite low fidelity communications.

The program also hopes to reduce cost by expanding the supplier base for these systems and their software.

What makes this program special is what these robots can do, they are meant as human stand-ins for situations where humans can't perform certain tasks. Because of this, the robots tend to look an awful lot like people, though there are some that are bizarre looking, such as the Robosimian, a design which has been proposed by the NASA-Jet Propulsion Lab. It looks like a four legged spider with robotic hands on each foot.

These machines are meant to use human tools, which has several obvious defense applications. They can operate weapons, navigate obstacles (for a preview, look at the Atlas Robot video below), and do just about anything a human can do physically. These are meant for much more than warfighting, however, and will be used for disaster relief and other dangerous non-combat situations.

It will be exciting to see what sort of advanced technology comes out of this competition. Whether the robot that wins is humanoid or something completely different, this competition stands to change the face of robotics.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Pentagon stirs up semiconductor industry with its requirement to mark parts with unique DNA

Posted by John Keller

A new anti-counterfeiting requirement from the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) at Fort Belvoir, Va., is triggering pushback from semiconductor manufacturers, who claim the new requirement is not an appropriate cure for electronics counterfeiting, does not adequate authenticate legacy semiconductors, has not been tested adequately, and will increase semiconductor manufacturing costs.

The DNA-marking mandate, which became effective on 15 November requires all semiconductors sold to the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) to be marked with DNA-based materials unique to each government contractor.

The intent is to prevent counterfeit parts from entering the DOD supply chain by authenticating each piece with a unique DNA-based signature. Using DNA -- sort for deoxyribonucleic acid, or the biological building block of all life -- is intended to provide a fool-proof fingerprint for each semiconductor the DOD buys to rule out the possibility of counterfeiting.

Use of counterfeit parts, which often are substandard, defective, or simply empty packages, can lead to critical system failures in military equipment, or even to foreign manipulation of electronic parts without traceable pedigrees.

Despite this intent, however, the semiconductor industry is telling DLA officials that this DNA-based marking approach will not succeed in keeping counterfeit parts out of military systems, and ultimately threatens to undermine established practices for screening out counterfeit parts, industry officials say.

In addition, confusion in the semiconductor industry -- at least for now -- is causing semiconductor suppliers to avoid bidding on DLA semiconductor contracts, and eventually could cause shortages in the DOD of replacement electronic parts.

In a lengthy letter to the DLA dated last August, the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) in Washington said "the Defense Logistics Agency proposed DNA marker solution will not solve current counterfeit, reliability, or performance problems faced in procurement. It significantly burdens manufacturers and does not reduce risks to people, systems, and missions."

The SIA, which represents the U.S. semiconductor industry, has asked DLA to postpone implementing the DNA-marker program until more testing has been conducted, and until more questions are answered in response to semiconductor industry concerns.

Nevertheless, Christine Metz, Technical & Quality Process Owner in the DLA, and the agency official overseeing the DNA marking program, said in an e-mail on 19 Nov. that DLA has "not postponed implementation" of the program.

The JEDEC Solid State Technology Association in Arlington, Va., which oversees global standards for the microelectronics industry has formed the JEDEC JC-13 Committee -- a DNA Marking Task Group -- to look into industry concerns about the DLA program, and has posed a list of questions to the DLA's Metz.

Members of the JEDEC task group will meet in January in San Antonio, Texas, and say they expect DLA to provide answers to questions on DLA's overall intent, on company liability, marking of legacy semiconductors, and other issues. JEDEC formerly stood for Joint Electron Device Engineering Council.

JEDEC officials also are concerned about whether the DNA marking program meets all military specifications for permanency; non-nutrient to fungus; minimum and maximum storage temperatures; outgassing; and conductivity.

As of now, only one supplier is authorized to provide DNA marking material to meet DLA requirements -- Applied DNA Sciences Inc. in Stony Brook, N.Y. -- and the industry has voiced concerned about competition as well as about the threat of counterfeiting the counter-counterfeiting DNA material.

"We believe this type of authentication is easily circumvented because a counterfeiter need only mimic the material of the marker when counterfeiting a product," reads the SIA letter to the DLA.

Among the most serious fallout from the DLA semiconductor-marking requirement involves the cost and difficulty of implementation. "If Applied DNA's process were to be implemented by semiconductor manufacturers for all of their products, they would be required to modify longstanding qualified manufacturing flows installed in existing billion-dollar facilities," reads the SIA's letter.

Until now, as a result, many semiconductor manufacturers and licensed electronics distributors are choosing not to bid on DLA contract opportunities, some industry officials say.

If manufacturers and licensed distributors opt out of bidding DLA solicitations, this would leave only electronics parts brokers, which are considered to be among the highest-risk companies for allowing counterfeit parts to slip into the Pentagon's supply chain.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Are we taking Cybersecurity seriously? Congress shoots down bill

A recent bill that called for cybersecurity reform was blocked from the Senate floor last week. The bill would have forced the providers of critical infrastructure, defined as a system or asset that damage or unauthorized access could reasonably result in the interruption of life-sustaining services, including energy, water, transportation, emergency services, or food sufficient to cause a mass casualty event that includes an "extraordinary number of fatalities" or "mass evacuations with a prolonged absence", to improve their security.

The bill calls for companies to have a third party assess their security measures and then bring them up to speed. There is much more to the bill, but the main push is to get companies that provide critical infrastructure to protect themselves adequately. We already know there are groups that want to attack us. We have been attacked. Other countries have been attacked. The threat of a network attack isn't some specter that people are using as a scare tactic to pass other laws, it is a real defense issue.

While the Department of Defense already provides civilian agencies with help on cybersecurity, the bill would have been a matter of making sure critical infrastructure is safe by helping companies protect themselves and punishing those who did not take the right steps. The government has already said a serious attack can be grounds for war, so why can't we act and actually protect our vital assets?

The Obama administration may be issuing executive order to shore up cybersecurity in the mean time.

The full text of the bill is available here.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Pentagon looks to international business to keep U.S. defense industry viable

It's more than a bit unsettling when the Pentagon starts developing weapon systems in a way that indicates the needs of the U.S. military simply are no longer sufficient to support the U.S. defense industry.

Still, that's what we're starting to see.

Defense News ran a story this week headlined Pentagon Aims to Reduce Time, Cost for Weapons Design that says Pentagon leaders are considering designing new weapons that would make it easier for foreign nations to buy them.

Now why would the Pentagon have an interest in that, and why now? It sounds like they're concerned about a rapidly contracting domestic defense industry that's facing nearly half a trillion dollars in budget cuts over the next 10 years due to a congressional process called sequestration.

Another term for sequestration is the fiscal cliff, which daily is looking more difficult to avoid.

The Pentagon needs a viable defense industry to supply its weapons and equipment needs over the long term. If the U.S. military can't provide enough business to keep the defense industry solvent, then what might be the next best thing?

Increasingly, it looks like the Pentagon is looking to international military forces to pick up the slack. Established allies typically don't have much problem buying from U.S. defense companies. So what's up with this new policy, which some are calling Better Buying Power 2.0?

Plans under consideration call for enhanced exportability within development programs, and include one program for a radar and another for an electronic warfare system that will serve as pilots for this effort, according to Defense News.

I can just envision a new position in the Pentagon -- deputy undersecretary of defense for marketing. Foreign militaries, have we got a deal for you? C'mon down!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Strike-one for the defense industry

Posted by John Keller

A week or so I wrote that economic hard times for the defense industry no longer are on the horizon; they're here.

In that blog, entitled "Military business slows to a trickle; now a matter of how hard things will get," I pointed out three things to watch for to get a sense of how hard military business is going to be hit: the presidential election, sequestration, and the 2014 Pentagon budget request.

As for the first item, as you probably know by now, Barack Obama -- bringing his hostility to the military in general and for defense spending in particular -- has been re-elected president.


Obama is no supporter of military technology development, and his continued presence in the White House bodes ill for the defense industry. We're potentially heading down a slope that perhaps could lead to lows in defense spending that we haven't seen in nearly two decades, perhaps even longer.

Now we wait for sequestration, or across-the-board defense cuts of nearly half a trillion dollars over the next 10 years. The lame-duck Congress might do something th head-off sequestration, but it's not really in anyone's interest to do so -- except for the military and the defense industry.

Letting automatic defense cuts happen absolves anyone of blame for the results. It's a political gift from heaven, if you're in elected office. Sequestration will be the second strike.

Then we have the Pentagon's budget request next February for federal fiscal year 2014. That, perhaps, will be the clearest leading indicator of prospects for the defense industry in the near term. The proposed budget will help sort out winners and losers, and give the industry a hint of the military's long-term technology priorities.

We're in for a tough slog -- more dire than many have imagined. Over the next couple of years I predict program cancellations, major consolidation in the defense industry, and a noticeable abandonment of the military market by electronic component suppliers.

So what's it mean for us?

First, it means we have to dust off our boots and put our cowboy hats on straight. The defense industry in two or three years is going to look much different from how it is today.

Those who remain in the defense industry must push technological innovation to the limit to provide U.S. military forces with the most capable technology possible at the most affordable prices for the military's most pressing needs, like persistent surveillance and IED detection.

It's possible to do -- I've seen it before -- but it won't be easy, and it won't be painless. The last big defense downturn in the early 1990s during the Clinton Administration saw widespread implementation of commercial off-the-shelf technology or COTS.

No one ever had heard of COTS before then, and what we'll eventually see out of this defense downturn, well, no one's ever heard of what that will be, either. Before we get there, though, there will be casualties and pain.

Still, I'm optimistic that whatever comes out of this defense downturn, we'll be the better for. Remember, out of pressure and heat come things like hard steel and diamonds.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Electrical grid attacked, cybersecurity more important now than ever

Last month an attack was carried out on the Telvent, the maker of software and services meant to be used with smart grid networks. The attack was announced as a breach of Telvent's internal firewall and security systems, and Telvent officials said the attack included the installation of malicious software and the theft of project files for OASyS SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition), software that bridges the gap between enterprise networks and activities in the field.

In a time where these SCADA systems are used to regulate the electrical grid through the Internet or over phone lines, a serious attack can result in electricity being denied to hundreds of thousands of people. Attacks on the infrastructure of our country are a real threat to the lives of citizens.

The attack on Telvent was believed to have come from a Chinese hacking team called the "Comment Group", according to Joe Steward, director of malware research at Dell SecureWorks.

Last year, the White House wrote a report titled International Strategy for Cyberspace. In that report it was written that

"When warranted, the United States will respond to hostile acts in cyberspace as we would to any other threat to our country. All states possess an inherent right to self-defense, and we recognize that certain hostile acts conducted through cyberspace could compel actions under the commitments we have with our military treaty partners. We reserve the right to use all necessary means—diplomatic, informational, military, and economic—as appropriate and consistent with applicable international law, in order to defend our Nation, our allies, our partners, and our interests."

If cybersecurity is so important we can go to war over it, isn't it about time we made sure our important infrastructure is safe from attack? It's unsettling to think that malware could make it into the systems that control electrical grids, and while the Department of Defense has been taking cybersecurity very seriously, attacks such as these are not targeting the government, they are targeting companies.

The military may need to step in and force companies that provide important infrastructure to increase their security offerings. A successful attack will do more than hurt the companies that are directly involved, after all.