Tuesday, December 31, 2013

COTS still an awkward description two decades later; is it time for a new term?

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 31 Dec. 2013. Tomorrow begins the new year, and with everything else it brings, the calendar turning to 2014 means the term COTS has been with us now for 20 years.

COTS, short for commercial off-the-shelf, describes perhaps the most significant paradigm shift in military procurement since the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) was founded more than six decades ago (it had been the Army and Navy departments before then).

COTS, framed in a landmark policy back in 1994 by then-Defense Secretary William Perry, means the U.S. military depends on the commercial market for leading-edge military technology, rather than inventing its own custom-designed technology.

The term represented an acknowledgement two decades ago that commercial industry had surpassed the military as the nation's predominant wellspring of leading-edge electronic, electro-optical, and other technologies. Witness the cell phone, DVD, modern microprocessor, solid-state disk, and countless other innovations for which we can thank commercial business, not the military.

Related: The revenge of COTS: an ageing commercial technology base complicates military supply chain

As those of us who have been through the COTS wars know, COTS always was a bad term. It doesn't represent a bad concept -- far from it -- but COTS as a description of a procurement philosophy probably never should have seen the light of day.

The reason for this is COTS is easily misinterpreted. COTS suppliers to the military like Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions, GE Intelligent Platforms, Aitech, Extreme Engineering Solutions, Phoenix International, and many others are refining and enhancing COTS technology, yet nevertheless COTS still contains that confounded word commercial.

Today, as in the early days, it's easy for people inside and outside of the defense industry to mistake COTS for commercial-QUALITY, rather than commercial innovation, and that flawed part of the term COTS stubbornly remains with us today.

Related: COTS or military: sometimes it's hard to tell

First, to be clear, the underlying intent of COTS is without a doubt the best thing that has happened to military procurement in decades, perhaps much longer. It means the military doesn't waste taxpayer money re-inventing the wheel by developing technology that commercial companies already have perfected. COTS unleashes commercial innovation, and helps keep the military on the leading edge.

Technology suppliers to the military by now have fine-tuned COTS technology development to blend commercial innovation with military needs and longevity of support to enable the military and commercially developed technology to flourish in harmony.

It wasn't always this way. In the early days of COTS after the Perry mandate, plenty of commercial-grade technology made its way into military systems. These COTS items didn't have the quality or longevity that COTS components have today, and in some cases we're still paying the price for that.

Although the COTS electronics industry today largely has adapted commercially developed technology for military uses, a perception still persists, even 20 years later, that COTS somehow describes commercial- or consumer-grade technology.

Related: Parts obsolescence: it's the problem with COTS that just won't go away

The problem with the word COTS is it really hasn't differentiated between grades of quality; the term still is too broad, and lacks specifics. At best, the word causes confusion in the market; at worst, it can taint the reputations of companies that specialize in COTS for military applications, and who are doing this kind of technology right.

Perhaps it's time for a new term.

I would invite those in industry to suggest a new term to differentiate between commercial-grade technology and COTS technology that meets military needs, often meets a fundamental set of military standards, and that has a long-term roadmap and plan to mitigate the ill effects of component obsolescence.

Perhaps the term is MIL-COTS, or industrial COTS, or even non-developmental item (NDI), which would separate this kind of technology from consumer-grade COTS. We're trying to separate rugged, reliable, and supportable COTS technology from Best-Buy technology.

I'm open to your ideas. Email them to me at jkeller@pennwell.com.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Capital Hill budget deal could restore tens of billions of dollars to the Pentagon

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 17 Dec. 2013. Finally, some good news out of Washington. Leaders from the U.S. House and Senate have reached a budget deal that would restore billions of dollars to the U.S. Department of Defense over the next two years that without this congressional agreement would have been slashed from the Pentagon's budget as part of sequestration.

As of this writing, threats of filibuster in the Senate have been put down, and chances are good that the Senate will approve the budget deal later this week and send the legislation on to President Obama for his signature. The deal would restore $31.5 billion to the Pentagon over the next two years.

Okay, so $31.5 billion doesn't sound like all that much when we're talking about the Defense Department, which has an annual budget of hundreds of billions of dollars. Still, it's something once you start to think about it.

So how much is $31.5 billion for the Pentagon? It equates to about 158 F-35 joint strike fighters, about five Zumwalt-class destroyers, or back in the day would have equated to about seven Nimitz-class aircraft carriers.

It's easy to dismiss a few tens of billions of dollars where the Pentagon is concerned, but put in these terms it's easy to understand that it's actually a substantial amount.

Here's what I'm thinking if this new budget deal becomes law: fewer layoffs in the U.S. defense industry, some precious budget numbers that can enable defense companies to start planning and emerge from a long period of uncertainty, and perhaps one or two new program starts to go along with revitalized programs to upgrade existing military systems.

These doesn't mean that good times are here again for the Pentagon; there still are many years of financial austerity ahead. Still, for an industry that has been knocked around for the past few years, there finally is some encouraging news.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Hacker drone story a cautionary tale about the need for unmanned vehicle data security

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 10 Dec. 2013. Saw a fascinating, yet questionably accurate story the other day about designs for an inexpensive unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for hobbyists that may have the ability to hunt, hack, and take over other UAVs.

"Serial hacker Samy Kamkar has released all the hardware and software specifications that hobbyists need to build an aerial drone that seeks out other drones in the air, hacks them, and turns them into a conscripted army of unmanned vehicles under the attacker's control," reads the story by Dan Goodin on Ars Technica entitled Flying hacker contraption hunts other drones, turns them into zombies.

No, I'm not kidding, because I couldn't make this stuff up. I doubt, quite frankly, that a hobbyist's helicopter model drone could hunt down and hijack a wide variety of UAVs out there, but that's beside the point.

he actual capabilities of such a predator drone aside, I see this as a cautionary tale not only about the dire and growing need for information security, but also about the potential havoc that a proliferation of small drones could have on the commercial aviation industry.

I mean, what if it's true there's a hunter drone out there that can take over whatever UAVs it encounters? If a recreational hacker can dream it up, so can scientists in some of the world's more sophisticated militaries.

 If there's a UAV out there that could hijack a future fleet of Amazon delivery drones -- remote as the possibility actually is -- then isn't it likely that military forces not-so-friendly to the U.S. have such technology today that could hunt down and take control of the nation's growing fleet of surveillance and attack UAVs?

Maybe it's already happened when a sophisticated American Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel UAV was captured two years ago by Iranian forces in northeastern Iran. The Iranian government announced that the UAV was brought down by its cyberwarfare unit which commandeered the aircraft and safely landed it.

It's clear that unmanned vehicles need better information security. Now that hobbyists might be posing some kind of threat, perhaps military leaders will start taking this seriously.

And while we're on the subject of taking things seriously, how is the FAA going to handle the proliferation of small UAVs operated by everyone from local police departments to retailers? I'm hoping it doesn't take a collision involving a UAV and a passenger jetliner to bring this looming problem into focus.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Lack of money for systems upgrades threatens to maintain wind-farm radar dead spots

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 3 Dec. 2013. Whoever imagined that air safety, national defense, and renewable energy would come into conflict, but this is the situation today in which we find ourselves.

The problem involves radar systems for air defense, air traffic control, and weather monitoring, which do not get along well with electricity-generating wind turbines clustered together in what we know of as wind farms.

Most radar systems are set up to detect and track moving objects, and filter out stationary objects that are not of interest. That's how radar tells the difference between helicopters and tall trees. Wind turbines, however, are stationary AND moving objects, and to radar systems they look like moving aircraft. Wind farms also can confuse weather radar that can mistake massed turbines for storms.

The spinning turbine blades create massive fields of radar clutter that not only confuse radar systems, but also have the potential to conceal drug smugglers, fugitives, or even a sneak aircraft or cruise missile attack.

 If you want to cloak a plane from radar surveillance, in other words, find a wind farm to hide in.

The real issue isn't radar technology itself; modern phased-array radar and advanced digital signal processing are more than capable of contending effectively with wind farm clutter. The central issue is money. Most air-defense and air-traffic-control radar systems deployed today never were designed to operate in close proximity with wind farms.

To cut through wind-farm clutter, many of today's radars would need substantial systems upgrades and technology insertion. One the one hand this represents a promising business opportunity for radar designers, embedded computing experts, and software developers. On the other hand, however, there is little money to pay for these upgrades.

Until the necessary radar upgrades can be made, the growing number of wind farms dotting the landscape will continue to cause dead spots in important radar coverage.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Engineering support contracts indicate the Pentagon is sinking into the Mothball Strategy

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 26 Nov. 2013. Engineering services and support. That's what I'm seeing for the vast majority of today's Pentagon contract announcements. Not new procurement or research programs, but engineering services and support.

Not that there's anything wrong with this, but it's a big indication that the technology base of the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) is at best standing still, and more likely is slowly slipping backwards.

When the DOD is operating in a healthy way it's common to see new programs in the contract announcements, or additions to existing programs such as systems upgrades and technology insertion. But engineering services and support? This is basically just keeping the lights on.

What I see at work for the U.S. military is what I call the Mothball Strategy. We've seen it before, back in the late '70s during the Carter Administration, and in the mid-'90s under the Clinton Administration.

The Mothball Strategy means the DOD simply is hunkering down, and trying to keep its existing weapons and systems functioning adequately, and its manufacturing base from disappearing. Real capability and real technology development is put away in the closet because for now the DOD can't afford it. All efforts go into maintaining what the military forces have today, not in moving forward.

The Mothball Strategy for the Pentagon is like a drowning man who's just been thrown a life preserver. He's just gasping for air and grateful still to be alive; for the moment, he's not concerned with getting anywhere, just with keeping his head above water.

The Mothball Strategy for the Pentagon means nothing much happens, except keeping the military forces alive as best that leaders can. In the long term it means a stationary military force that decays into obsolescence more each day.

... and it means more engineering services and support contracts to plug the inevitable leaks.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The revenge of COTS: an ageing commercial technology base complicates military supply chain

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 19 Nov. 2013. The U.S. military's move to replace custom-designed mil-spec electronic subsystems and components with commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) electronic was supposed to reduce costs and give the military access to the latest technology.

That was the intent, but the stark realities of sequestration, program reductions, and other downward pressures on military spending may be creating conditions that not only are far worse than what was expected, but also perhaps even worse than the problems that COTS was supposed to alleviate.

What military program managers and the defense industry face today is a broadly installed base of COTS electronics with capabilities and supportability that is going obsolete rapidly, and with diminishing prospects for being brought back up to date because of crushing military budget cuts.

The year was 1994 when then-Defense Secretary William Perry ushered in the COTS era when he declared that the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) should stop inventing its own unique electronics and instead take advantage of advanced developments in a booming commercial electronics sector.

Custom-designed mil-spec electronic components were expensive to build, and often were less capable than their commercial counterparts. The 1990s saw the end of the Cold War, and there was immense pressure at the time to enhance military capability and reduce costs. We had to do more with less ... sound familiar? With various fits and starts, Perry's COTS philosophy took hold, and today is woven tightly into the fabric of the military procurement culture. In many ways, COTS have lived up to its promise of improving access to technology at affordable cost.

 In the rapid move to COTS, custom-designed mil-spec components became the pariahs of the military procurement world. Once systems designers got used to the capabilities and low costs that COTS provided, they vowed never again to go back to the buggy-whip mil-spec days.

Still, in the rapid move to COTS, which pervades nearly all kinds of military electronics design today, systems designers and program managers have lost sight of some of the benefits of custom-designed mil-spec components.

Tops among these benefits is the longevity of mil-spec electronics. This technology was reliable, maintainable, and lasted a long time. These attributes were perfect for a U.S. military that expected to keep military platforms in service for many decades.

Even when mil-spec components became obsolete, they still were rugged and reliable, and their manufacturers were committed to supporting them for as long as the military needed them. Manufacturers of COTS components, however, rarely made commitments for long-term support.

Before the embrace of COTS technology by the Pentagon and the defense industry, COTS was criticized for its short shelf life. Rapid obsolescence was one of the chief complaints, and was one of the most convincing reasons that systems designers gave who were seeking waivers from COTS requirements. Today many of these critics are being vindicated.

The long-term success of COTS-based military design is based on the fundamental assumption that COTS-based systems must be upgraded far more rapidly than they were in the mil-spec era of the early 1990s and before.

The military program managers of the 1990s and early 2000s bought into this approach. The potential benefits of COTS were clear, yet they knew that without frequent technology refresh, COTS technology would become obsolete quickly, which would compromise capability and complicate maintenance and logistics.

Today many of those program managers who understood the price of COTS are gone, having been promoted out of the procurement chain, or retired from the service. Many program managers today simply expect the benefits of COTS, but do not appreciate the fundamental assumptions on which COTS is based -- the need for frequent technology refresh.

Military budget cuts are delaying or eliminating scheduled rounds of component upgrades for military systems. Those COTS components that were supposed to be switched out ever five years or so are staying in the field longer than ever. Sometimes only portions of fleets are being upgraded, leaving others to make-do with what they have for indefinite periods.

The results are predictable -- obsolete parts and a complicated logistics chain are exactly what we're seeing today as the military adjusts to a rapid downturn in spending. We have electronic components that are going obsolete quickly, with only spotty long-term support. Obsolete COTS technology can be far more problematic than obsolete mil-spec technology.

To compensate, component suppliers must resort to drastic measures with increasing frequency. Sometimes, for example, they must install data bridges in their systems designed to fool new COTS technology into functioning like old COTS technology.

Yes, it is absurd, but the military/industrial complex is beginning to reap what it has sown. As defense budgets are cut back even more, the problem only threatens to get worse. The COTS approach works only as long as it gets the support it needs. Without proper technology refresh, COTS is taking its revenge.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Navy's newest destroyers evolve to fill traditional battleship roles

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 12 Nov. 2013. U.S. Navy leaders have launched the first in a new class of surface warships designed for shore bombardment -- a job that traditionally belongs to battleships and heavy cruisers.

This new warship, which emphasizes naval surface fire support, is neither a battleship nor a cruiser, but is large enough to be either one. It's the USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000), and the Navy insists on calling it a destroyer, even though its core mission is far from what one would expect from a destroyer.

The Zumwalt is 600 feet long, nearly 81 feet wide, and displaces 14,800 tons, which makes this vessel larger than the Navy's fleet of Ticonderoga-class cruisers (CG 47), WAY larger than the Navy Arleigh Burke-class destroyers (DDG 51), and is only slightly smaller than the 1950s-vintage Navy nuclear-powered Long Beach-class cruiser.

The Zumwalt, in fact, is roughly the mass of a Virginia-class battleship (BB 13), which was at sea from 1906 to 1920. The Zumwalt, however, is longer than the Virginia, which was only 441 feet long compared to the Zumwalt's 600 feet. The new "destroyer" is the largest vessel seen in a long time -- perhaps ever -- in and around the Bath, Me. shipyards where it is still under construction.

 Curiously, despite everything to the contrary, the Navy insists on calling this behemoth a destroyer.

Think of a modern destroyer and several things come to mind. This kind of vessel is supposed to be a relatively small, fast, and maneuverable ship with plenty of anti-aircraft missiles, powerful radar, and advanced anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capability. The Zumwalt isn't that kind of ship.

This ship is built around the Advanced Gun System (AGS), a 155-millimeter cannon that is designed to hurl special shells as far as 83 nautical miles at a rate of 10 rounds per minute. That's a lot of firepower, and might even rival the destructive power of the Iowa-class battleships that the Zumwalt is designed to replace.

The four World War II-era Iowa-class ships -- the Iowa, the Wisconsin, the New Jersey, and the Missouri -- each had nine 16-inch guns as their main armament. They fired big shells, but with a range of just 20 miles -- far shorter than the Zumwalt's armament.

The Zumwalt's Advanced Gun System has a water-cooled barrel that helps give it such an impressive rate of fire. Just one gun can fire 10 rounds per minute. The nine 16-inch guns on an Iowa-class battleship combined could fire 18 rounds per minute.

One of the biggest selling points for the Zumwalt-class destroyer is its heavy use of automation. The big ship needs just 140 officers and enlisted personnel to operate. The cruiser Long Beach needed a crew of 1,100 to operate, while the old Virginia-class battleships needed about that many. The Iowa-class ships needed 1,800 to 2,700 sailors to operate.

The Zumwalt should be ready for deployment at sea in two or three more years. It's scheduled to have two sister ships in the class, the USS Michael Monsoor and the USS Lyndon B. Johnson. It's doubtful that any more of these kinds of ships will be built.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

International suspicions of U.S. encryption technology putting defense companies in a bind

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 5 Nov. 2013. Major U.S. defense contractors may be in worse shape than we know, as defense budgets shrink, sequestration takes its toll, and as more and more experts conclude that the era of large-scale conventional military conflict is coming to a close.

At one time military technology represented the state of the art, but those days are long past. Today, driven by cell phones, tablet computers, tiny cameras, and other handheld computing and communications capability, commercial companies have catapulted past military contractors as purveyors of cutting-edge technology.

As often as not these days, in fact, the military relies on commercially developed technology adapted to military uses for many advanced defense systems. One of the few areas where military technology reigns supreme involves information security, encryption, and cryptography.

So today what's to differentiate defense contractors from commercial companies in the race to develop new technologies? Until now one of the big ones has involved information security and encryption. These often-proprietary technologies can safeguard military computers and communications equipment from hackers and unauthorized eavesdropping.

U.S. data security and encryption technology long has been favored around the world to keep critical information away from prying eyes.

All that may be changing, however, because of the recent and seemingly continuous scandals involving the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), which is accused of spying not only on U.S. citizens, but also on national leaders throughout the world.

As a result, it's rumored that governments around the world -- even those that historically have been closely allied to the U.S. -- are souring on U.S.-developed information security and encryption out of fear that the NSA may be building back doors into these systems to enhance NSA global intelligence gathering capabilities.

In the long run it doesn't matter whether the NSA is or is not engaging in these kinds of activities. What matters is perception, and globally this is turning against U.S. military encryption technology, which must be certified by the NSA.

This leaves U.S. prime military contractors in a tight spot. Already battered at home by shrinking Pentagon budgets, these contractors had been counting on continuing international sales of military technology to maintain their revenue streams.

Yet with a chilling international market for U.S.-developed information and communications systems that depend on reliable security and encryption, U.S. defense companies may have to dig even deeper to find reliable markets for their wares overseas.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Defense industry left guessing as Army struggles forward with an unclear mission

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 29 Oct. 2013. Circumstances are gathering into a potential perfect storm that may threaten not only the U.S. Army's future mission, but also how the defense industry can move forward to support the Army's needs, and even the continuing relevance of the America's oldest American military service.

Some of these are well-known: sequestration, dim prospects for future military budget growth, and defense technology research and development, which for practical purposes has come nearly to a dead-stop.

Perhaps most serious, however, is how top military and civilian leaders can define the Army's role as the nation moves into the future, how they identify the top threats the Army must face, and how they justify the need for a large standing Army in an era when large-scale big-iron military land battles appear to be part of the past.

Here's where we are today: U.S. military forces are finishing their exit from Iraq, where they have operated for more than a decade. Their final exit from Afghanistan is but a few years off, or less. When operations in Southwest Asia are completed, where does the Army go from there?

Think about it. The Army has had a clear set of missions since the U.S. entered World War II. Although the close of that war saw a rapid drawdown in U.S. military power, the strengthening Soviet Union at that time weighed heavily on everyone's mind.

Less than five years after World War II ended, North Korean invaded South Korea, which created another sudden and dire mission for the Army. That mission grew from containing North Korean forces to containing Communism around the world, which continued until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990.

 One year later, Iraq invaded Kuwait, which triggered Operation Desert Shield, and eventually the military ouster of Iraqi forces from Kuwait in Operation Desert Storm. In both these military initiatives the Army played a central role.

For the next decade keeping an eye on a contained-but-restless Iraqi military, on ethnic strife in what then was Yugoslavia, and on other simmering hot spots throughout the world held the Army's attention and helped shape its mission.

Today, however, we find ourselves in different circumstances. Counter-insurgency operations are nearing an end in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia does not pose the immediate military threat that did its predecessors of the Soviet Union, and Europe has been relatively quiet.

Still, trouble spots persist in areas like Syria and Iran, yet with no open conflict involving U.S. Army forces. There is no immediate and dire threat in these areas, and hence no clear Army mission -- at least not yet.

So how does the Army move forward? Counter-insurgency? Certainly. Special Forces capability? Of course. But what's the role of the established Army infrastructure that involves large combat infantry units, main battle tanks, armored fighting vehicles, and an order of battle designed for large ground conflicts?

I'm not sure there is a role, and I'm not convinced that the top Army leadership today knows what its role in the future will be, either.

Maybe the Army simply is at a moment of transition, and leaders will get a handle on the Army's core mission sometime soon. On the other hand, with the civilian leadership vacuum we have today in Washington, I'm not sure the Army will be able to do so.

This leaves the defense industry charged with supporting the Army perhaps in a more precarious position than it has been since the end of World War II nearly 70 years ago. If Army leaders are unable to define the Army's long-term mission clearly, then the defense industry will have no idea how to proceed, other than to guess.

These factors were on display just below the surface last week at the Army's big annual trade show in Washington -- the Association of the U.S. Army (AUSA).

Show exhibits revolved around what has been important up to now -- IED-proof wheeled armored vehicles, fast-response air power in the form of tiltrotor aircraft and fast helicopters, advanced body armor, and network-centric warfare equipment like wearable computers, small software-defined radios, and agile satellite communications.

What was striking at AUSA, however, was a lack of direction in where we go from here. It was as though the industry were pointing out to the Army officers walking the aisles how far technology has led us to this moment, yet pleading for direction on where the industry should go from here.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

These are tough times for the combat vehicle and vetronics industries

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 22 Oct. 2013. The most prominent exhibits this week at the Association of the U.S. Army trade show in Washington involve glittering versions of the latest fast, armored, and networked military vehicles. Nevertheless, make no mistake, these are tough times for the U.S. combat vehicle and vetronics industries.

U.S. forces are wrapping up their withdrawal from Iraq, and the military draw down from Afghanistan is far along. Fleets of main battle tanks, armored personnel carriers, armored humvees, and self-propelled artillery have begun to sit idle, with little prospect for their continued operation anytime soon.

With this growing surplus of armored combat vehicles, demand for new vehicles and retrofits is at its lowest point in years. Sure, the industry is trying to put a good face on it with well-publicized programs for a new Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV) and new Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV), but where's the demand? More importantly, with the budgetary problems the U.S. government has these days, where's the money?

Military combat vehicle manufacturers like General Dynamics Land Systems in Sterling Heights, Mich., BAE Systems Land & Armaments in Arlington, Va., and Oshkosh Corp. in Oshkosh, Wis., are doing their best to keep themselves relevant amid these stark new realities.

These combat vehicle designers are building their latest models from the ground up to handle network-centric warfare, with built-in computer networking backbones to integrate surveillance, targeting, electronic warfare, and communications systems, and accommodate new technologies seamlessly in plug-and-play architectures.

 These will be come of the world's most advanced and capable combat vehicles ever made. Just as important, today's combat vehicle manufacturers are designing vehicles to confront the most dire threats from insurgents and terrorists whose favorite weapon is the improvised explosive device (IED).

The V-shaped underbelly structures of the latest combat vehicles are designed to protect against IED explosions and other roadside booby-trap threats. Their suspensions enable soldiers inside to drink coffee in safety and comfort even while tearing over rugged off-road terrain at 40 miles per hour.

Despite all this, however, dwindling military budgets and growing fleets of idle combat vehicles bode ill for the immediate future of the combat vehicle and vetronics industries.

Many in the defense industry are coming around the realization that the era of the heavy-iron U.S. military might be over. In the future, those companies that can accommodate a fast, agile, and Special-Forces-centric military may be the big winners.

Those who don't may take their places in the graveyards of irrelevant technologies.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Is the government shutdown a harbinger of more ominous things to come?

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 15 Oct. 2013. The U.S. government shutdown is entering its third week, with only vague rumors of ending the stalemate, and no real solutions in sight. While it's easy to find people to blame, and argue over potential solutions, it's clear that the shutdown is taking a toll on the defense industry and on the American population as a whole.

While I see abundant news stories that cover accusations and counter-accusations, proposals and counter-proposals, demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, all of these details ... this minutiae of monument closings, people forced from national parks, and rotting vegetables in the White House garden ... either miss or ignore a central issue that lies at the heart of this conflict.

Our American culture is more fragmented and polarized than perhaps at any other time since the Civil War 150 years ago. What we face today even might represent an American population even more fundamentally divided in its dreams and aspirations than it was during the Civil War, and here's why.

As the Union started pulling itself apart in 1860 along regional north-and-south lines, the antagonists were in agreement about the nature of government: it was essentially to nurture an equality of opportunity. Few people at the time argued over the fundamental role of government. The sticking point was one side allowed slavery and the other didn't. With the eventual abolishment of slavery at the war's close, there wasn't anything serious enough left to fight about, and we've had relative domestic peace for a century and a half.

Today it's different. We have a population in disagreement over how and why the government should exist. On the one hand we have segments who believe the government's role is to nurture individual initiative, encourage private business, and aid the individual's ability to reap the rewards of his own work.

On the other hand we have those who believe the government's role is to guarantee not only equal opportunity, but also equality of outcome -- that is, a sharing of wealth to ensure that everyone has a fair share, and that no one has to do without.

The notion of fairness is a central component of this great American divide as we push into the 21st century. An economic system based on individual initiative is not fair in terms of outcome, but it's fair in terms of opportunity. Results in this system, however, are not fair at all. We have vastly different economic strata from very rich to very poor. People drive different cars and live in different-sized houses. There are winners and losers, in other words. Should the government stand back and let this happen, or intervene on behalf of the less fortunate?

A vast segment of the American population today sees a system of winners and losers as unacceptable. How is it that anyone should be poor when there are those with great wealth? Why is it that the United States uses the lion's share of Earth's energy resources when some around the world don't even have electric lights? Why should some people have access to the best of medical care when others are relegated to crowded hospital emergency rooms? It's not fair, they point out, and something should be done about it. To these people, it is the role of government to determine what is fair for all, and mandate procedures on how to get there.

Both sides are passionate in their beliefs. Those who champion individual initiative point to the economic vitality of a culture encouraged to work hard, take risks, come up with new solutions, and invent new things. Those who promote economic equality maintain that a culture without want or envy enables each individual to be his best.

Viewed in this way, how can we claim with certainty which side is right and which side is wrong? What's clear, however, is many on each side today would be willing to die for their beliefs if pressed by circumstances to do so. It was much the same in 1860.

We as a nation in the 21st century are not all on the same page; far from it, and we're drifting farther and farther apart. We see isolated voices pleading for good-faith bargaining and compromise, but I wonder if it's too late for that. We as Americans have been focusing on what divides us rather than on what unites us for a very long time -- longer than most of us can remember.

History tells us, however, that once a nation's population divides itself on ideological lines far enough, and for long enough, that there's no going back. The strain becomes too great, and the most trivial of events can push things past the breaking point.

Although Americans have a long shared history, I wonder if we have reached this breaking point. Is this government shutdown just an isolated incident, or is it a harbinger of much more ominous things to come?

With this in mind, shall we continue arguing over who's right and who's wrong, and keep proposing solutions in direct conflict with one another? At what moment do we realize, finally, that we're playing with matches in a fireworks factory?

Monday, October 7, 2013

Government shutdown reduces military contracting, increasing pressure on U.S. defense industry

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 7 Oct. 2013. We've all seen the chicken-little news stories about the federal government shutdown. These, of course, are designed to scare average Americans into believing the fallout from this political stunt is worse than it actually is. I'm betting that Americans are smarter than that, but still ...

We've seen the open-air World War II Memorial on the Mall in Washington barricaded and wired shut. A similar closure can be seen for the Iwo Jima Memorial over the Potomac in Arlington, Va. This is keeping honor flights of our fast-disappearing World War II veterans from enjoying a memorial that they earned many times over.

Meanwhile access to the Potomac itself is being limited, federal workers are being furloughed, residents of privately owned houses located on federal land are being forced out of their homes until the shutdown is resolved, and areas in Florida are trying to limit access to the ocean.

I do notice, however, that President Obama's preferred golf course at Fort Belvoir, Va., is open for business, and that First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move Website is still up, but I digress.

Among the things that concerns me most about the shutdown is its effect on U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) contracts. The Pentagon's popular "bluetops" announcements of military contract awards have been dark since 30 September -- the last day of the federal fiscal year.

This is not to say that the shutdown has halted all military contracting since 1 October, but my take is it has slowed things down considerably. What this does is tighten the screws on an already-beleaguered U.S. defense industry hit hard by tight budgets and the sequester.

We're just one week into the government's shutdown, and there's no end in sight. The longer it continues, and the longer Pentagon contracting slows to a trickle, the more likely it is that we'll see furloughs and layoffs of defense industry workers.

These aren't pawns in a political game; they're people with families, mortgage payments, and holiday expenses rapidly approaching. A real question to ask is how much more discouragement can these people take? there's been little good news for quite a while now. Makes me wonder when they'll start leaving the defense industry for something the appears more stable.

We have irreplaceable experience and expertise in the U.S. defense industry. Really, it's a fragile thing not to be taken lightly, for there's potential for real and lasting damage to this essential industrial sector.

But for those elected officials in Washington looking to score cheap political points, I doubt if they've considered that. Let's hope the workers affected have clear memories over the next couple of election cycles.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Potential good news: has U.S. defense spending finally bottomed-out?

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 1 Oct. 2013. As those of us involved in the aerospace and defense industry know all too well, the Pentagon budget process has been a train wreck over the past couple of years, with sequestration, program cuts, and shrinking defense contractors only part of the story.

Still, I saw my first good news in a long time over the past few days with a report that U.S. military and homeland security spending actually could INCREASE over the next five years.

No, you didn't misread that. The Dublin-based market research firm Research and Markets predicts that U.S. defense spending will increase from 2013 to 2018 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 1.93 percent.

Okay, I know that's not a big number, but at least the trend might be headed in the right direction. Homeland security spending, meanwhile, should grow at a CAGR of 2.15 percent through 2018, analysts say in a report entitled "Future of the US Defense Industry - Market Attractiveness, Competitive Landscape and Forecasts to 2018."

Acquisition of advanced defense equipment coupled with replacement of old and obsolete equipment should drive the country's capital expenditure over the next half-decade, presenting growth opportunities for the defense equipment and technology suppliers, despite the continuing threat of budget cuts and sequestration, analysts say.

Driving the homeland security market should be missions such as preventing terrorism and enhancing security; securing borders; enforcing immigration laws; securing cyberspace; and disaster preparedness.

During the forecast period, the U.S. government is expected to invest in homeland security products such as surveillance equipment, and cutters and patrol vessels. The U.S. homeland security budget is expected to increase from $60.7 billion in 2013 to $65.3 billion in 2018.

When was the last time you heard a market research firm predict an uptick in defense spending? I know, I can't remember, either. If those analysts are right -- and let's hope they are -- it begs the question: has U.S. defense spending finally bottomed out? Are things finally going to start getting better?

This is more than welcome news to a beleaguered U.S. defense industry, where employees have been spending more time in job fairs than they have in designing new military technologies.

It's too early to tell, of course, but perhaps now defense company executives can start planting the seeds of long-term growth -- shallow though it may be -- rather than bailing seawater as fast as they can.

There's more difficulty in store for the defense industry, make no mistake. We have three more years of Obama ... don't get me started ... and a very uncertain road ahead. Still, this is the first indication I've had in a long time that our industry can start the process of growing, and abandon now-familiar damage control.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Is robotics revolution the first glimpse of a fundamental change in human evolution?

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 24 Sept. 2013. Robots of one kind or another seem like they're everywhere these days. I note with interest, for example, that DARPA is asking Boston Dynamics to build an enhanced version of the company's experimental Legged Squad Support System (LS3) robot that eventually could provide soldiers and Marines with a mechanical mule that not only would help warfighters carry heavy loads, but also charge their batteries.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are becoming so commonplace that the FAA is hard-pressed to come up with regulations to enable these flying robots to operate side-by-side with commercial passenger jets in congested airspace.

There was a time when people would recoil in horror at the thought of flying robots sharing the same airspace as the jetliners carrying their families. Today, though, no one's really batting an eye.

Unmanned marine vehicles, meanwhile, are becoming a hot technology topic, as military researchers push a program forward to develop a long-endurance unmanned underwater submarine that would function as a mothership for other unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), as well as launch and recover UAVs.

On a separate front, medical experts are developing high-tech prosthetics with robotic capabilities for wounded warfighters. These robotic replacement limbs often are more useful and capable than the natural arms and legs that were lost in battle.

Historically, warfighters mangled in battle would beg doctors not to remove the damaged limbs out of fear of being a lifelong cripple, and of being forced to depend on the charity of others.

Today, however, it's different. I'm hearing more and more stories of wounded warfighters given the choice of keeping a damaged-but-patched-up limb or getting a new high-tech prosthetic device. In an increasing number of cases they're choosing the prosthetics out of the promise that they'll be better than ever before.

Human beings are more accepting of robotic technology than they've ever been. Wheeled and legged robots are becoming essential pieces of the warfighter's gear. Swimming robots help chart the depths of the world's oceans and gather data in powerful hurricanes. Ever-more-accessible UAVs are becoming a tool for spying on the neighbor's wedding reception.

Now, as humans start to accept the notion of robotic limbs to replace those lost in accidents, might this be the first glimmer of a fundamental transformation in human evolution? More to the point, will the typical human of the future be a combination of biological, mechanical, and electronic subsystems?

We've all seen the movies, but what used to be science fantasy quickly is becoming science fact.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Obsolescent parts: are we enhancing military readiness or creating a hollow force?

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 17 Sept. 2013. I've been noticing what seems to be a large number of military orders lately for old, obsolescent electronic components for potentially mission-critical warfighting equipment.

I don't know if this is out of the ordinary -- actually, I suspect it's business as usual -- but it's got me thinking about today's tight Pentagon budgets and how might influence long-term military readiness.

Over the past week or so I've seen Navy orders for 160 obsolescent PCI mezzanine card (PMC) Ethernet controllers that the Navy purchased originally a decade ago, as well as for 180 6U VME single-board computers, which first were introduced nine years ago and are no longer recommended by the manufacturer.

I don't fault the Navy for this -- quite the contrary. Navy officials have to keep the equipment they have functioning at the best possible levels of performance. Much of the military's equipment has been fielded for years, yet still performs the job adequately.

Oftentimes systems upgrades that can accommodate the latest generations of electronic components require costly systems redesigns, and there's precious little money in the Pentagon's budget these days for things like that.

Buying old parts to keep military systems in working order is nothing new. It's simply reality in a world where military systems must perform in the field for decades or longer, and where many electronic components are replaced with new generations every 18 months or so.

Moreover, the military's electronics suppliers keep parts available for their defense customers far longer than they do for their commercial customers. Keeping military parts in inventory for a long time simply is part of doing business with the Pentagon.

Still, here's what's got me concerned: as the military increasingly opts for buying old parts to keep systems working, rather than for systems redesigns, upgrades, and technology insertion, do we risk going into battle predominantly with decades-old technology that ages more as each day goes by?

Think about how quickly electronics technology advances. More to the point, think about the desktop computer and cell phone you were using 10 years ago, and how those devices compare and contrast with what you have today?

Is this really what we want for our fighting forces? I ask this because this is how it's looking to me. I know military budgets are tight, but are we risking creating a hollow force like we saw back in the 1970s before the Reagan buildup?

As our nation's leadership ponders the ramifications of tight military budgets, these kinds of prospects should be part of their decision making.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

For the high-tech warfighter, the future of electronics-laden uniforms is here

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 10 Sept. 2013. The soldier's uniform isn't what it used to be. Not much later this decade, elite warfighters such as U.S. Special Forces could be wearing high-tech battle suits that offer flexible armor to protect against bullets and shrapnel, exoskeleton technology that offers super-human strength, heating and air conditioning to withstand the elements, wearable computers and displays, and conformal radio equipment and antennas for situational awareness.

U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., have approached industry for technologies that could be applied to such futuristic warfighter apparel as part of the technologies for a tactical assault light operator suit (TALOS).

For now, this integrated battle suit would be strictly for special operations warfighters who must operate silently and unseen behind enemy lines, but if successful and affordable, this kind of electronics-embedded battle suit could see wider use.

SOCOM officials envision a future warfighter's battle suit that not only makes broad use of embedded electronics, but also that generates much of its own power. the TALOS solicitation specifically calls out the need for power scavenging, renewable energy, and power distribution.

These technologies might include conventional renewable energy sources like conformal solar panels on clothing and helmets, but also newer approaches that can harvest electrical power from the action of a person walking, running, and jumping.

A future warfighter of this caliber might look like something out of Star Wars -- half man and half machine that takes advantage of electrical, mechanical, and biological entities.

Companies interested in participating in this program have until September 2014 to make their expertise known.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

New generation of embedded computing thermal management in development at GE

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 3 Sept. 2013. High-performance embedded computing (HPEC) designers may get a new tool over the next couple of years to in their quest to control the internal temperatures of increasingly sophisticated embedded computing systems.

Thermal management experts at the General Electric (GE) Global Research Center in Schenectady, N.Y., are working on a convection-cooling approach that reduces the size of traditional fans while improving cooling capability.

Designed originally with high-performance laptop computers in mind, the GE Dual Piezoelectric Cooling Jets (DCJ) technology may offer embedded computing designers not only advanced convection cooling, but also lower power consumption and higher reliability than traditional cooling fans.

The DCJ technology can be packaged into a cooling fan that measures 1.5 by 3 inches, and half an inch thick, while consuming 350 to 400 milliwatts, says senior GE researcher William Gerstler.

The advanced electronics thermal cooler moves one cubic foot of air per minute in a laminar flow. "It has a multiplier effect on the air it moves," explained Gerstler at last month's Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) conference and trade show in Washington.

The DCJ technology, which has been likened to the expansion-and-contraction action of the human lung, "creates a low-pressure area that entrains the air," Gerstler says.

The technology works with two piezo-electric elements, and so should last longer and be less susceptible to shock and vibration in deployed embedded computing systems than traditional fans.

This technology also could enable designers of rugged embedded systems to blend convection and conduction cooling in the same chassis to improve the performance of sophisticated digital signal processing without resorting to exotic thermal-management approaches like liquid cooling.

Companies interested in this technology may not have long to wait. Gerstler says GE officials are looking at product introductions that involve DCJ technology as early as 2015.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Trading bus stops for credit cards: how far embedded computing has come in three decades

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 27 Aug. 2013. Sometimes I have to stop and marvel at how far embedded computing has come since I started paying attention back in the mid-1980s as I first started out as a trade press reporter.

Those were the days of Cray X-MP supercomputer -- something that literally had benches around it, was taller than a man, and looked a lot like a bus stop. Its theoretical peak performance was 800 million floating point operations per second (800 megaflops).

The Cray X-MP and its successor, the liquid-cooled Cray-2, were considered to be the fastest computers of their day, and their use was confined largely to government research centers for things like nuclear weapons simulation, advanced sonar research, and computational fluid dynamics -- or simulating a wind tunnel in a computer.

There was little, if any, practical use for these kinds of supercomputers for actual deployed military applications. You couldn't fit them on a ship, submarine, or aircraft, and the delicate machines most likely couldn't have withstood the shock, vibration, and other environmental rigors of the field.

There was hope, though. The Holy Grail for DARPA embedded computing scientists was to package one billion floating point operations per second of performance in something deployable. The mantra, at first, was "a megaflop in a shoe box," which evolved to "a megaflop in a coffee can", and eventually to "a gigaflop in a soup can."

Some of the best minds in industry and academia were put to work by research groups like DARPA to make the megaflop-in-a-shoe-box dream a reality.

It would appear their success has surpassed even their wildest dreams. Today we're seeing gigaflop performance on single-board computers and mezzanine modules the size of credit cards that are available off the shelf. We no longer talk about supercomputing, and now describe that kind of technology as high-performance computing (HPC).

Companies like Curtiss-Wright Controls Defense Solutions, GE Intelligent Platforms, Mercury Systems, and others embedded computing firms routinely offer today what DARPA computer scientists were only dreaming about a few decades ago.

Not only are today's gigaflop-performance embedded computing devices setting new speed records, but they also are being developed to be practical for a wide and growing variety of applications. The Curtiss-Wright Fabric40 program is only one example of an emerging ecosystem of embedded computing products with gigaflop performance, and the data throughput to keep these high-performance processors fed with data.

I thought about this earlier this month at the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) conference and trade show in Washington. For what the best and brightest could only dream about years ago, anyone could walk down those aisles at AUVSI and write a check.

Take a look at the photo above of that Cray X-MP, taken in the 1980s. What that check wold buy today would fit in the guy's shirt pocket, and would be more than 10 times the computing power of the supercomputer behind him.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Unmanned vehicle industry stands at the doorstep of a fundamental transformation

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 20 Aug. 2013. The unmanned vehicles industry is in the midst of a fundamental transformation -- one that will see designers of unmanned vehicles that operate in the air, on the ground, and at sea move from a Wild-West startup mentality to a mature, self-regulating business model.

This transformation may not be apparent at first glance. Last week's Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) conference and trade show in Washington had plenty of the Wild West on display, such as a plethora of quad-propeller radio-controlled helicopters with camera packs that have become popular of late.

The unmanned vehicle industry has been wide-open for quite a while, but the increasing use of these devices and its inevitable clash with concerns for public safety and individual privacy will bring this phase to a close, and probably sooner rather than later.

We are seeing the first step in this industry transformation with the unmanned vehicle community's embrace of open-system standards-based design. As the industry matures, and as an increasing number of unmanned vehicles are built to operate in public airspace, design standards are necessary to design reliable systems at affordable costs.

Don't get me wrong; I value individual initiative in unmanned vehicle design. The ability to design and build a small unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) inexpensively, mount it with a small HD camera, and fly it close to the ground is breakthrough technology.

Still, UAVs increasingly must operate in public airspace alongside manned commercial fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. It's unacceptable for UAVs to fall out of the sky and hurt people on the ground, much less collide with a commercial aircraft and kill perhaps hundreds of innocents.

The same issues apply for public waterways and land expanses. Unmanned vehicle designers must ensure that their devices operate safely, reliably, and at affordable costs. All this means industry standards, as well as industry and government certifications.

"This whole industry is becoming more standards-based," observed Chip Downing, senior director of business development for aerospace and defense at real-time software specialist Wind River Systems in Alameda, Calif., last week at the AUVSI trade show.

Downing has been watching the unmanned vehicle industry transformation close-up, as his company has broad expertise in safety-critical real-time software for manned and unmanned aircraft. Safety and reliability, he says is driving change.

"The real industry expansion is using these UAVs in civil airspace," Downing says. "The next generation will have communications among all aircraft," which will involve manned and unmanned aircraft for sense-and-avoid capability.

"All-digital, and all-automated is the next step," Downing says. While some might consider such a step to be unsafe, Downing points out that UAVs, if operated safely and according to established procedures, even might be safer in the long run than manned aircraft.

"There is no reaction time on an unmanned aircraft," Downing points out. The notion of pilot error most likely will be unheard of in future fleets of UAVs.

Although it may represent a cultural leap for the public to accept unmanned aircraft operating nearby manned commercial aircraft in civil airspace, this would seem to represent the wave of future. We will see a day when there are too many aircraft operating in the same airspace for human pilots and human air traffic controllers to handle safely.

We are on the verge of a day when unmanned vehicles will handle their own safety, control, and obstacle avoidance, similar to the way flocks of birds and schools of fish operate.

One day, moreover, we will wonder how we ever had a functioning commercial air transport system that relied on primitive technology like human pilots, human air traffic controllers, and voice radio links.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

AUVSI 2013, one of the biggest unmanned vehicles shows in the world, opens this week in Washington

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 13 Aug. 2013. Unmanned vehicles that operate in the air, at sea, and on the ground never have been more important than they are today. Increasingly dangerous military missions can use the growing number of unmanned vehicles to keep human warfighters out of harm's way.

This week is the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) conference and trade show in Washington, which is among the largest exhibitions of unmanned vehicle technology in the world.

Exhibitors from all over the globe will be in Washington this week to show systems and components for unmanned aerial vehicles (UUVs), unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), and unmanned surface vehicles (USVs), as well as for the all-important sensor and communications payloads for existing and future unmanned vehicles.

Military & Aerospace Electronics, an AUVSI media partner, will be at AUVSI this week to find the latest technology developments. Watch Military & Aerospace Electronics online at www.militaryaerospace.com for coverage from the show, and keep an eye on news announcements from the show online at http://topics.vpoinc.com/events/AUVSI_UnmannedSystems13.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Washington Post, under Jeff Bezos, could lead the way for media in the 21st Century

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 6 Aug. 2013. I see a lot of public grief today about the upcoming sale of The Washington Post by longtime owners the Graham family to Amazon founder and Internet powerhouse Jeff Bezos.

The "end of an era" seems to be a recurring theme, which is fair, but I see a lot of pundits and reporters crying in their beer over a bygone era, rather than looking forward to what The Post might become under the Bezos ownership.

Those on the political left mourn the potential loss of a stalwart political ally, while those on the right are sensing a potential shift in the world outlook of such an influential U.S. daily newspaper.

Frankly, though, I see neither scenario playing out. The Post is an established media brand, with a loyal, if dwindling, readership. Bezos and those he picks to run the paper day-to-day are unlikely to make big changes right off the bat.

Anything that changes at The Post will come incrementally. Bezos knows how to succeed online, and he'll bring that expertise to The Post. Feathers will be ruffled, of course, but in the end this change in ownership could be a big plus for the newspaper, which has seen its circulation and ad revenue drop steadily over the past decade.

There likely will be a time in the near future when we stop referring to newspapers, and buying an actual print edition will be rare and considered quaint. It's simply not about the newspaper anymore -- apologies to bird cage owners and fish wrappers everywhere -- but instead is about content.

The Graham family, they know newspapers. Bezos knows content. Take a good look at Amazon if you don't believe me. It's long past time for a change at The Post and other newspapers like it.

Bezos has the opportunity to redefine the business model of successful content providers of the future, whom hitherto we have called newspapers, and point the way for media to succeed in the 21st Century.