Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Defense budget being hammered out in relative quiet as outside scandals flare

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 28 May 2013. Heard much about defense spending over the past couple of weeks? Yeah, me neither.

There's so much going on in the Washington Swamp that defense spending -- and about everything else of substance, for that matter -- is taking a back seat.

There are far more questions than answers about why U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens was killed in a terrorist siege last September in Benghazi, Libya, with apparently no U.S. military intervention.

The U.S. Department of the Treasury's Internal Revenue Service (IRS) reportedly is harassing conservative political groups asking for tax-exempt status, while giving political groups on the left a free pass.

Now it appears the U.S. Department of Justice and its Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) may be spying on newspaper and TV reporters who are asking hard questions about President Barack Obama and his administration.

It's more than enough to toss the fate of hundreds of billions of dollars in proposed government spending off the front pages, most likely for the rest of the summer and perhaps into the fall, as Congress and the Obama Administration level accusations, launch investigations, and make as much political hay as possible out of this latest wave of chaos.

This couldn't come at a worse time for a U.S. defense industry that is trying to find its feet after months of sequestration-induced uncertainty. What the industry needs now is a calm, clear, open discussion in Congress about defense priorities, so that industry leaders have solid information they can use to plan ahead.

This isn't likely to happen, however, as defense spending as an issue gets drowned out amid shrieks of points, counter-points, scandals, and partisan wrangling.

While this sounds bad on the surface, things actually might turn out better than we think. It's an old maxim that the best way to do REAL business is quietly, and nowhere is this more true than in Washington.

Congress and the U.S. Department of Defense actually might do well if they can negotiate next year's spending levels outside of the media glare. Politicians like to operate under the radar -- particularly if they have politically sensitive issues to hammer out -- and this just might be the time.

We'll have to keep a close eye, however, because you never know what can happen in Washington when backs are turned.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

SWAPped: how size, weight, and power are transforming the military electronics industry

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 21 May 2013. It's ironic that one of the few growth areas in the U.S. defense industry these days involves making things smaller, but this is the world we live in. While demand for military aircraft, tanks, and ships appears to be on a steady decline, small is where it's at.

I know you're dreading it, but I'll say it anyway: SWAP (you can uncover your ears now). It's that ubiquitous term you can't escape that refers to electronic systems that are small in size, weight, and power consumption. Strange that SWAP never seems to mean electronics that are large, heavy, and use a lot of power, but I digress.

Why the obsession with small SWAP? A lot of it has to do with sophisticated electronics small enough for unmanned vehicles. Another is placing computer power, displays, communications, and sensors on an already overburdened infantryman. Overall, however, today's focus on small, lightweight electronic systems that don't use much power has to do with bringing as much capability to the forward edge of battle as possible.

That's at the heart of SWAP directives from the top, and industry has got the message loud and clear. In fact it seems that every discussion we hear about military technology today is in the context of SWAP.

The topic of SWAP has become so pervasive that people are sick of hearing about it. I'm as guilty as anyone with other SWAP-related blog posts just this month alone. Still, the importance of SWAP, and the way SWAP issues are transforming the aerospace and defense electronics industry are profound and ought not to be ignored -- even at the expense of inducing nausea at the mere thought of the term.

It's almost as if new military technology development has to involve SWAP even to be relevant. SWAP is a cornerstone of industry marketing campaigns and strategies. Don't take my word for it; just look at nearly any new product announcement in our industry.

Pretty soon, I predict, the term SWAP will be so much a part of the fabric of the aerospace and defense electronics industry that we no longer need to mention it; SWAP issues simply will be assumed as part of any new technology development.

Believe it or not, we've seen all this before with other all-consuming industry terms. Don't believe me? Remember COTS?

That term, short for commercial off-the-shelf, came into fashion two decades ago in the first term of the Bill Clinton Administration. Clinton's secretary of defense, William Perry, essentially coined the term to describe military technologies borrowed from the commercial electronics industry and adapted to military applications. The idea then was for the U.S. military to quit re-inventing the wheel and draw from an ever-deepening well of commercially developed technology.

COTS described a revolutionary concept back then; today it's a no-brainer. Graphics processors adapted to massively parallel embedded computing, commercial flat-panel TV technology in combat information centers, radiation-hardened versions of PC microprocessors, and the list goes on.

Trendy terms like SWAP often spawn cottage industries. In fact, I'm a little surprised that we haven't seen an industry magazine or Website emerge called something like SWAP Journal (no offense intended to my friends Pete Yeatman and Jeff Child ... okay, maybe just a little tweak).

Such a development most likely is inevitable, though. The right people can't resist a good business opportunity, and if anything is hot right now it's SWAP.

In the meantime, SWAP stories are coming out at least weekly, sometimes even every day. One of the latest I saw is government research concern for Common Data Link (CDL) radios small enough for those hand-launched aerial drones.

That would mean full-duplex, secure, streaming imaging capability for what we used to know as model airplanes. Technology is headed in the same direction for warfighters on the ground. A networked sensor platform; that's what the infantryman is becoming.

What might SWAP mean for tomorrow? Perhaps mechanical fleas designed not only to spy on the adversary, but also to render him combat-ineffective after he does mad with itching.

Perhaps then SWAP will become a verb, and we'll describe a defeated enemy as SWAPped.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

China continues to improve capabilities in carrier-based military aviation

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 14 May 2013. Military forces of the People's Republic of China are moving forward in their efforts to develop world-class aircraft carrier-based military aviation capability in a steady effort not only to be a regional maritime power, but also eventually to challenge the U.S. for global aircraft carrier dominance.

China has been refining one of its first aircraft carriers -- an unfinished Soviet carrier that China obtained in 1998 and refurbished -- and reportedly has its first indigenously designed aircraft carrier under construction, which could enter service by 2015.

China also is moving forward with carrier-based aircraft that reportedly could match nearly every other fighter aircraft flying today throughout the world.

The Chinese Shenyang J-15, also known as Flying Shark, is a carrier-based fighter aircraft in development by the Shenyang Aircraft Corp. and the 601 Institute.

Rumors initially claimed the aircraft was to be a semi-stealth variant, yet later reports indicate the aircraft is based on the Russian-designed Sukhoi Su-33 and is fitted with Chinese-designed radars and weapons. While the J-15 appears to be based structurally on the Su-33, the indigenous fighter features Chinese technologies.

The J-15 is reported to use Chinese-developed technologies, and features various upgrades such as AESA radar, radar absorbent material, missile-approach warning system (MAWS) technology, infrared search-and-track (IRST) sensors, composite materials, and new electronics.

Some reports say the J-15 will be one of the best jet fighters in the world, while other reports suggest the combat jet might be underpowered.

An article in the China Signpost reported the J-15 "likely exceeds or matches the aerodynamic capabilities of virtually all fighter aircraft currently operated by regional militaries, with the exception of the U.S. F-22 Raptor."

The article, furthermore, suggests the J-15 might have a 10 percent superior thrust to weight ratio and a 25 percent lower wing loading than the U.S. Navy F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Other reports, however, say the J-15's Russian-made engines are not as powerful as those of the U.S. F-35 joint strike fighter.

No matter the details, however, it's clear that China is well along the road to developing dominant carrier-based aviation. In an era of long-term austere U.S. defense budgets, China's emerging capability well may lead to a shift in global military power.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Small is more: SWAP for soldier systems and unmanned vehicles dominates today's technology

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 7 May 2013. People tell me they're getting sick of the term SWAP, which as we know all too well is short for size, weight, and power. The idea, of course, is little SWAP, not big SWAP -- for most things these days, that is.

The desire for big things in small packages is front-and-center in the aerospace and defense electronics industry because of a growing and wide variety of applications involving unmanned vehicles, soldier systems, and the like.

Evidence of the growing focus on SWAP is almost everywhere we look. Last week at the SPIE Defense Security + Sensing electro-optics show in Baltimore, for example, tiny size, light weight, and low power consumption were common themes.

SWAP-driven electro-optics products ranging from hyperspectral cameras, infrared sensors, and tiny inertial measurement units were on prominent display, with the smallest sensor packages with the most capability possible.

One product from SBG Systems in Rueil-Malmaison, France, unveiled the Ekinox INS MEMS-based inertial navigation system (INS) that combines INS based on micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) technology, with a miniaturized global positioning system (GPS) receiver for on-board navigation on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), ground robots, and other small systems.

Sensors Unlimited Inc. in Princeton, N.J., introduced the Micro-SWIR is a shortwave infrared (SWIR) video camera for unmanned vehicles and soldier systems. Also at SPIE, Neptec Technologies Corp. in Kanata, Ontario, unveiled the OPAL-360-series obscurant-penetrating 3D laser radar for autonomous off-road vehicles and robotics applications in harsh environments.

Then there's more. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is asking industry for ideas on digital technology to infantry squads in a program called Digitizing SQUAD X: Sensing, Communications, Mission Command, and Soldier-Worn Backbone.

The U.S. Army, meanwhile, is sending out feelers to industry for a program called Advanced Combat Identification Technologies or Systems, which is looking for new kinds of small transponder and interrogator technologies for infantry soldiers to help separate friend from foe on the battlefield.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Unmanned vehicles and soldier systems are where it's at for electronics and electro-optics technology these days.